The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Issue of Monday, October 9th, 2017

Benjamin Spector at MIT

Benjamin Spector (Centre national de la recherche scientifique) will be visiting the department this week. In addition to his Colloquium talk on Friday, he will be offering a mini-course on the relationship between logical entailment and contextual knowledge. Details below:

Speaker: Benjamin Spector (CNRS)
Title: Understanding the interactions between contextual knowledge and logical entailment: scalar implicatures and presuppositions
Time: Wednesday, October 11th, 12:45-2:15pm and Thursday, October 12th, 3:30-5:00 pm
Place: 32-D461 (Wed), 4-237 (Thurs)

I plan to revisit a number of problems/puzzles in semantics/pragmatics which all have to with the relationship between logical entailment and contextual knowledge. These puzzles include phenomena usually understood in terms of

- Maximize Presupposition
- Interactions between scalar implicatures and presuppositions
- Blind scalar implicatures

(i) Maximize Presupposition

Why can’t you say “A president of the US came”? Standard answer: because you’d better say “The president of the US came”. What’s responsible for that is Maximize Presupposition.

(ii) Interactions between scalar implicatures and presuppositions

Relevant reading: Spector & Sudo, Presupposed ignorance and exhaustification: how scalar implicatures and presuppositions interact

(1) Mary is un/aware that some of the students smoke

(1) suggests that in fact not all of the students smoke. The most straightforward theories of scalar implicatures fail to predict this.

(iii) Blind implicatures (Magri oddness cases)

(2) Every professor gave the same grade to all of their student.
#Mary, who is one of the professors, gave an A to some of her students.

The puzzle here is that in the context of the first sentence, the second one is equivalent to ‘Mary gave an A to all of her students’. Yet it is infelicitous, feels nearly contradictory, possibly because ‘some’ triggers a ‘not all’ inference. However, this inference is not expected if the notion of informativity used to compute scalar implicatures takes into account background knowledge: in this context, the sentence with ‘some’ is as informative as the sentence with ‘all’, so there should not be any particular pressure to use ‘all’ rather than ‘some’.

Relevant reading: Giorgio Magri, Another argument for embedded scalar implicatures based on oddness in downward entailing environments.

My goal will be a) to present some of the recent literature about these topics, b) to discuss problems with current theories, c) time-permitting, whether it is possible to unify these different cases, based on on-going work by a student of mine, Amir Anvari.


Ling-Lunch 10/12 - Itai Bassi and Nick Longenbaugh (MIT)

Speaker: Itai Bassi and Nick Longenbaugh (MIT)
Title: Features on bound pronouns: an argument for a semantic approach [NELS practice]
Date/Time: Thursday, October 12, 12:30-1:50pm
Location: 32-D461

Phi-features (person, gender, number) seem not to be semantically interpreted when they appear on bound pronouns. For example, in (1) the bound “my” appears to contribute an unrestricted variable, rather than a variable restricted to the speaker.

(1) Only I did my homework
(bound reading: no x other than the speaker did x’s homework: for any x)

On one influential approach (Kratzer 1998, Heim 2008, a.o.), bound pronouns enter the derivation without phi-features, which are then transferred to them at PF from the binder. The spelled out phi-features are therefore absent at LF. Recent works (Sauerland 2013, Jacobson 2012, Spathas 2010 a.o.) have taken a more semantic approach which denies this ‘LF-PF mismatch’ view. Those works have argued that phi-features on bound pronouns in cases like (1) do get semantically interpreted, except that they don’t contribute to focus alternatives. This talk provides a novel argument for the semantic approach. The argument comes from the observation that (non-trivial) phi-features appear on donkey pronouns - pronouns that show covariance without c-command:

(2) Only the woman who is dating ME introduced me to her parents
(sloppy reading available)

We show why cases like (2) are a problem for the morpho-syntactic approach and how they are derived on the semantic approach. We further demonstrate how our implementation of the semantic approach is advantageous over the morpho-syntactic approach in accounting for the phenomenon of split binding (Rullmann 2004).


MIT Colloquium 10/13 - Benjamin Spector (CNRS)

Speaker: Benjamin Spector (CNRS)
Title: Plural predication, vagueness and principles of language use
Time: Friday, October 13th, 3:30-5:00 pm
Venue: 32-155

(Based on joint work w/ Manuel Kriz)

The interpretation of plural definites (among others) displays two somewhat unexpected properties: non-maximality and homogeneity.

- Non-maximality refers to the fact that, sometimes, plural definites have less-than-universal quantificational force:

(1) Non-Maximality

[Context: A job interview]
The committee members smiled.
>> Can be appropriately used if, say, 8 out of 10 committee members smiled.

- Homogeneity refers to the fact that plural definites tend to have (near)-universal force in affirmative sentences, but only existential force in the scope of negation:

(2) Homogeneity
(a) John read the books on the reading list.
>> He must have read roughly all of them.
(b) John didn’t read the books on the reading list.
>> He must have read roughly none of them.

These two properties are not restricted to plural definites, but are pervasive over other types of constructions (embedded interrogatives, conditionals, singular predication over complex objects, etc.). They are also both removed when the quantifier ‘all’ is added, as in The committee members all smiled.

We show how, by adopting (a) an underspecified semantics for plural predication making it intrinsically vague, and (b) certain principles of language uses, we can account for both properties in a way that makes very specific and apparently correct predictions. Time-permitting, I will discuss the interactions of homogeneity/non-maximality with binding and quantification.