The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Colloquium 2/4 - Linmin Zhang (NYU Shanghai)

Speaker: Linmin Zhang (NYU Shanghai)
Title: Post-suppositions and wh-questions: Intervention effects revisited
Time: Friday, February 4th, 6:00pm – 7:30pm

Abstract: In this talk, I investigate a novel, post-supposition-based account for intervention effects of wh-questions, i.e., the degradedness or uninterpretability of certain wh-questions containing focus items (e.g., only) or quantifiers (e.g., exactly 3 girls), as illustrated in (1) (see also Beck 2006, Li and Law 2016) as well as (2) and (3).

(1) Focus intervention in Chinese wh-questions that contain only (zhǐyǒu)

a. zhǐyǒu [Zhāng-Sān]F dú-le yǔyìxué shū.
   only Zhāng-Sān read-PFV semantics book
   'Only Zhāng Sān read a book (or books) on semantics.'
   [With only (zhǐyǒu)]

b. * zhǐyǒu [Zhāng-Sān]F dú-le shénme shū?
   only Zhāng-Sān read-PFV what book
   Intended: ‘what book(s) did only Zhāng Sān read?’
   [only …wh ↝ degraded]

c. shénme shū zhǐyǒu [Zhāng-Sān]F dú-le?
   what book only Zhāng-Sān read-PFV
   'What book(s) did only Zhāng Sān read?'
   [wh …only ↝ natural]

d. Zhāng-Sān dú-le shénme shū?
   Zhāng-Sān read-PFV what book
   'What book(s) did Zhāng Sān read?'
   [Without only: Chinese is a wh-in-situ language]

(2) a. Exactly 3 girls are above 6 feet tall. b. *How tall are exactly 3 girls?

(3) a. Exactly 3 girls read exactly 5 books. [✓ distributive, ✓ cumulative] b. How many girls read exactly 5 books? [✓ distributive, # cumulative] c. *How many books did exactly 3 girls read?

To account for these degraded wh-questions, I start with the interpretation of focus items and quantifiers in declarative sentences, examining how they affect the process of semantic composition. I argue that all these items that create intervention effects in wh-questions are triggers of post-suppositions in declarative sentences (see Brasoveanu 2013), bringing delayed evaluations. On the other hand, I propose that wh-questions (e.g., who did she kiss) are parallel to definite descriptions (e.g., the one she kissed) and also work in a post-suppositional fashion. Specifically, the semantic contribution of wh-words (e.g., who) is twofold: introducing a discourse referent, and then imposing tests of maximality as delayed evaluations. Intervention effects are considered due to an order conflict in semantic derivation, resulting from two distinct sources of post-suppositions.