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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Linguistic meanings as cognitive instructions
"More" and "most" do not encode the same sorts of comparison.
Natural languages like English connect pronunciations with meanings. Linguistic pronunciations can be described in ways that relate them to our motor system (e.g., to the movement of our lips and tongue). But how do linguistic meanings relate to our nonlinguistic cognitive systems? As a case study, we defend an explicit proposal about the meaning of most by comparing it to the closely related more: whereas more expresses a comparison between two independent subsets, most expresses a subset–superset comparison. Six experiments with adults and children demonstrate that these subtle differences between their meanings influence how participants organize and interrogate their visual world. In otherwise identical situations, changing the word from most to more affects preferences for picture–sentence matching (experiments 1–2), scene creation (experiments 3–4), memory for visual features (experiment 5), and accuracy on speeded truth judgments (experiment 6). These effects support the idea that the meanings of more and most are mental representations that provide detailed instructions to conceptual systems.
Processing adjunct control: Evidence on the use of structural information and prediction in reference resolution
How does online comprehension of adjunct control ("before eating") compare to resolution of pronominal anaphora ("before he ate")?
The comprehension of anaphoric relations may be guided not only by discourse, but also syntactic information. In the literature on online processing, however, the focus has been on audible pronouns and descriptions whose reference is resolved mainly on the former. This paper examines one relation that both lacks overt exponence, and relies almost exclusively on syntax for its resolution: adjunct control, or the dependency between the null subject of a non-finite adjunct and its antecedent in sentences such as Mickey talked to Minnie before ___ eating. Using visual-world eyetracking, we compare the timecourse of interpreting this null subject and overt pronouns (Mickey talked to Minnie before he ate). We show that when control structures are highly frequent, listeners are just as quick to resolve reference in either case. When control structures are less frequent, reference resolution based on structural information still occurs upon hearing the non-finite verb, but more slowly, especially when unaided by structural and referential predictions. This may be due to increased difficulty in recognizing that a referential dependency is necessary. These results indicate that in at least some contexts, referential expressions whose resolution depends on very different sources of information can be resolved approximately equally rapidly, and that the speed of interpretation is largely independent of whether or not the dependency is cued by an overt referring expression.
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.