LINGUIST List 12.2855

Wed Nov 14 2001

Review: Chierchia & McConnell-Ginet, Meaning & Grammar

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  • Martin Schaefer, review of Chierchia & McConnell-Ginet, Meaning and Grammar

    Message 1: review of Chierchia & McConnell-Ginet, Meaning and Grammar

    Date: Fri, 9 Nov 2001 16:40:54 +0100 (MET)
    From: Martin Schaefer <schaefemrz.uni-leipzig.de>
    Subject: review of Chierchia & McConnell-Ginet, Meaning and Grammar


    Chierchia, Gennaro, and Sally McConnell-Ginet (2000) Meaning and Grammar: An Introduction to Semantics, 2nd ed. MIT Press, xv+573pp, paperback ISBN 0-262-03269-4, $35.00 (1st ed., 1990).

    Martin Sch�fer, Institute of Linguistics, University of Leipzig.

    DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK'S PURPOSE AND CONTENT This is a textbook introducing formal semantics to students with little or no knowledge of logic and some of linguistics. It was announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/11/11-608.html.

    SYNOPSIS The book consists of nine chapters and one appendix. Chapter one: The empirical domain of semantics, pp. 1-52. This chapter sets the stage for the book: it will focus on truth conditional semantics within a generative framework. Problems for this approach are sketched.

    Chapter two: Denotation, Truth, and Meaning, pp. 53-112. Here, the distinction between sense and reference is introduced. The importance of full sentences for interpretation is pointed out. A fragment of English F_1 is introduced and some problems discussed.

    Chapter three: Quantification and Logical Form, pp. 113-193. Quantification in English and the idea of quantifier raising is discussed. A new fragment is introduced, and pronouns are dealt with.

    Chapter four: Speaking, Meaning, and Doing, pp. 195-255. Covers pragmatics classics Grice and Austin. The authors also introduce the main idea behind dynamic semantics.

    Chapter five: Intensionality, pp. 257-328. An elementary intensional logic is introduced, along with a new fragment.

    Chapter six: Contexts: Indexicality, Discourse, and Presupposition, pp. 329-389. Introduces an new stage in language interpretation, namely the relativization to context, and discusses presuppositions in great detail.

    Chapter seven: Lambda abstraction, pp. 392-429. Introduces lambda abstraction. In discussing its application for cases like dis/conjunction, relative clauses and VP anaphora, its usefulness is shown.

    Chapter eight: Word meaning, pp. 431-500. Discusses decomposition and alternative approaches. The need for more types (for adj. like 'former') and more primitives (like 'events') is discussed. Via the discussion of theta-roles it ends in a discussion of fuzzy vs. supervaluational logic in dealing with semantic imprecision.

    Chapter nine: Generalized Quantifiers, pp. 501-528. Introduces generalized quantifiers and shows their advantages. Shortest chapter.

    Appendix: Set-Theoretic Notation and Concepts, pp. 529-540 This is a basic but good introduction to the set-theoretic notation and concepts used throughout the book.

    Changes from the first edition: according to the authors, chapter three, five, seven and eight were substantially rewritten. It is now intended to be modular, meaning that after the third chapter, everything necessary for the rest is introduced.

    CRITICAL EVALUATION Since this is a second addition, and assuming that the first edition's success already has established this book's overall quality, I will not discuss the merits of the book but rather show what I still think to be inadequate. Furthermore, I will look at it purely from the student's point of view. (For the teacher's viewpoint, cf. (Carlson:1991) on the first edition). From this vantage point, I see three main points that diminish the value and the usefulness of this book. They are, in turn, its coherence, its excessive content at certain points, and the layout.

