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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The mental representation of universal quantifers
On the psychological representations that give the meanings of "every" and "each".
A sentence like every circle is blue might be understood in terms of individuals and their properties (e.g., for each thing that is a circle, it is blue) or in terms of a relation between groups (e.g., the blue things include the circles). Relatedly, theorists can specify the contents of universally quantified sentences in first-order or second-order terms. We offer new evidence that this logical first-order vs. second-order distinction corresponds to a psychologically robust individual vs. group distinction that has behavioral repercussions. Participants were shown displays of dots and asked to evaluate sentences with each, every, or all combined with a predicate (e.g., big dot). We find that participants are better at estimating how many things the predicate applied to after evaluating sentences in which universal quantification is indicated with every or all, as opposed to each. We argue that every and all are understood in second-order terms that encourage group representation, while each is understood in first-order terms that encourage individual representation. Since the sentences that participants evaluate are truth-conditionally equivalent, our results also bear on questions concerning how meanings are related to truth-conditions.
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.