Language and Logic foundational course:
Meaning Composition: Empricial Problems and Formal Solutions.

  • Louise McNally ()

This course provides an overview two of the main empirical problems that have emerged in the development of models for meaning composition in natural language, the tradeoffs that are involved in solving these problems, and some of the different techniques that have been proposed as solutions. The goal is twofold: to make students with logic backgrounds aware of the reasons why the composition of natural language meanings is not a trivial problem (even though at some levels it might seem that way), and to familiarize students with linguistics backgrounds with some of the main alternative techniques for meaning composition, their similarities and differences, and their pros and cons. The course will presuppose only a minimal familiarity with basic grammatical concepts and predicate logic.

An elegant theory of meaning composition for natural language might be expected to meet the following desiderata, among others:

-It should respect independently-motivated results of research on morphology, syntax, and the lexicon.

- It should be grounded in an independently motivated theory of what lexical meanings are like. - It should avoid idiosyncratic composition rules to the extent possible.

- It should be expressible in a sound and computationally tractable logic.

However, natural language data sometimes make a maximally elegant theory difficult. Perhaps the best-studied problem for the meaning composition in this respect has been quantification. In this course, we will focus on two additional problems which have driven various kinds of alternative meaning composition strategies: bare nominals and incorporation on the one hand, and so-called "intersective" vs. "nonintersective" modification, on the other. We will develop a sense of the general nature of the problems these phenomena pose, as well as a global vision of the issues the proposed solutions raise.

The plan for the course is the following:

Day 1: The basics: Classic "rule-to-rule" vs. "shake-and-bake" approaches to composition. [Discussion of work by Bach, Carpenter, Dowty, Klein & Sag, Montague, and others]

Days 2-3: The empirical problem: Bare nominals and incorporation. The solutions: type shifting, the separation of syntactic and semantic saturation, Discourse Representation Theory-based alternatives. [Discussion of work by Chung & Ladusaw, Dayal, de Hoop, Espinal & McNally, Farkas & de Swart, Kamp, Partee, Van Geenhoven, and others]

Days 4-5: The empirical problem: Intersective vs. nonintersective modification. The solutions: type coercion, enriched lexical representations, ad-hoc composition rules. [Discussion of work by Asher, Larson, McNally, Montague, Pustejovsky, and others]