PhLing: Christopher Vogel (University of Maryland)

DateMarch 10, 2017

Time: 1:30-3:30 pm

LocationKresge 5531

TitleExternalism’s Vagueness Problem


Many natural language expressions seemingly lead to Sorites paradoxes, in that we can construct a series of claims that make use of, or relate to, a given expression, each of which is intuitively plausible but cannot be mutually true. In this sense, many natural language expressions are vague.  If one accepts that the truth of `Donald is bald’ relates to the number of hairs on Donald’s head, one seems likewise committed to the implausible claim that the loss of a single hair can make someone bald.  But, to deny that baldness pertains to head hair count seems equally implausible.  I’ll argue that problems of this sort are merely apparent, and indeed not a consequence of natural language meanings.  Rather, these difficulties arise for a particular externalist commitment to the relationship between linguistic meaning and truth. That is, the long standing problems pertaining to vagueness are the consequence of a (likewise long standing) semantic theory which holds that the meaning of a linguistic expression determines the truth-conditions for that expression. Alternatively, if we deny that natural language expressions have truth-conditions, many of the problems posed by vagueness do not arise in the first place.  I’ll illustrate how an internalist semantics can account for natural language speaker judgments pertaining to vague expressions without generating Sorites paradoxes.

PhLing: Alexis Wellwood (Northwestern)

Date: February 17, 2017

Time: 1:30-3:30 pm

LocationKresge 4354

TitleWhat do comparatives with plurals mean?


Many authors have explored the syntax and semantics of sentences like (1), and overall their compositional semantic properties seem well-understood. Sentences like (2) have received less attention, and so far nothing approaching a consensus about their meaning exists. Early hypotheses have been judged too strong, or too weak, and recent approaches raise issues of their own. This is puzzling in light of broad agreement about the properties of the critical parts of (2).

(1) The red dot is bigger than the blue dot.

(2) The red dots are bigger than the blue dots.

Some authors have proposed determinate truth conditions for (2), while others have suggested it is somehow indeterminate. I provide experimental evidence that tells against both kinds of proposals, while suggesting considerable variation across (and within) speakers. This raises questions about why (2) has such an enigmatic character.


PhLing: Bernhard Nickel (Harvard)

Date: Friday, February 3

Time: 1:30 – 3:30 pm

LocationKresge 3364

TitleGenerics and Conservativity


Generic sentences, such as “ravens are black” or “tigers have stripes” seem to express a generalization of some sort. This suggests the hypothesis that generics contain an unpronounced quantificational element at LF, gen. However, this hypothesis faces several problems, too, including the apparent failure of conservativity. For example, ”ravens are black” does not seem to be equivalent to “ravens are ravens that are black”. I argue that the apparent failure of conservativity is merely apparent, and that sentences like “ravens are ravens that are black” or “ravens are black ravens” are unacceptable for reasons that are orthogonal to conservativity: semantic interpretation breaks down. This analysis can be extended to deal with some famously troublesome examples for normality-analyses of generics, including “books are paperbacks” and “prime numbers are odd.”