Spring 2024 Colloquium - Alexis Wellwood - Graded Plurals and Indeterminacy

Abstract: The compositional semantics of a sentence like (1a) is relatively uncontroversial, but no consensus about that of a sentence like (1b) has yet been achieved.

 (1) a. The red dot is bigger than the blue dot.

    b. The red dots are bigger than the blue dots.

 Early hypotheses have been claimed to be too strong (e.g. (1b) is true iff every red dot is bigger than every blue dot), others too weak (e.g., (1b) is true iff the biggest dot is red and the smallest is blue), and more recent approaches raise issues of their own. Such disagreement is puzzling in light of the apparently minimal grammatical differences between sentences like (1a) and (1b). Reporting the results of a series of experiments conducted in the USC Meaning Lab, I contrast and test extant proposals that assign distinct, determinate truth conditions to sentences like (1b) against the suggestion that their meanings ultimately fail to determine any. The empirical evidence—canvassed using sentences about different kinds of objects, expressing comparisons along different dimensions, in the positive and negative declarative forms, and evaluated under time pressure or not—appears to provide strong evidence for an indeterminacy thesis. If so, these results challenge the assumption that linguistic meanings functionally deliver truth conditions, and raise new questions about the life of linguistic meanings in the mind.

Event Logistics: 3pm in Kerr 273 on April 8th

Speaker Biography: Dr. Alexis Wellwood is an Associate Professor of Philosophy and Linguistics at USC.