The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Colloquium 11/6 - Paul Portner

Speaker: Paul Portner (Georgetown University)
Title: Commitment to Priorities
Date: Friday, November 6th
Time: 3:30-5:00 PM
Place: 32-141

I will discuss variations in the “strength” of imperatives with the goal of better understanding the representation of priorities in discourse. Imperatives can seem stronger or weaker in several different ways. Sometimes they allow an inference to a strong necessity statement; in other instances, we can infer a weak necessity or a possibility statement:

(1) Soldiers, march! -> They must march.

(2) Have a cookie! -> He #must/should/may have a cookie.

In some cases, they make true to corresponding modal statement; in others, they are justified by it:

(3) Soldiers, march! => They must march.

(4) Have a cookie! <= He should have a cookie.

With some examples, the speaker doesn’t seem to care whether the addressee agrees; with others, the addressee’s choice determines the imperative’s effect:

(5) Sit down, and don’t get up until I tell you to!

(6) Have a seat. You’ll be more comfortable.

Rising or falling intonation often correspond to an imperative’s being strong or weak:

(7) Sit down[v]

(8) Have a seat[^]

Recent theories of imperatives treat them as affecting the relative priority of alternatives compatible with the common ground; relative priority is represented by means of a to-do list, ordering source, or other similar construct (e.g., Portner 2004, Mastop 2005, Charlow 2011, Kaufmann 2012, Condoravdi & Lauer 2012, Starr 2013). In this talk, I argue that, in order to understand the variations in imperative strength, we need to employ a more articulated representation of the discourse context which tracks speaker’s and addressee’s individual commitments concerning the relative priority of alternatives, as well as joint commitments. Specifically, I build on the model of commitment slates (Hamblin 1971) as developed for falling vs. rising declaratives like (9)-(10) and polar interrogatives by Gunlogson (2001) and Farkas & Bruce (2010).

(9) It’s raining[v].

(10) It’s raining[^]?

The central idea is that strong and weak imperatives differ in a way analogous to (9) and (10).