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MIT Linguistics: Department of Linguistics & Philosophy

Massachusetts Institute of Technology


Syntax-Semantics Reading Group
Spring 2016

The primary aim of LFRG is to give you an opportunity to have informal discussions of your own and other people's ideas without having to worry about saying something wrong. Thus, practice talks and presentations of works in progress (or in regress) or papers that you find interesting are especially welcome.

The range of possible topics include semantics, syntax, their interface, and whatnot having a connection to either syntax or semantics. The idea is that a lot of research does not fit into the straight jacket of a narrow area - though it is by no means required to have any interdisciplinary interests to attend LFRG.

Meetings this semester are:

Wednesdays, 1-2:30pm in 32-D831 unless noted

There are basically four main kinds of meetings: 1) presentations of one's own work, including in progress and in regress; 2) a genuine reading group meeting: everyone reads, or at least browses, some interesting paper, and we discuss it; 3) a tutorial-like meeting where the persons in charge tell everyone something about not so widely known things - like cool experimental techniques, math tools, new empirical results, etc., and then optionally people say what they think about that; and 4) brainstorming sessions: the persons in charge provide a topic and the necessary background, and the point is to generate some ideas about what one can do about the topic.

Meetings and changes in the schedule are announced here and by email to interested people. If you want to receive the email announcements, want to be in charge of a meeting, or have any other comments about the Syntax-Semantics Reading Group, email either Aron Hirsch, Daniel Margulis or Paul Marty. An incomplete list of previous meetings: Fall 2015 Spring 2015 Fall 2014 Fall 2013 Fall 2012 Spring 2012 Fall 2011 Spring 2011 Fall 2010 Spring 2010 Fall 2009, Spring 2009, Fall 2008, Spring 2008, Fall 2007, Spring 2007, Fall 2006.

Claiming an LFRG slot is not scary at all - so don't hesitate to do that!

February 10:

Despina Oikonomou
Imperatives are existential modals; Deriving the must-reading as an Implicature

The diverse interpretation of Imperatives has been a long-lasting puzzle in the literature (Wilson & Sperber 1988, Han 2000, Schwager 2006 / Kaufmann 2012, Portner 2007, Condoravdi & Lauer 2012, von Fintel & Iatridou 2015). For example, the sentence in (1) is interpreted as permission in a context where the Addressee wants to open the window and as command/request in an out-of-the-blue context where a Professor asks a student to open the window:

(1) Open the window.

In this talk I argue that Imperatives involve an existential modal, drawing evidence from scopal ambiguities in the presence of other quantificational elements such as only and few (cf. Haida & Repp 2011). I show that the need for a covert existential operator in Imperatives is evident in languages like Greek where overt movement resolves scopal ambiguities. The universal reading is explained on the basis of two factors; i) lack of a stronger scalar counterpart as opposed to overt modals (cf. Deal 2011) ii) strengthening via an implicature derived in the presence of certain Focus Alternatives (cf. Schwager 2005). If time permits, I will discuss some other covert modals (unembedded subjunctives in Greek and dispositional middles) which also seem to be ambiguous between an existential and a universal reading and suggest that the present analysis can be extended in these environments as well.

February 17:

Yimei Xiang
Short answers, mention-some, and uniqueness: A hybrid approach for questions

This talk will discuss three issues related to the semantics of questions, including (i) the derivation of short answers, (ii) the variations of exhaustivity in diamond-questions like (1), and (iii) the dilemma between uniqueness (Dayal 1996) and mention-some (Fox 2013).

(1) Who can chair the committee?

First, to derive short answers grammatically, I propose a hybrid approach to compose the semantics of questions. Under this approach, the root denotation of a question is a topical property (a la categorial approaches), while then exercising an answerhood-operator returns a set of good propositional answers (like Hamblin-Karttunen semantics) or a set of good short answers. Second, to predict mention-some grammatically, I adopt Fox’s (2013) view that completeness amounts to maximal informativity instead of strongestness. I argue that the mention-some/mention-all ambiguity in a diamond-question comes from the absence/presence of a covert DOU-operator (viz., the covert counterpart of Mandarin dou) (compare Fox 2013). Third, to solve the dilemma between uniqueness and mention-some, I propose that the strongestness of a true short answer can be evaluated under any property that yields the same world partition (Groenendijk & Stokhof 1984) as the actual topical property.

February 24:

Mora Maldonado (ENS-MIT)
Understanding plural ambiguities. An experimental perspective.
(Joint work with Emmanuel Chemla and Benjamin Spector)

Sentences that involve plural expressions, such as numerical expressions, give rise to systematic ambiguities. For example, the sentence Two boys have three balloons can either mean that there are two boys who, between them, have three balloons (cumulative reading) or that there are two boys who each have three balloons (distributive reading).

In this set of studies, we explore the online comprehension of plural ambiguous sentences using both a mouse-tracking and a priming paradigm. While priming effects help us detecting the representations involved in the derivation of different readings, mouse-paths inform us not only about the preference of particular interpretations, but also about whether the derivation of one reading is a necessary step for the derivation of the other.

Overall, our findings suggest that (i) abstract semantic representations corresponding to different readings of plurals can give rise to priming effects; and (ii) primitive readings of plural ambiguous sentences are processed automatically, even when alternative representations are later selected.