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Grammar, pragmatics and referential interpretation in English

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Giulia Bovolenta.

A seeming non-issue from a communicative point of view, the referential interpretation of attributive possessive noun phrases such as John’s bike and Mary’s jumper throws up many theoretical questions at the grammar-pragmatics interface. For example, one question pertains to the role and locus of default interpretations (e.g. ‘the bike that John owns’, ‘the jumper Mary is wearing’) in a pragmatic theory of possessive interpretation (e.g. Levinson 2000; Jaszczolt, 2008; Kolkmann 2016). Another important question relates to the token-level interpretation of possessive NPs, which has so far been viewed as a straightforward matter of pragmatic saturation (e.g. Recanati, 2004; Carston, 2009), triggered by their linguistic form. Despite such piece-meal attempts to explain possessive interpretations, a coherent pragmatic account which is capable of explaining the ease with which these NPs are used and understood in communication is still outstanding. The aim of my talk is to sketch what I believe are the right ingredients for such an account. I will begin by highlighting its salience for a number of long-standing debates in the study of default meaning. I’ll then move on to some empirical evidence which suggests that possessive interpretation is a highly context- and speaker-dependent process. I will end by extending these novel insights to other English noun phrases such as compounds (e.g. apple juice seat) (Downing, 1977) and proper noun modifiers (e.g. my Berlin boots) (Breban, 2017).

This talk is part of the Cambridge University Linguistic Society series.

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