LING 310 Special Topic: The Structure of Meaning


Updated Course outline - final version.   



Professor Barbara Partee, Erskine Fellow

Department of Linguistics  or

Office phone:   364-2987 x3944; Home phone: 364-2746

Room: 206, Linguistics

Office hours: by arrangement


Lecture Times:

First semester, Feb 20 – May 31. Mon 12-1, Wed 1-3. Room 405, Education


The course introduces general issues in connecting lexical semantics with formal semantics.  Three topics will be given special attention: (i) the semantics of different kinds of adjectives; (ii) the semantics of genitive/possessive constructions across languages, and (iii) the semantics of “demoted” or “non-canonical” subjects and objects, including Partee and Borschev’s ongoing research on the genitive of negation in Russian.  Related topics which will be discussed include the semantics of diathesis shift (also called verbal argument alternation), existential sentences, the semantic “bleaching” of verbs, weak and strong noun phrase meanings, negation and intensionality.



Two in-class tests and one final take-home test or term paper.

Test 1   30%                             March 13

Test 2   30%                             April 5

Test 3 or Term paper  40%      due date May 29


Also a number of homework assignments, not for ‘assessment’ but to help you learn the techniques and explore the material.


Lectures and discussion

The usual pattern will be to have 2 hours of lectures (with opportunities for questions and discussion included) and one hour (probably half of Wednesday’s class) dedicated to discussion each week. The discussion sessions can be used to go over homework problems, ask questions about the lectures, raise linguistic or philosophical issues to put what we’re doing in this class into a broader context.



Part I: Lectures 1-6: Introduction to formal semantics and compositionality. A fragment of English syntax and semantics.  Lexical semantics: Adjective meanings.


Mon Feb 20

Introduction to basic ideas of formal semantics. Compositionality. “Homework #0: Participant Questionnaire”, due Feb 22.

Reading: Larson 1995, Partee encyc article 1999.

Handout Lecture 1.


Wed Feb 22

Syntax and model-theoretic semantics of predicate logic, preliminary introduction. Homework #1, due Feb 27

Handout Lecture 2.  Practice in Logic. Answers for Practice in Logic and  Homework #1, expanded version.


Mon Feb 27

Formal semantics and lexical semantics I: Case study: adjective meanings.  Homework #2, due March 6 

Handout Lecture 3.

Reading: Partee 1995.


Wed Mar 1

Syntax and semantics of predicate logic, continued. Application to the semantics of adjectives and relative clauses.

Handout Lecture 4.

Supplementary handouts:  Set Theory Basics. Statement Logic Basics. Predicate Logic Basics. Laws of Quantification.


Mon Mar 6

Formal semantics and lexical semantics II: Possessive constructions. What kinds of ‘possessive relations’ are there, and where do they come from? The role of the head noun, the role of the construction, the role of context. 

Handout Lecture 5.

Key words and key concepts Lectures 1-5.

Homework #3 (not to turn in) with solutions given, a study aid for Test I.

Answers to Homework #3 ("Practice Test I")


Wed Mar 8

A Fragment of English. Basic principles of compositional interpretation. Putting together what we have studied so far. Review for Test #1.

Handout Lecture 6.


Mon Mar 13  

Test #1   30%

LING310_TEST1_with_answers .pdf



Part II: Lectures 7-12. The lambda calculus and semantic types. Integrating formal semantics and lexical semantics.  Arguments, modifiers, and compounds. Compositionality, context-dependence, and meaning shifts.


Wed Mar 15

Function-argument structure as basic semantic structure (Frege). The lambda-calculus, first-order part. First applications of lambda calculus. Homework #4, due March 20.

Handout Lecture 7

Appendix to Lecture 7: Montague's Intensional Logic

Answers to Homework #4.


Mon Mar 20

Semantics of possessives, continued: arguments vs. modifiers. Puzzles of predicate possessives.

Handout Lecture 8

Reading: Partee and Borschev 2001, Partee and Borschev 2003.

Supplement to Handout 8: Note on What of Mary's.


