The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

NSF Dissertation Grant for Sherry Yong Chen

We are very excited for Sherry Yong Chen, a graduate student in her fifth year, who has been awarded a Doctoral Dissertation Research Grant by the National Science Foundation!! The grant will support her dissertation project on “Non-uniformity in presupposition projection: developmental and psycholinguistic evidence”. Athulya Aravind, who directs our Child Language Acquisition Lab where the research will be carried out, is the faculty Principal Investigator on the grant.

Here’s the official abstract:

“Human language allows us to distinguish the main new information we intend to communicate from background information we take for granted, i.e., our presuppositions. For example, ‘again’ in ‘I won again’ suggests that it was already established that the speaker had won previously. A hallmark of presuppositions is the fact that they are preserved under logical operators like negation: a sentence like ‘I didn’t win again’ continues to suggest a prior victory. The issue of how presuppositions interact with their surrounding context – how presuppositions project – has been a central and hotly debated topic in the study of natural language meaning. This dissertation project aims to contribute to this debate by examining presupposition projection in sentences where theories diverge. The project approaches this empirical terrain from an innovative angle, turning to online processing and child language acquisition, which can shed new light on the logical and inferential systems that underlies human semantic competence. The project includes the training and mentoring of undergraduate researchers.

The project will carry out a series of psycholinguistic experiments with adults and children, with the goal of distinguishing between two classes of theories: (i) theories that predict that the presuppositions of conditionals and conjunctions should vary based on the position of the presupposition-carrying expression, and (ii) ones that predict uniform presuppositions across the board. Study 1 probes adults’ real-time processing of presupposition projection, with the goal of identifying behavioral signatures of presupposition projection. Study 2 turns to child language, where the influence of confounding pragmatic factors is minimized. Finally, Study 3 probes in more detail how other, non-linguistic factors influence judgments about presuppositions.”