Logic and Language

Paul Portner (Georgetown University): The Semantics of Action and Comparison in Infinitives and Subjunctives

Speaker: Paul Portner (Georgetown University)
Title: The Semantics of Action and Comparison in Infinitives and Subjunctives
Time: 16:00 - 17:30
Location: ILLC seminar room, F1.15

This talk represents an effort to better understand the semantics of clauses which express notions of action and comparison, such as the following types:


(1)       Call me tomorrow!  (imperative)

(2)       She would like (for you) to call tomorrow.  (comparative infinitive)

(3)       Il exige que tu partes maintenant.  (comparative subjunctive; French ex. Mulder 2010)

(4)       Hafdis knows who to talk to at the party.  (wh infinitive, complement;  ex. Bhatt 1999)

(5)       The screwdriver to use is a Phillips.  (wh infinitive, relative;  ex. Stanley and Williamson 2001)


I focus on two puzzles related to these types of clauses: the reason for the future-orientation in their semantics and the obviation effect (i.e. the preference for a control infinitive rather than a subjunctive or infinitive with an overt subject, when control would be possible).


Building on ideas about desire predicates from Heim (1992), about infinitives and control from Farkas (1992), about imperatives from Barker (2012), and about sentence mood from my own work, I propose that non-indicative clauses can contain one of a family of operators introducing related concepts of action and comparison.  The analysis allows an unusual but compositional analysis of evaluative attitude predicates like ‘want’ and an appealing pragmatic theory of imperatives.  It supports a treatment of subject obviation as a case of Maximize Presupposition and explains why futurity is linked to the semantics of comparison and control.  To conclude, we might speculate about the relation between the types of non-indicative clauses subject to the analysis, and non-comparative relatives like ECM infinitives, polarity subjunctives, and non-comparative wh infinitivals.