Wed Mar 22

Fragment 3 of English, including Possessives with Favorite and Former, using Lambdas. More practice with lambdas. More on syntactic categories and semantic types. Integrating lexical and compositional interpretation. Big example: Mary's former favorite teacher.

Handout Lecture 9.    Homework #5, due March 27.

A note about former and its meanings.  Supplement to Handout 9, for use with homework #5: Syntactic category terminology.


Mon Mar 27

Compositionality, context-dependence, and meaning-shifts. The difference between modifier constructions and compound constructions: toy train, stone lion vs. airplane factory, toy store. The stone lion puzzle. New approaches to privative adjectives.

Handout Lecture 10.

Reading: Partee (in press); Cooper and Franks 1996; Coulson and Fauconnier 1999. 


Wed Mar 29

More practice with lambdas and our fragment of English. Review for Test #2. Test #2 will primarily cover material in Lectures 7-11, possibly including some material from Lectures 1-6.

Handout Lecture 11.


Mon Apr 3

Mandarin possessives, demonstratives, and definiteness.

Reading: Partee (in press): A note on Mandarin possessives, demonstratives and definiteness.

Handout Lecture 12


Wed Apr 5

Test #2    30%   (one hour)  




Part III:  Lectures 13-21.  Illustrating some key semantic phenomena, in English and cross-linguistically. Quantified noun phrases. Type-shifting. Semantic typology. Weak and strong Noun Phrases and Existential Sentences. Tense and aspect.


Mon May 1

Noun phrases and generalized quantifiers. Quantifier scope ambiguity.

Handout Lecture 13.


Wed May 3

Noun phrase interpretation and type-shifting. Quantificational, referential, and predicative NP meanings. Interpretations of NPs in languages without articles. Homework #7, due May 10: either a term paper proposal, or a set of homework problems on NP interpretation.

Reading: Partee, Barbara H. 1986. Noun phrase interpretation and type-shifting principles. Reprinted in Portner and Partee, eds., 2002, 357-381. Reprinted in Partee 2004, 203-230. [this is a djvu file. To download a djvu reader, go here.]

Handout Lecture 14 (without diagrams; diagrams are in the paper.)


Mon May 8

Weak and strong determiners and the semantics of existential sentences. What makes a sentence “existential”? What is the semantic difference between existential sentences (like “There are three cats in the tree.”) and ‘normal’ subject-predicate sentences (like “Three cats are in the tree.”)?

Readings: Various, especially Keenan (2003) The definiteness effect: semantic or pragmatic? Natural Language Semantics 11:187 -216.

Handout Lecture 15.


Wed May 10


But homework #7 is due: Exercises or term paper topic description. Give to Emma for me, by Friday May 12 at the latest.


Mon May 15

Existential sentences cross-linguistically I. The Russian genitive of negation and diathesis alternation. Semantic ‘bleaching’ of existential verbs. Weak NPs and ‘weak verbs’. Handout Lecture 16. Term paper proposals returned with comments.


Wed May 17

Existential sentences in other languages II, including Chinese. Reading: Huang, C.-T. James. 1987. Existential sentences in Chinese and (in)definiteness. In The Representation of (In)definiteness, eds. Eric J. Reuland and Alice G.B. ter Meulen, 226-253. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Handout Lecture 17.


Mon May 22

Negative contexts and intensional contexts – similarities and differences. Weak NPs and “semantic incorporation”. Handout Lecture 18.

Optional: term paper rough draft due.


Wed May 24

Formal Semantics and Formal Pragmatics. Presuppositions, conversational and conventional implicatures. Illustrations: negation and definite descriptions, inclusive and exclusive or, restrictive / non-restrictive relative clauses, “expressive” modifiers.  Handout Lecture 19. Term paper rough drafts returned with comments.


Mon May 29

Assessment #3 due: term paper. 40%

Tense and aspect and the "event argument". Handout Lecture 20.


Wed May 31

Some notes about semantics resources -- where and how to find out more. Handout includes various useful link. Also open question and answer period. Handout "Lecture" 21.


Last updated  Tuesday, 30 May 2006