Projects in Previous Years

1st Semester 2017/18: Formal pragmatics

Julian Schloeder
If you are interested in this project, please contact the instructor(s) by email.
Pragmatics is the study of meaning as it arises in particular contexts. In the early heydays of formal semantic theories, pragmatics was regarded as the "wastebasket" (Bar-Hillel 1971) of the study of meaning: whatever could not be explained in (truth-conditional) semantics was assigned the label "pragmatic" and declared someone-else's-problem. Thus, what we call pragmatics appeared to be a loose collection of odd observations, their only commonality the preconception that they cannot be formalised. This includes speech acts, implicatures, intonation, deixis, coherence ...
Today, the situation is very different. There are broad and comprehensive frameworks and formal tools to model pragmatic meaning that seamlessly interface with compositional semantic theories. Logics of non-monotonic inferences belie the claim that what is cancellable cannot be logical; theories of discourse structure refute the idea that claims about pragmatic meaning cannot be regimented in predictive and falsifiable theories.
This course will introduce students to some of these theories: the common ground, non-monotonic entailment, theories of discourse coherence, and theories of questions-under-discussion. If time permits and there is audience interest, more philosophical topics can also be included: language games, inferentialism and/or speech act pluralism.
Some core phenomena that these theories explain are:
  • Supra-sentential meaning: (1) and (2) seem to express different things.

    (1) Arnold left. Bertha started to cry.
    (2) Bertha started to cry. Arnold left.

  • Focus and intonation: (3) sounds good, but (4) sounds bad.

    (3) Who lives in Paris? PAULA lives in Paris.
    (4) Does Paula live in Paris? PAULA lives in Paris.

  • Un-equal access to context: John can utter (5) and Sue can utter (6) without either of them having made a mistake:

    (5) The keys might be in the drawer.
    (6) The keys cannot be in the drawer; I checked there already.

I'm open to accommodating student requests within the broad topic of "formal pragmatics". For instance, excursions into formal explanations of scope ambiguity, presupposition projection, formal derivations of the Gricean maxims, irony & sarcasm, non-cooperative dialogues, ... are possible.

Two weeks of 3 lectures each, followed by two weeks of independent research and group readings. The readings for the group sessions will be based on student interest.
Students should be familiar with theories of anaphora and/or Discourse Representation Theory, to the level of what is taught in Meaning, Reference and Modality.
Students will author a small research paper on a related topic of their choosing. Upon request, I may be able to provide data for empirical studies.

Lascarides, A & Asher, N (2008). Segmented discourse representation theory: Dynamic semantics with discourse structure. Computing Meaning.
Farkas, DF, & Bruce, KB (2010). On reacting to assertions and polar questions. Journal of semantics.
Roberts, C (1996/2012) Information Structure in Discourse: Towards an Integrated Formal Theory of Pragmatics. Reprinted in Semantics and Pragmatics.
Schloeder, JJ & Lascarides, A (ms.). Understanding Focus: Tune, Placement and Coherence. Manuscript.
Stalnaker, R (1978). Assertion. In: Cole, P (ed.), Pragmatics (Syntax and Semantics 9).