Syntax seeks to characterize grammars of particular languages and how they differ, to describe the universal properties that human grammars have as a matter of biological design, and to explain why the universal properties we discover have the particular character they do.
Birds fly, fish swim, humans speak. We have a capacity to combine expressions into unboundedly large linguistic structures (sentences and phrases) that carry a specific form and a specific meaning. As the number of such structures is in principle infinite, there must be recursive procedures that define these complex objects. Syntax studies these rule systems — grammars — and does so in three ways. It seeks to characterize grammars of particular languages and how they differ (e.g. how questions are formed in English versus Chinese); to describe the universal properties that human grammars have as a matter of biological design (e.g. why no human grammars have mirror image rules); and, most recently, to explain why the universal properties we discover have the particular character they do.
The syntax group engages in all three kinds of research, with special emphasis on the third, typically minimalist question. Empirically, the syntax group has done extensive work on case, agreement, ellipsis, movement and islands, control, anaphoric binding, applicative constructions, morphosyntax, linearization, binding and quantifier scope, among others. Furthermore, while we aim to be at the forefront of syntactic theory (particularly within the minimalist program), we constantly aim, in our classes and in our research, to find insight from earlier generative models developed over the past 60 years.
The Syntax/Semantics Lab meets once or twice a month, bringing together students, faculty, postdocs and visitors to discuss works in progress.
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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.
Transparency and language contact: The case of Haitian Creole, French, and Fongbe
Haitian Creole supports the hypothesis that language contact leads to more transparent relations between meaning and form.
When communicating speakers map meaning onto form. It would thus seem obvious for languages to show a one-to-one correspondence between meaning and form, but this is often not the case. This perfect mapping, i.e. transparency, is indeed continuously violated in natural languages, giving rise to zero-to-one, one-to-many, and many-to-one opaque correspondences between meaning and form. However, transparency is a mutating feature, which can be influenced by language contact. In this scenario languages tend to evolve and lose some of their opaque features, becoming more transparent. This study investigates transparency in a very specific contact situation, namely that of a creole, Haitian Creole, and its sub- and superstrate languages, Fongbe and French, within the Functional Discourse Grammar framework. We predict Haitian Creole to be more transparent than French and Fongbe and investigate twenty opacity features, divided into four categories, namely Redundancy (one-to-many), Fusion (many-to-one), Discontinuity (one meaning is split in two or more forms,) and Form-based Form (forms with no semantic counterpart: zero-to-one). The results indeed prove our prediction to be borne out: Haitian Creole only presents five opacity features out of twenty, while French presents nineteen and Fongbe nine. Furthermore, the opacity features of Haitian Creole are also present in the other two languages.
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.