Zobel – The Semantics of Perspective Sensitivity

The Semantics of Perspective Sensitivity – Week 1

Course material here.

In this class, we will explore the question of how to capture the semantic behavior of perspective-sensitive expressions—i.e., expressions that are sensitive to the physical or mental perspective of certain individuals. The main effect of using such an expression is that a sentence that contains them cannot be said to be true or false “absolutely”. Consider, for instance, A’s utterance in the context in (1).

(1) A and B sit across from each other. Between them on the table are two gift boxes. A and B need to decide which of these two boxes to use for the gift they bought for C. A says, “The left box is prettier.”

A’s utterance in (1) contains two perspective-sensitive items, the relative locative expression “left” and the predicate of personal taste/aesthetic adjective “pretty”. Hence, A’s utterance can be said to depend on A’s perspective in two ways: (i) which box A means by “the left box” depends on A’s position and orientation in space, and (ii) whether A is truthful in calling that box “prettier” than the other box on the table arguably on A’s preferences/aesthetic judgment. Thus, if we assume that A says something true, the truth is contingent on A’s perspective; so, if B had uttered the same sentence in the same context, B would have said something different and also potentially something false.

To start out, we will introduce the main properties of perspective sensitive expressions and discuss how they can be delineated from other expressions. We will then look at the analyses for a selection of perspective-sensitive items in the relativist approach to perspective sensitivity given in Lasersohn 2017. In the course of discussing these analyses, we will look at the advantages and disadvantages to a relativist approach to perspective-sensitive expressions and also consider alternative proposals to capture their “shifty” semantic behavior.

Note: This class is intended as an advanced class for students that have had an introduction to formal semantics (e.g., Coppock & Champollion 2017, Heim & Kratzer 1998). The course materials will be made available for participants online.


Lasersohn, Peter. 2017. Subjectivity and Perspective in Truth-Theoretic Semantics. OUP.http://semanticsarchive.net/Archive/zEzNWI3O/subjectivityandperspective.pdf (prefinal version)

Preliminary readings on formal semantics:

Coppock, Elizabeth & Lucas Champollion. 2017. Semantics boot camp, Ch8 “Presupposition”, 231–252. http://eecoppock.info/semantics-boot-camp.pdf

Heim, Irene & Angelika Kratzer. 1998. Semantics in Generative Grammar. Blackwell.

Some further related literature (with no aim at completeness):

Anand, Pranav & Andrew Nevins. 2004. Shifty Operators in Changing Contexts. In: Robert B. Young (ed.) Proceedings of SALT 14, 20–37.

Bylinina, Lisa. 2017. Judge-Dependence in Degree Constructions. Journal of Semantics 34: 291–331.

Bylinina, Lisa, Eric McCready & Yasutada Sudo. 2015. Notes on perspective-sensitivity. In: Arkadiev, Peter et al. (eds.) Donum Semanticum.

Condoravdi, Cleo & Jean Mark Gawron. 1996. The Context-Dependency of Implicit Arguments. In: Makoto Kanazawa, Christopher Pinon & Henriette de Swart (eds.) Quantifiers, Deduction, and Context, 1–32. CSLI Publications.

Coppock, Elizabeth. 2018. Outlook-based semantics. Linguistics and Philosophy 41: 125–164.

Crone, Phil & Deniz Rudin. 2017. Assessor-Relativizable Predicates. Talk given at Subjectivity in Language and Thought.

Eckardt, Regine. 2012. Particles as Speaker Indexicals in Free Indirect Discourse. Sprache und Datenverarbeitung: international journal for language data processing 35/36: 99–119.

Harris, Jesse A. & Chris Potts. 2009. Perspective-shifting with appositives and expressives. Linguistics and Philosophy 32:523–552.

Kneer, Markus, Agustin Vicente & Dan Zeman. 2016. Relativism about Predicates of Personal Taste and Perspectival Plurality, Linguistics and Philosophy 40: 37–60.

Lasersohn, Peter. 2005. Context dependence, disagreement, and predicates of personal taste. Linguistics and Philosophy 28:643–686.

McNally, Louise & Isidora Stojanovic. 2014. Aesthetic Adjectives. In: James Young (ed.), The Semantics of Aesthetic Judgment, 17–37. Oxford University Press.

Meier, Cecile & Janneke van Wijnbergen-Huitink. 2016. Subjective Meaning: Alternatives to Relativism. De Gruyter.

Partee, Barbara. 1989. Binding implicit variables in quantified contexts. Proceedings of CLS 25: 342–356.

Patel-Grosz, Pritty. 2014. Epithets as de re pronouns. Empirical Issues in Syntax and Semantics 10.

Pearson, Hazel. 2013. A Judge-Free Semantics for Predicates of Personal Taste. Journal of Semantics 30: 103–154.

Sudo, Yasutada. 2012. On the semantics of phi features on pronouns. PhD Thesis, MIT.

Zeman, Dan. 2017. Perspectival Plurality, Relativism, and Multiple Indexing. Proceedings of Sinn und Bedeutung 21.