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Semantics

In semantics we approach the theory of grammar from the side of meaning, with theoretical and experimental research in a range of areas, including modality, attitude verbs, speech acts, argument structure, causal constructions, quantification, and anaphora.

Grammars pair sounds or gestures with meaning. In semantics we approach the theory of grammar from the side of meaning. What sorts of meanings does the grammar yield and by what rules are these meanings assembled? Answering these questions involves us in others. What is the syntax, relative to which sound and meaning are paired? How do the meanings of expressions relate to acts of using expressions and to various aspects of cognition, especially those deployed immediately in communication? And how does semantic knowledge develop in children? At Maryland we address these questions with theoretical and experimental research in a range of areas, including modality, tense, aspect, argument structure, causal constructions, comparatives, attitude reports, implicature, presupposition, reference, number and quantification. Our work proceeds in close collaboration with colleagues in syntax, acquisition and psycholinguistics. We have a special relation to the department of philosophy, with a long history of connections between the two, and Alexander Williams appointed in both.
 
Maryland is among a group of departments that participate in MACSIM, the annual Mid-Atlantic Colloquium of Studies in Meaning. Many of our semantics students also take courses in the Philosophy Department, and have led PHLING, A graduate student research group comprising students from the departments of linguistics and philosophy.

Embedding epistemic modals in English: A corpus-based study

A corpus study on the distribution of epistemic modals, targeted at the question of whether such modals do or do not contribute to the content of their sentences.

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Valentine Hacquard
Dates:
The question of whether epistemic modals contribute to the truth conditions of the sentences they appear in is a matter of active debate in the literature. Fueling this debate is the lack of consensus about the extent to which epistemics can appear in the scope of other operators. This corpus study investigates the distribution of epistemics in naturalistic data. Our results indicate that they do embed, supporting the view that they contribute semantic content. However, their distribution is limited, compared to that of other modals. This limited distribution seems to call for a nuanced account: while epistemics are semantically contentful, they may require special licensing conditions.

http://dx.doi.org/10.3765/sp.5.4" target="_blank" class="button">Read More about Embedding epistemic modals in English: A corpus-based study

A Syntactic Structure of Lexical Verbs

A minimalist theory of verbal aspect and argument structure.

Linguistics

Dates:

In this thesis, I propose a syntactic structure for verbs which directly encodes their event complexities. I present a model that is 'internalist' in the Chomskyan sense: Aktionsart properties of predicates are not a real-world affair, but the interpretation of a mind structure. For this purpose, I base my proposal on the Dimensional Theory of Uriagereka (2005, forthcoming). Syntactic constructs are in this view the results of operations that create increasingly complex objects, based on an algorithm that is homo-morphic with the structure of numerical categories. First, I propose that Aktionsart can be read off from structural complexities of syntactic objects and their associated 'theta-roles'. Specifically, I present the SAAC Hypothesis: Syntactic complexity in a verb is reflected in the number of syntactic arguments it takes. This approach, within the confines of the Dimensional Theory, results in an emergent 'thematic hierarchy': Causer > Agent > Locative > Goal > Theme. I test the accuracy of this hierarchy and concomitant assumptions through paradigms like the control of implicit arguments, selectional properties of verbs, extractions, aspect-sensitive adverbials, etc. Second, I argue that the verbal structure I propose is syntactically and semantically real, by extending the proposal in Lasnik (1999) on VP ellipsis from inflectional to derivational morphology. I discuss two contrasting methods of morphological amalgamation in English and Japanese, executed in Syntax and PF, respectively. This demonstrates a tight network of entailment patterns that holds of verbs, derived crucially from the architecture I argue for. Third, an analogous point is made through the structural positionings of causative and inchoative derivational morphemes in Japanese. There, each order of structural complexity has a profound impact on the class of eventualities a derivational morpheme can describe. 'Dimensional talks' are observed between certain derivational morphemes, which presumably find their roots in operations of the computational system within the Dimensional Theory. I show that the verbal structure in Japanese reflects directly an underlying bi-clausality that I argue for, in terms of derivational morphemes, further supporting a natural mapping between syntax and semantics. This is, in the end, an attempt for a 'Minimalist' theory of Aktionsart.

Adjunct control: Syntax and processing

"Holly went to her room after drinking milk in order get some sleep." How is "Holly" related to "drinking milk" and "get some sleep," syntactically and in online comprehension?

Linguistics

Dates:
This dissertation analyzes the syntax and processing of adjunct control. Adjunct control is the referential relation between the implicit (PRO) subject of a non-finite adjunct clause and its understood antecedent, as in the temporal adjunct in ‘Holly1 went to bed [after PRO1 drinking milk]’, or the rationale clause in ‘August1 sat on the couch [in order PRO1 to read library books]’. Adjunct control is often assumed to involve a syntactic ‘Obligatory Control’ (OC) dependency, but I show that some adjuncts also permit what is referred to as ‘Non-Obligatory Control’ (NOC), as in the sentences ‘The food tasted better [after PRO drinking milk]’ and ‘The book was checked out from the library [in order PRO to read it]’, where PRO refers to some unnamed entity. I argue that for some adjuncts, OC and NOC are not in complementary distribution, contrary to assumptions of much prior literature, but in agreement with Landau (2017). Contrary to implicit assumptions of Landau, however, I also show that this OC/NOC duality does not extend to all adjuncts. I outline assumptions that Landau’s theory would have to make in order to accommodate the wider distribution of OC and NOC in adjuncts, but argue that this isbetter accomplished within the Movement Theory of Control (Hornstein, 1999) by relaxing the assumption that all adjuncts are phases. Even in adjuncts where both OC and NOC are possible, OC is often strongly preferred. I argue that this is in large part due to interpretive biases in processing. As a foundational step in examining what these processing biases are, the second part of this dissertation uses visual-world eyetracking to compare the timecourse of interpretation of subject-controlled PRO and overt pronouns in temporal adjuncts. The results suggest that PRO can be interpreted just as quickly as overt pronouns once the relevant bottom-up input is received. These experiments also provide evidence that structural predictions can facilitate reference resolution independent of next-mention predictions.

Primary Faculty

Valentine Hacquard

Professor, Linguistics

1401 F Marie Mount Hall
College Park MD, 20742

(301) 405-4935

Alexander Williams

Associate Professor, Linguistics, Philosophy

1401 D Marie Mount Hall
College Park MD, 20742

(301) 405-1607

Secondary Faculty

Norbert Hornstein

Professor Emeritus, Linguistics

3416 G Marie Mount Hall
College Park MD, 20742

(301) 405-4932

Jeffrey Lidz

Professor, Linguistics

1413 Marie Mount Hall
College Park MD, 20742

(301) 405-8220