    Coherence The modular setup of the book is already commented upon by the authors. Given that, I will not say much about the order of chapters relative to each other. The only obvious outlier seems to be the choice to put the chapter on generalized quantification last. This seems very much uninspired, especially since its conclusion, which in effect ends the book, seems hardly appropriate to serve as an conclusion to the whole book. However, even within chapters, subsections do often not connect up to each other. Often, all sense of direction is lost. A case in point is the chapter on lambda abstraction. Here, after introducing the lambda operator, the authors try to give evidence for the usefulness of the new operator. In order to do so, they start discussing VP- disjunction and conjunction. After what reads like a conclusion to this topic, they start a new subsection titled 'More on TP'. This is quite startling, as so far TP has played no role in this chapter (It is discussed 150 pages earlier in the chapter on intensionality.). It turns out, however, that the section is again on problems in dealing with conjunction, this time involving tense (The objective still being to show the usefulness of the lambda operator.). With very few changes in organization and wording this would have been much easier to follow. On the whole, one often wishes for a clearer sense of direction, to avoid the many times where one looks up from what is in itself stimulating reading to wonder why this section is placed here.

    Another question of coherence arises when the authors introduce event semantics in order to deal with adverbs (new in this edition). Although it is perhaps useful to show students that there is such a thing as event semantics even at this stage, it should at least be pointed out that this approach would force major changes in everything that has been said before on fragments and interpretation. Without this caveat, the student is left in the dark as far as the integration of this approach with what has been described before is concerned.

    Excessive Material Oftentimes, the textbook suffers from the authors putting too much material between its pages. Outstanding examples are the discussion of presupposition in chapter six and that of the reasons for using supervaluation instead of fuzzy logic in chapter eight. While these are interesting topics (cf. Carlson's remarks), they clearly are far too advanced for a textbook that purports to be a general introduction. The same can be said for the general tendency to point the reader into the direction of dynamic semantics. The discussion is always stimulating, but seems to be misplaced here.

    There is only one place where the discussion falls away from the generally high standards, which is the representation of decomposition and theories using decomposition, again in chapter eight. The authors try to show that meaning postulates should be preferred over decomposition. In order to support their view, they use, besides theoretic arguments such as 'translucent' words, general considerations of semantic competence, language acquisition and even experimental evidence. The representation does not differ from that in the first edition, except that now, at the end of the discussion (p. 454), they point to the fact that all these phenomena are not necessarily inconsistent with decompositional approaches. While this is OK as it stands, one would have liked to see the whole psycholinguistic discussion removed from the pages of this book. It seems to question the whole approach of the book up to that point. In fact, in earlier chapters, the authors explicitly note that they adapt the stance propagated by Stanley Peters, that the theory is about what the mind must compute, not how (p. 192, cf. p. 110). In my view, this is the correct attitude to have. Selectively using psycholinguistic data undermines this approach.

    Layout The layout of the new edition is probably what differs most from the first one. It is most of the times irritating and sometimes downright misleading. Thus, boxes to which the text refers are often placed on the wrong page (cf. p. 125f.), so that reading involves lots of page- turning. Another variant is where the boxes are on the same page, but a paragraph after they are discussed (for no reason, it seems), without any referral to them (cf. p. 138). In turn, the exact opposite happens with the next two boxes (p.139f.) . The highlight as far as box management is concerned is certainly the box on page 419f., which is itself broken on two separate pages (similarly the box on p. 131f.), with the numbered elements on the one page being referred to on the other page. In addition, it seems that the authors are to hesitating in repeating examples sentences, which would often make reading smoother. Very misleading are cases like the one on page 87, where what is positioned like a section heading turns out to be the last line of the exercise on the opposite page. Even in simple tables, like the one on p. 66, readability could be much improved.

    CONCLUSION This is, all in all, a very good textbook. However, it could be even better if it had a clearer organization and reduced the amount of material covered. Then, the view on those parts of the book, where the authors try to show how formal semantics is not an abstract enterprise but makes clear empiric predictions (Highlights are the discussion of gerunds vs. infinitives and that of generalized quantifiers) would become much clearer.

    REFERENCE Carlson, Greg (1991). Review of 'Meaning and Grammar (first edition)'. Language, 67, 4, 805-813.

    ABOUT THE REVIEWER Martin Sch�fer is a linguist and works half-time in a project entitled 'Semantics and World Knowledge' at the University of Leipzig. His interests include semantics, the syntax-semantics interface, adverbs and Chinese linguistics.