The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Experimentalist Meeting 4/24 - Cater Chen (MIT)

Speaker: Cater Chen (MIT)
Title: Quantifier Spreading Under Negation
Time: Friday, April 24th, 2pm – 3pm

Abstract: Much research on children’s acquisition of universal quantification has observed a prevalent type of errors children make in response to a sentence like (1), which involves the universal quantifier every in the subject position and an indefinite object, in a scenario where every girl is riding a bike, but there is an “extra” bike that no girl is riding.

(1) Every girl is riding a bike.

Children, unlike adults, often judge a sentence like (1) to be wrong, and justify this answer by pointing to the “extra” object (Roeper & Matthei 1975; Roeper & de Villiers, 1991; Roeper et al. 2004; Philip 1995, 2011; Crain et al. 1996; Drozd 1996, 2001; Drozd & von Loosbroek 2006; Geurts 2004; Aravind et al. 2017; a.o.). We refer to this observation as quantifier-spreading (henceforth q-spreading) and this type of errors children make as exhaustive pairing (henceforth EP) errors. When the same sentence is used to describe a scenario where every girl except one is riding a bike, children can make another type of errors, which we refer to as underexhaustive errors, by judging the sentence in (1) to be right. Aravind et al. (2017) report from a longitudinal study that the disappearance of underexhaustive errors is accompanied by the emergence of EP errors. This finding suggests that children respond to the “extra” object scenario and the “extra” agent scenario alike: at early stages of development, they judge a sentence like (1) to be right in both “extra” object and “extra” agent scenarios, but as they age, they judge the same sentence to be wrong in both scenarios.

Two classes of accounts, the Event Quantification Account (Philip 1995; Roeper et al. 2004; a.o.) and the Weak Quantification Account (Drozd 2001; Geurts 2004; a.o.), attribute q-spreading and EP errors to non-adultlike interpretation of the universal quantifier every. Both accounts are challenged by another line of research demonstrating children’s knowledge of the asymmetry in the interpretations of the subject and object of a universally quantified sentence. Specifically, 3- to 5-year old children have been shown to know that every is downward-entailing in the restrictor (NP) (Gualmini et al. 2003) and not so in the nuclear scope (VP) (Boster and Crain 1993).

We take the disappearance of underexhaustive errors as a developmental hallmark that children have acquired the basic semantic properties of every — in particular that every is construed with a restrictor and a nuclear scope and it is downward-entailing in the restrictor and not so in the nuclear scope. Because much research on q-spreading has aimed to investigate children’s acquisition of universal quantification, little attention has been paid to the indefinite object in a sentence like (1). We will pursue a hypothesis that q-spreading and EP errors emerge from the interpretation of the indefinite object. Specifically, we will first review Denić and Chemla’s (2018) account for q-spreading which attributes EP errors to distributive inferences triggered by the indefinite object. We refer to this approach as the Distributive Inferences Approach. Then we will introduce a competing account in which indefinite objects project presuppositions which give rise to EP errors. We refer to this approach as the Presupposition Projection Approach. These two approaches make different predictions about whether children make EP errors when the sentence they are asked to judge involves wide-scope negation. We will demonstrate that distributive inferences go away, while presuppositions project, under negation. Therefore, while the Distributive Inferences Approach predicts that q-spreading should not be observed with sentences like (2) which involves wide-scope negation, the Presupposition Projection Approach predicts the opposite to be the case. We will present an experiment with children that supports the Presupposition Projection Approach.

(2) Not every girl is riding a bike.