The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Ling Lunch 11/4 - Tania Ionin

Speaker: Tania Ionin
Title: Long-distance indefinites: an experimental perspective
Time: Thursday, November 4, 12:30-1:45pm
Location: 32-D461

It is well-known that English indefinites are able to escape scope islands such as relative clauses (as in (1)), obtaining widest scope readings (WSR, (2a)), and intermediate scope readings (ISR, (2b)), in addition to narrow-scope readings (NSR, (2c)) (Farkas 1981, Fodor & Sag 1982, and much subsequent literature). Theories of long-distance scope of indefinites include the choice-function approach (Reinhart 1997, Winter 1997, Kratzer 1998, among others), the implicit domain restriction approach (Schwarzschild 2002, among others), and the topicality approach (Endriss 2009, among others).

(1) Every student read every book that a professor assigned.
(2) a. WSR: a professor>every student>every book: There is a specific professor such that every student read every book that this professor assigned.
b. ISR: every student>a professor>every book: For every student, there is a (potentially different) professor such that the student read every book that this professor assigned.
c. NSR: every student>every book>a professor: Every student read every book that was assigned by any professor.

While many theoretical points rely on rather subtle judgments, there has been very little experimental investigation into native English speakers judgments’ of indefinite long-distance scope. The present work aims to fill this gap, by experimentally testing the availability of long-distance scope readings, using truth-value judgment tasks with adult, linguistically naive native English speakers. The goals of this research program are (i) to collect empirical data on which factors facilitate long-distance scope readings; and (ii) to test the predictions of specific semantic theories of indefinite scope. This talk will report on four studies testing indefinites in relative clause island configurations such as (1). Study 1 compares the availability of long-distance scope for ‘a’ indefinites vs. ‘a certain’ indefinites. Study 2 examines whether modification inside ‘a’ indefinites facilitates long-distance scope. Study 3 examines the avability of functional vs. non-functional ISRs for both ‘a’ and ‘a certain’ indefinites. Study 4 compares bare and modified numeral indefinites, as well as considering collective and distributive long-distance readings. Taken together, the findings across the four studies pose problems for the choice function approaches while offering tentative support for the topicality approach. More work remains to be done, and planned future studies will be discussed.