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LINGUIST List 25.2210

Tue May 20 2014

Review: Cognitive Science; Pragmatics; Semantics; Syntax: Chierchia (2013)

Editor for this issue: Monica Macaulay <monicalinguistlist.org>

Date: 21-Jan-2014
From: Evangelia Vlachou <evangelia.vlachougmail.com>
Subject: Logic in Grammar
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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/24/24-3150.html

AUTHOR: Gennaro Chierchia
TITLE: Logic in Grammar
SUBTITLE: Polarity, Free Choice, and Intervention
SERIES TITLE: Oxford Studies in Semantics and Pragmatics
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2013

REVIEWER: Evangelia Vlachou, University of the Aegean


Ever since the publication of “The Logical Syntax of Language” by Carnap (1934), logicians and linguists have dealt with the question of how logic and syntax interact in a way such that hearers draw pragmatically appropriate inferences. Gennaro Chierchia’s book “Logic in Grammar” (2013) explores this question by studying the common properties of lexical items that participate in what Chierchia calls the “Polarity System” (PS): (a) universal free choice items (FCIs) (like ‘any’ in English, ‘qualunque’ in Italian) and existential FCIs (like ‘irgendein’ in German and ‘uno qualunque’ in Italian), (b) epistemic indefinites (like ‘un qualche’ in Italian and ‘vreun’ in Romanian), (c) weak negative polarity items (NPIs) (like ‘ever’ in English and ‘mai’ in Italian) and strong NPIs (like ‘in weeks’ and ‘until’ in English), (d) emphatic NPIs and ‘minimizers’ (like ‘lift a finger’ in English) and (e) negative words (N-words) (like ‘nessuno’ and ‘neanche’ in Italian). Chierchia focusses on the pragmatic inferences that one can draw from the use of PS items as well as on the way these inferences predict the use of these items in syntax. This interplay between syntax and logic is worked out around the axis of scalar reasoning and implicatures as well as that of interference and intervention phenomena.

It is proposed in this book that PS items share the same meaning with regular existentials like ‘some’ and ‘a’ in English; they all commonly come with domains of quantification. They differ from existentials in that the latter do not always activate alternatives. To the contrary, PS items always activate alternatives through the process of exhaustification, which requires that the meaning of an item is checked against alternatives. Variation within the PS is then explained in terms of the different alternatives its members activate.

The argumentation in “Logic in Grammar” is structured as follows. Chapter 1 introduces the reader to the properties and limits of the phenomenon of polarity sensitivity in language, by focusing on seemingly different but logically related items: ‘or’, ‘any’ and ‘ever’. An initial proposal is put forth in this chapter, namely that polarity items like ‘any’ and ‘ever’ have a focal feature that activates subdomain alternatives. These alternatives go through the process of exhaustification and lead to strengthening. Since alternative exhaustification in contexts that are not downward entailing leads to contradiction, polarity items (PIs) are ungrammatical in contexts that are not downward entailing. This hypothesis is compared against other theories on polarity sensitivity and serves to explain the difference between PIs and other lexical items like ‘some’ and ‘a’.

Chapter 2 discusses the common points between the free choice item ‘any’ and free choice disjunction, and argues that scalar implicatures are related to an exhaustification process common to all NPIs.

Chapter 3 and subsequent chapters are where the principal hypothesis pursued in this book is fully worked out. In chapter 3, Chierchia compares emphatic NPIs (‘even’) to non-emphatic NPIs (‘only’) and argues that both types of items are the weakest scalar items with necessarily activated alternatives: they trigger implicatures that emerge through exhaustification. Chapter 4 discusses the challenges to this idea by working around the following four axes: (i) intervention, (ii) presuppositionality, (iii) weak and strong NPIs and (iv) negative concord. Chapters 5 and 6 show how the principal hypothesis of the book applies to both existential as well as to universal FCIs and aim to unify both of them: in opposition to other existentials or universals, the alternatives of FCIs are not subject to relevance. The FC effect results from recursive exhaustification, that is, from the requirement to exhaustify pre-exhausted alternatives. Chapter 7 addresses the problems caused to the grammaticality of an NPI by the intervention of certain items between this item and the downward entailing (DE) operator: they interrupt the DE nature of the operator and provoke, in this way, exhaustification crash. Chapter 8, the final chapter, constitutes an overview of the study and closes the book with a discussion on how the proposal pursued in this book pertains on to the relation between syntax and logic as well as on how children acquire the polarity system.


On an empirical basis, the book is comprehensive in scope: it examines seven groups of items (existential free choice items, universal free choice items, epistemic indefinites, weak NPIs, strong NPIs, N-words, emphatic NPIs) mainly from three languages (English, Italian, German) and examines them from the perspective of the inferences that hearers draw from their use. In this way, the book is of great importance to linguists interested in each individual item in these three languages but also in the question of inferences in language. Chierchia guides the reader through the minimal details of the behavior of each and every item, which makes the book appropriate to be used by students in their first steps in semantics and comparative linguistics.

Although the author does not always provide hints on the relation between the appendices’ contents and the chapters’ contents, the appendices provided at the end of Chapters (2)-(7) transform Chierchia’s “Logic in Grammar” into a useful handbook for those who wish to be initiated into the formal details of how the polarity system works.

“Logic in Grammar” is part of a long tradition of studies on polarity phenomena in language that started out as early as Hein (1890), the first systematic investigation of PIs in Middle English (see Vlachou 2007 for the most recent overview). Although there is quite an extensive literature on these phenomena, there has been no systematic account of what unifies them. Chierchia’s book fills this gap by successfully addressing the common property that unifies all of them and makes them participate in what Chierchia calls the “Polarity System”. In doing so, he pushes the discussion on polarity in language towards a more philosophical direction. Another positive aspect of “Logic in Grammar” is that it also takes into account items that are grammatical in plain unmodalized episodic contexts, such as ‘irgendein’ in German (following up on Kratzer (2002) and Vlachou (2002a,b, 2006, 2007, 2012).

