The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

LF Reading Group 4/11 - Frank Staniszewski (MIT)

Speaker: Frank Staniszewski (MIT)
Title: Wanting, Acquiescing, and Neg-raising
Date and time: Wednesday, April 11, 1-2pm
Location: 32-D461

I argue that neg-raised (NR) readings for negated sentences containing want are the result of want expressing an underlying weak (existential) quantificational force, which gives rise to the globally strong meanings under negation. To derive the universal interpretation that is attested for non-negated want, then, I adopt Bassi & Bar-Lev (2016)’s treatment of bare conditionals, and hypothesize that want undergoes strengthening in a manner analogous to Free Choice disjunction, as analyzed in Fox (2007).

As evidence for this view, I examine a puzzling paradigm discussed in Homer (2015), in which want appears to show scopal ambiguity w.r.t. the presuppositional adverbial no longer. I show how assuming an underlying existential semantics for want, motivated by a new observation about the data, provides a solution to the puzzle.

Homer’s puzzle: Assuming that the negative adverbial no longer presupposes that the proposition denoted by the clause that is in its scope used to be true, sentence (1a) is ambiguous between narrow and wide scope of want w.r.t. no longer (Homer 2015).

(1) a. Consumers no longer want to be kept in the dark about food.
b. I no longer want to be called an idiot.

Homer suggests that on its most salient reading, want takes wide scope over no longer, as it is not assumed that consumers ever had a desire to be kept in the dark about food, or that the speaker of (1b) used to want to be called an idiot. The absence of want from the presupposition of no longer on the most natural reading is taken to be evidence that want can QR over no longer, which is consistent with additional evidence that want may be a ‘mobile positive polarity item’ (PPI).

I provide evidence against a QR approach, and suggest that want is indeed within the scope of no longer in sentences like (1a-b). While I agree that they don’t presuppose that consumers used to have a desire to be kept in the dark (or be called an idiot), the meaning of want is not entirely absent from the presupposition. Instead, (1a-b) appear to require the weaker assumption that consumers in some way used to ‘be willing to’ or ‘be OK with’ being kept in the dark (or being called an idiot).

In the spirit of von Fintel and Iatridou (2017)’s discussion of weak variants of imperatives, I refer to these asacquiescence readings, which in addition to being detected in the presupposition of no longer, can also be detected in sentences like (2a-b).

(2) a. If you want to wait here for a minute, I’ll be right back.
b. Do you wanna give me a hand with this box?

The acquiescence readings in (2a-b), as well as the attested NR readings for want in other DE environments (sentential negation, scope of no NP, restrictor of comparatives/superlatives) suggest that an analogy with free choice is on the right track. There are, however, some DE environments (restrictor of no NP, additional questions/conditionals) that don’t show the predicted pattern. I address these, and other problems, and suggest possible solutions. I also explore how this analysis could extend to other priority modals, like should and for-infinitival relative clauses.