The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

MIT Linguistics Colloquium 3/12 - Paul Portner

Speaker: Paul Portner (Georgetown University)
Time: Friday, March 12, 2010, 3:30pm-5pm
Location: 32-141
Title: Imperatives and the Analysis of Permission and Choice

Despite the fact that they are sometimes seen as being canonically associated with the function of imposing a requirement (e.g., ordering), imperatives can easily be used to give permission, including free-choice permission:

  1. Take an apple!
  2. Take an apple or a pear!
  3. Take any piece of fruit you like!

Because they are inherently directive, imperatives are likely to prove revealing as we seek to understand the phenomena of permission and choice. It is well known that imperatives can instantiate a wide range of pragmatic “readings”, including orders, suggestions, and requests, often without any special marking. This fact suggests that the various subtypes of imperatives differ from one another primarily in their interaction with context. Permission imperatives and imperatives in free choice sentences are like other imperatives in this regard.

I will present a dynamic analysis of imperatives which are used to give permission, including free choice permission with disjunction, which draws crucially on two theories: a treatment of imperatives which says that they help to impose an order on the worlds compatible with the common ground (Portner 2004, 2007), and a semantics for disjunction based on alternatives (e.g., Alonso-Ovalle 2006). I will also discuss the relevance of this analysis to our understanding of free choice with modal sentences, though my main point here will be that different types of modals need to be distinguished and studied more carefully than they have been in the past.