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.
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Events in Semantics
Event Semantics says that clauses in natural languages are descriptions of events. Why believe this?
Event Semantics (ES) says that clauses in natural languages are descriptions of events. Why believe this? The answer cannot be that we use clauses to talk about events, or that events are important in ontology or psychology. Other sorts of things have the same properties, but no special role in semantics. The answer must be that this view helps to explain the semantics of natural languages. But then, what is it to explain the semantics of natural languages? Here there are many approaches, differing on whether natural languages are social and objective or individual and mental; whether the semantics delivers truth values at contexts or just constraints on truth-evaluable thoughts; which inferences it should explain as formally provable, if any; and which if any grammatical patterns it should explain directly. The argument for ES will differ accordingly, as will the consequences, for ontology, psychology, or linguistics, of its endorsement. In this chapter I trace the outlines of this story, sketching four distinct arguments for the analysis that ES makes possible: with it we can treat a dependent phrase and its syntactic host as separate predicates of related or identical events. Analysis of this kind allows us to state certain grammatical generalizations, formalize patterns of entailment, provide an extensional semantics for adverbs, and most importantly to derive certain sentence meanings that are not easily derived otherwise. But in addition, it will systematically validate inferences that are unsound, if we think conventionally about events and semantics. The moral is, with ES we cannot maintain both an ordinary metaphysics and a truth-conditional semantics that is simple. Those who would accept ES, and draw conclusions about the world or how we view it, must therefore choose which concession to make. I discuss four notable choices.
Null Objects in Korean: Experimental Evidence for the Argument Ellipsis Analysis
Experimental evidence supports an analysis of Null Object constructions in Korean as instances of object ellipsis.
Null object (NO) constructions in Korean and Japanese have receiveddifferent accounts: as (a) argument ellipsis (Oku 1998, S. Kim 1999, Saito 2007, Sakamoto 2015), (b) VP-ellipsis after verb raising (Otani and Whitman 1991, Funakoshi 2016), or (c) instances of base-generated pro (Park 1997, Hoji 1998, 2003). We report results from two experiments supporting the argument ellipsis analysis for Korean. Experiment 1 builds on K.-M. Kim and Han’s (2016) finding of interspeaker variation in whether the pronoun ku can be bound by a quantifier. Results showed that a speaker’s acceptance of quantifier-bound ku positively correlates with acceptance of sloppy readings in NO sentences. We argue that an ellipsis account, in which the NO site contains internal structure hosting the pronoun, accounts for this correlation. Experiment 2, testing the recovery of adverbials in NO sentences, showed that only the object (not the adverb) can be recovered in the NO site, excluding the possibility of VP-ellipsis. Taken together, our findings suggest that NOs result from argument ellipsis in Korean.
Hope for syntactic bootstrapping
Some mental state verbs take a finite clause as their object, while others take an infinitive, and the two groups differ reliably in meaning. Remarkably, children can use this correlation to narrow down the meaning of an unfamiliar verb.
We explore children’s use of syntactic distribution in the acquisition of attitude verbs, such as think, want, and hope. Because attitude verbs refer to concepts that are opaque to observation but have syntactic distributions predictive of semantic properties, we hypothesize that syntax may serve as an important cue to learning their meanings. Using a novel methodology, we replicate previous literature showing an asymmetry between acquisition of think and want, and we additionally demonstrate that interpretation of a less frequent attitude verb, hope, patterns with type of syntactic complement. This supports the view that children treat syntactic frame as informative about an attitude verb’s meaning