The main proposal of “Logic in Grammar” is that all items that participate in the Polarity System share the same meaning with existential indefinites like ‘some’ and ‘a’ that open up a domain of quantification. Their difference lies in the way they manipulate alternatives. In the case of non-polarity indefinites, the use of alternatives is context-dependent, i.e., alternatives are transparent whenever conversationally appropriate. In the case of polarity items, their meaning is always checked against their alternatives. Their difference lies in that they activate different (parts of the domain of) alternatives.

This proposal is in line with other studies on certain items that participate in the polarity system as well as on the acquisition of implicatures. Kadmon & Landman (1993) propose that domain widening that leads to strengthening is crucial to the distribution of the polarity item ‘any’. Krifka (1995) provides a uniform account of emphatic and non-emphatic NPIs while Lahiri (1998) analyses emphatic NPIs in a similar way. Recently, Vlachou (2012) argues that free choice items differ from regular indefinites in that they always activate alternatives and differ among each other in that they activate different parts of the set of alternatives. In doing so, they form two interpretational categories (full set and subset FCIs).

It is unfortunate that the author does not provide an in-depth discussion of the predictions of his proposal as far as the acquisition of these items is concerned (except for a quick discussion in Chapter 8). Chierchia’s proposal coheres well with recent approaches to children's difficulties with implicatures (Chierchia et al. 2001; Gualmini and Crain 2001; Gualmini et al. 2001; Barner and Bachrach, 2010; Barner, Brooks, and Bale, 2011) that demonstrate that children’s difficulties with implicatures have to do with difficulties with alternatives and more precisely with accessing the lexicon in generating alternatives.

“Logic in Grammar” will be of great interest to linguists working on negation and polarity related phenomena (negative polarity items, free choice items, negative concord, double negation) as well as on pragmatic implicatures and alternative semantics. Moreover, this book will interest philosophers of language and logicians. Further, scholars interested in cross-linguistic and typological studies will certainly consider this book as a valuable source of data mainly from English, Italian and German.

In general, Chierchia’s “Logic in Grammar” substantially contributes to our understanding of the way inferences are encoded in languages and decoded by individuals. It paves the way for future deep and thorough investigations of how human beings perceive and express meanings related to quantities, sets and individuals.


Barner, David, Neon Brooks, and Alan Bale. 2011. Accessing the unsaid: The role of scalar alternatives in children’s pragmatic inference. Cognition 118, 84-93.

Barner, David and Asaf Bachrach. 2010. Inference and exact numerical representation in early language development. Cognitive Psychology, 60, 40-62.

Carnap, Robert. 1934. Logische Syntax der Sprache. Vienna: Springer. [The Logical Syntax of Language (transl. by Paul Kegan), 1937, Kegan Paul, London.]

Chierchia, Gennaro, Stephen Crain, Maria Teresa Guasti, Andrea Gualmini, and Luisa Meroni.. 2001. The acquisition of disjunction: evidence for the grammatical view of scalar implicatures. Proceedings of BUCLD 25. In A. Do et al. (Eds.). Cascadilla Press, Somerville Mass., 157-168.

Gualmini, Andrea and Stephen Crain. 2001. Downward Entailment in Child Language. University of Maryland Working Papers in Linguistics, 11, 112-133, University of Maryland at College Park.

Gualmini, Andrea, Stephen Crain, Luisa Meroni, Gennaro Chierchia and Maria Teresa Guasti. 2001. At the Semantics/Pragmatics Interface in Child Language. Proceedings of Semantics and Linguistic Theory 11, 231-247. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University.

Hein, Julius. 1890. Uber die bildliche verneinung in der mittelenglischen poesie. Anglia 15. 41–186, 396–472.

Kadmon, Nirit and Fred Landman. 1993. Any. Linguistics and Philosophy 15, 353-422.

Krifka, Manfred. 1995. The semantics and pragmatics of polarity items. Linguistic Analysis 25. 209-257.

Lahiri, Uttama. 1998. Focus and negative polarity in Hindi. Natural Language Semantics 6. 57-125.

Vlachou, Evangelia 2002a. How homogeneous are Free Choice Items? Paper presented at the 19e Romaanse Taalkundedag, University of Utrecht.

Vlachou, Evangelia. 2002b. Polarity properties of French qu- indefinites. Paper presented at the Amsterdam-Utrecht workshop on Negative Polarity Items.

Vlachou, Evangelia. 2006. Le puzzle des indéfinis en qu-. Indéfinis et prédication. In F. Corblin, L. Kupferman and S. Ferrando (eds.), 235-249, PUB, Paris.

Vlachou, Evangelia. 2007. Free choice in and out of context: semantics and distribution of French, Greek and English free choice items. LOT dissertation series. University of Utrecht.

Vlachou, Evangelia. 2012. Delimiting the class of free choice items in a comparative perspective: evidence from the database of French and Greek free choice items. Lingua 122, 14, 1523-1568.


Dr. Evangelia Vlachou is currently Lecturer of Comparative Linguistics at the Department of Mediterranean Languages of the University of the Aegean, in Greece. Her dissertation 'Free choice in and out of context' published in the LOT dissertation series in 2007 dealt with the semantics and distribution of free choice items in a cross-linguistic perspective and developed a theory of these items that relied on the interaction of lexical items’ semantic features with the context. Her research also extends to other areas of the syntax-semantics-pragmatics interface such as negation, quantification and indefiniteness. Her work is published in journals and edited volumes.

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