Simon Charlow – Alternatives in Semantics (2 weeks)

Alternatives (roughly: things a speaker might have said) are useful in semantics; they underlie popular, explanatory theories of questions, focus, implicature, and free choice.

Alternative semantics, which conceives of compositional interpretation as fundamentally alternative-propagating, is also useful, but for distinct reasons. Saliently, alternative semantics is one way to compositionally derive alternatives! But there are other routes to alternatives: Karttunen’s theory of questions and the structured-meaning account of focus both use scope-based (ex situ) mechanisms to derive alternatives.

Alternative semantics doesn’t require scope; it’s an in situ approach to alternative management. This is claimed to offer various advantages over the scopal/ex situ approach, principally an immediate account of certain kinds of island-insensitivity for expressions associated with alternatives. But alternative semantics is also known to suffer from various problems, chief among them a problematic relationship with binding, and a seemingly baked-in commitment to unselective association with alternative-capturing operators.

In this 2-week course, we’ll study various empirical phenomena which motivate the use of alternatives in semantics, and others which motivate the use of alternative semantics. We’ll review various kinds of frameworks for compositionally dealing with alternatives, learning about in and ex situ approaches, along with their benefits and drawbacks. And we’ll consider various systems intermediate between in and ex situ accounts, to see whether we might be able to have the best of both worlds.

Course materials: