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Review of  Formal Semantics

Reviewer: Judith Tonhauser
Book Title: Formal Semantics
Book Author: Paul H Portner Barbara H. Partee
Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell
Linguistic Field(s): Semantics
Issue Number: 14.379

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Portner, Paul and Barbara H. Partee, ed. (2002) Formal Semantics: The
Essential Readings. Blackwell, x+486pp, paperback ISBN 0-631-21542-5,
$39.95, Linguistics: The Essential Readings 2.

Announced at

Judith Tonhauser, Department of Linguistics, Stanford University.


''Formal Semantics: The Essential Readings'' (edited by Paul Portner
and Barbara H. Partee) is a collection of 19 seminal papers that have
shaped the field of formal semantics in linguistics. The collection
traces the early developments of truth-conditional model-theoretic
semantics, beginning with Montague (1973) ''The Proper Treatment of
Quantification in Ordinary English''. The year 1989 marks the end of
the collection with Groenendijk & Stokhof's ''Type-shifting Rules and
the Semantics of Interrogatives''. All the papers in the collection
are reproduced in their original form and the collection features an
index. (A complete list of the papers is given below together with the
year in which each was first published.)

In the Introduction (pp 1-16), the editors present an overview of the
early development of formal semantics, which was shaped by the work of
linguists, philosophers and logicians. Richard Montague was among
those who developed the idea that the techniques that were used in the
analysis of artificial formal languages could be applied to the study
of meaning of natural languages. His work, especially Montague (1973),
was highly influential in the development of formal semantics and
marks the beginning of Montague Grammar, which even today is still the
most influential framework of formal semantics. (It is otherwise only
available in an out-of-print collection of his works (Montague

The importance of Montague Grammar during the early years of formal
semantics is manifested in the collection by the papers of Carlson
(''A Unified Analysis of the English Bare Plural'', 1977), Dowty
(''Toward a Semantic Analysis of Verb Aspect and the English
''Imperfective'' Progressive'', 1977) and Karttunen (''Syntax and
Semantics of Questions'', 1977). The phenomena discussed in these
papers have benefited from a formal analysis within Montague Grammar.

The development of formal pragmatics paralleled the development of
formal semantics and the two movements often influenced one
another. In this collection, Stalnaker (''Assertion'', 1978) and Lewis
(''Adverbs of Quantification'', 1975; ''Scorekeeping in a Language
Game'', 1979) represent the many authors who have contributed to both
formal pragmatics and formal semantics. Lewis and Stalnaker are
concerned with the role of context in interpreting natural language
expressions or discourses. As such, the work of these authors was
highly influential for the development of Dynamic Semantics, a theory
of formal semantics which attempts to capture the meaning of natural
language expressions in terms of their conditions on the context as
well as their potential to alter the context. Dynamic Semantics was
developed independently by Hans Kamp and Irene Heim; its beginnings
are represented in the collection by Kamp's ''A Theory of Truth and
Semantic Representation'' (1981) and Heim's ''File Change Semantics
and the Familiarity Theory of Definiteness'' (1983a) and ''On the
Projection Problem for Presuppositions'' (1983b).

Parallel to the development of dynamic semantics in the 1980s, the
diversification of phenomena that formal semanticists were studying
led to innovations in the model-theoretic structures in which their
analyses were articulated. In the collection, Ladusaw (''On the Notion
''Affective'' in the Analysis of Negative-polarity Items'', 1980),
Link (''The Logical Analysis of Plurals and Mass Terms'', 1983), Bach
(''The Algebra of Events'', 1986) and Kratzer (''The Notional Category
of Modality'', 1981) represent such works. Ladusaw, for instance,
enriches formal semantics with monotone functions, and Link constructs
an ontology of plurals and mass terms based on lattice theory.

The integration of a theory of formal semantics within a theory of
grammar, including syntax, raises important questions regarding the
conception of the various components of grammar (phonetics, phonology,
morphology, syntax, semantics) as well as their interfaces. In the
collection, Partee & Rooth (''Generalized Conjunction and Type
Ambiguity'', 1983) and Partee (''Noun Phrase Interpretation and Type
Shifting Principles'', 1986) represent a line of work which integrates
formal semantics within the Chomskyan approach to syntax which has
been dominant in the field of linguistics since the early 1960s.

Besides their historical importance, the 19 articles in the collection
also cover a variety of topics: Noun Phrase semantics (Montague
(1973), Carlson (1977), Barwise & Cooper (1981), Link (1981)),
semantics of the auxiliary/inflectional system, i.e.,
tense/aspect/modality (Dowty (1977), Kratzer (1981), Bach (1986)),
context/philosophical pragmatics (Stalnaker (1978), Lewis (1975,
1979)), questions (Karttunen (1977), Groenendijk & Stokhof (1989)) and
negative polarity (Ladusaw (1980)).

The following is a complete list of articles in the collection:

1. The Proper Treatment of Quantification in Ordinary English: Richard
Montague. (1973)
2. A Unified Analysis of the English Bare Plural: Greg N. Carlson. (1977)
3. Generalized Quantifiers and Natural Language: Jon Barwise and Robin
Cooper. (1981)
4. The Logical Analysis of Plurals and Mass Terms: A Lattice-theoretical
Approach: Godehard Link. (1981)
5. Assertion: Robert C. Stalnaker. (1978)
6. Scorekeeping in a Language Game: David Lewis. (1979)
7. Adverbs of Quantification: David Lewis. (1975)
8. A Theory of Truth and Semantic Representation: Hans Kamp. (1981)
9. File Change Semantics and the Familiarity Theory of Definiteness: Irene
Heim. (1983a)
10. On the Projection Problem for Presuppositions: Irene Heim. (1983b)
11. Toward a Semantic Analysis of Verb Aspect and the English
''Imperfective'' Progressive: David R. Dowty. (1977)
12. The Notional Category of Modality: Angelika Kratzer. (1981)
13. The Algebra of Events: Emmon Bach. (1986)
14. Generalized Conjunction and Type Ambiguity: Barbara H. Partee and Mats
Rooth. (1983)
15. Noun Phrase Interpretation and Type Shifting Principles: Barbara
H. Partee. (1986)
16. Syntax and Semantics of Questions: Lauri Karttunen. (1977)
17. Type-shifting Rules and the Semantics of Interrogatives: Jeroen
Groenendijk and Martin Stokhof. (1989)
18. On the Notion ''Affective'' in the Analysis of Negative-polarity Items:
William A. Ladusaw. (1980)

Critical evaluation:

This collection is a distillation of the finest research of the early
years of formal semantics. Many of the papers in this collection are
rather formal, which renders the collection unsuitable as an
introduction to formal semantics, but in the Introduction, the editors
promote the collection as suitable for serving ''both as a reader for
graduate-level semantics courses and as a reference collection for
researchers in semantics and related fields'', and I entirely
agree. Each of the papers selected for the collection is valuable
reading, and the collection presents a well-balanced selection of
papers from a number of topics and early research directions. The
collection can be recommended to people who have only recently become
interested in formal semantics and want to learn about who and what
shaped the field. The collection is also valuable because many of the
papers are still highly influential in a number of areas of
contemporary semantic research.

However, the collection would have been even more valuable in this
respect if the Introduction had presented a clearer picture as to how
these ''classics'' relate to contemporary semantic research. There is
very little mention of current research directions in the
Introduction. Since a ''classic'' only becomes such in the context of
contemporary research which acknowledges the impact the paper has had
on the field, I think the collection would have benefited if the
authors had not only mentioned ''influence on the field'' as a
selection criterion but also had been more elaborate about current
lines of research for which one (or more) of the papers in the
collection are ''essential readings''. Given that this (hefty)
collection consists of over 400 pages of insights into the early
development of formal semantics, a 16-page introduction (6 pages of
which are references) seems rather slight. Similarly, although the
Introduction places the selected articles in the historical context in
which formal semantics developed, the Introduction could have been
more detailed in its description and discussion of the various
developments that the field took during those years and that resulted
in the ideas and insights of the selected papers.

Besides a paper's influence on the field, the editors selected papers
by length (longer works like dissertations were excluded since the
editors wanted to reproduce only complete works), by variety and by
accessibility. The editors mention that, because of the existence of
anthologies of the philosophy of language (like Martinich (2000)), the
collection is tilted toward the linguistic side of the foundations of
formal semantics. In the Introduction, Partee and Portner mention
quite a number of papers and authors whose work was of equal
importance as that of the authors selected. These mentions can serve
as pointers for further reading on the particular topics or periods.

A final note concerns the citation year of Hans Kamp's ''A Theory of
Truth and Semantic Representation'': it was first published in 1981
and is hence typically cited as Kamp (1981). The editors of this
collection, however, cite the paper as Kamp (1984), which refers to a
later re-printing of the paper.

I strongly recommend the collection to graduate students and other
researchers in formal semantics. I also hope the collection is such a
success that Blackwell will consider publishing a second volume with
later ''classics'', including coverages of topics like
cross-linguistic semantics, underspecification, and formal semantics
in non-Chomskyan grammar frameworks.


Martinich A.P. (ed.) 2000. The Philosophy of Language. 4th
edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Montague, R. 1974. Formal Philosophy. Selected Papers of Richard Montague,
edited and with an introduction by R. Thomason. New Haven, Conn.:
Yale University Press..

Judith Tonhauser is a PhD student in Linguistics at Stanford
University. She holds an MA in (computational) linguistics from the
University of Stuttgart. Her interests lie in formal syntax and
semantics, Mayan linguistics and computational linguistics. In formal
semantics, she has worked on polarity sensitivity and the temporal
interpretation of noun phrases. Recently, she has done fieldwork on
Yucatec Maya in Mexico and she is currently working on the syntax and
semantics of Yucatec Mayan focus constructions

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