LINGUIST List 31.2094

Thu Jun 25 2020

Review: Computational Linguistics; Pragmatics; Psycholinguistics; Semantics: Portner (2018)

Editor for this issue: Jeremy Coburn <>

Date: 07-Apr-2020
From: Kathryn Bove <>
Subject: Mood.
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Paul Portner
SERIES TITLE: Oxford Surveys in Semantics and Pragmatics
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2018

REVIEWER: Kathryn P Bove, New Mexico State University



Portner begins this book by stating that most accounts of mood treat verbal mood (such as modal adjectives, modal nouns, and grammatical mood) and sentential mood (which modify an entire proposition, such as the use of auxiliaries of possibility) as two individual units, but he hints that they may not be as different as linguists assume. He then shares his goals for the book: to provide background on previous mood research for scholars and to advance new ideas of semantics and pragmatics in mood. He provides essential definitions for keys terms and several examples that demonstrate the basics necessary for studying mood theory. Next, he reviews canonical classifications of modality (i.e. epistemic, priority, and dynamic modality) and Kratzer’s (1981, 1991) ordering semantics. Portner notes that he is unable to give a complete overview of modality in this book and directs the reader to his previous book on the topic (Portner 2009). He describes several key theories in what he calls “the flow of information in discourse” including the dynamic approach (Stalnaker (1970, 1974), File Change Semantics (Heim 1982, 1983, 1988), Discourse Representation Theory (Kamp 1981, Kamp and Reyle 1993), Dynamic Logic (Groenendijk and Stokhof 1991, 1991), Speech Act Theory (Austin 1962), illocutionary force (Searle 1965, 1969) and update potential/ illocutionary force (Gadzar 1979, 1981). Filled with ample examples and clear explanations, this section highlights significant contributions of each theory to the field of modality. The section ends with a brief outline for the book.


As Portner points out in the beginning of this section, subsentential modality is key to understanding mood. Therefore, he starts with an overview of sentential modal constructions. This section discusses modal strength, important differences in predicates (such as desire and believe), and the importance of de se and de re interpretations of modality. Additionally, there is a discussion of recent theory of subsentential modality within formal semantics. Strengths and weaknesses in each of these theories is discussed. Next, Portner gives an exhaustive overview of research on indicative/subjunctive moods based primarily on Romance languages. He divides these theories into two groups: theories based on comparison (such as Anand and Hacquard 2013) and theories based on truth in a designated world or set of worlds (such as Farkas 1992). The discussion of each group includes reviews of several recent theories on grammatical mood that Portner groups by similar theoretical bases for which he gives examples (some original, some new) in both natural and formal language. This section ends with a conversation of mood that moves beyond subjunctive/indicative forms. Specifically, Portner explores other mood-indicating forms (such as the infinitive and mood-indicating modals).

CHAPTER 3: Sentence mood

This lengthy chapter starts with a description of sentence mood, clause type, and sentential force. Throughout this chapter, the author provides ample examples, primarily based on English and non-Romance languages. Portner offers definitions of these terms relative to alternative terminology to ease the reader into the extensive overviews of previous literature. The chapter presents the distinction between clause types (as opposed to grammatical categories), describes properties of clause type systems, and discusses the grammatical features that “mark” clause type. Portner begins a discussion of sentential force, which he continues in depth later in the chapter. With regard to the syntax/semantics interface, this chapter reviews several approaches that Portner categorizes as one of the following: the operator approach, the construction-based approach, and the compositional approach. The next section returns to the topic of speech act theory. Portner reviews classic theories such as the Performative Hypothesis (Katz and Postal 1964) and discusses adjustments made in more recent analyses using speech act theory as a framework. The chapter continues by revisiting the dynamic approach, also first presented in the introduction. Starting with classic theories such as Hamblin’s (1971) commitment slate model, Stalnaker’s (1974) common ground model, and Kamp’s (1981) discourse representation, Portner compares and contrast each approach to dynamic theory and shares his own perspective (Portner 2004). He also compares individual clause types (i.e. interrogatives, imperatives). Lastly, he presents a short discussion of optatives and exclamatives, which he calls “minor types”. In the conclusion for this chapter, Portner concludes that there has been extensive work over decades on sentence mood, but there is a notable lack of cross-linguistic data. He points out that this is changing in the field of semantics, and he anticipates an increase in this data in the future.

CHAPTER 4: Core mood, reality status, and evidentiality

Portner has two goals for this chapter: (1) Present his theory, which he proposes can capture both verbal and sentential mood and (2) Explore realis and evidentiality. Portner proposes his own novel explanation, “The Partially Ordered Set of Worlds (POSW) Framework”, which uses the idea of a preference relation of a < ordering source given an individual’s cognitive model. Portner provides ample formalizations for models and applies it to both verbal and sentential mood. He also includes suggestions for the elaboration of this framework. In the second section of this chapter, Portner briefly explores realis and evidentiality, of he claims are is little discussion in semantics and pragmatics. Portner refers to verbal and sentential mood as “core mood”, and he suggests that realis and evidentiality may be part of core mood or they may be “peripheral types of mood”. First, Portner provides a very brief overview of the (ir)realis debate. He provides examples of the Papual language Amele from Roberts (1991) and introduces the reader to the discussion of the value of the realis system (Elliot 2000) or the lack thereof (de Haan 2012). He notes that this presentation of information is “incomplete and sketchy”, but he concludes that it is unclear if this is core mood due to the fact that the term (ir)realis has been used variety of ways. In his discussion of evidentiality, Portner presents an equally brief overview of two perspectives: Faller’s (2002) analysis based on speech act theory and Murray’s (2014, 2016) analysis based on dynamic theory. He concludes this chapter (and in fact the book) by reiterating the importance of the relationship between mood and modality and the need for theories that can correctly account for both mood phenomena and modal semantics.


Overall, like his previous books, this book was a pleasure to read. Portner has a knack for presenting clear examples that are explained in a direct and tangible way. For example, when reviewing several approaches to analyzing modality in the introduction, he uses the same natural language example in his explanation of each theory. This allows the reader to clearly see the differences in the theories. When he adopts new terminology (as seen in Chapter 2’s “clause type”), his consistently use of the terminology throughout, even to describe previous work, helps the reader adapt to the proposed terminology. While the writing is very accessible, Porter does not overly simplify the material that he presents.

The first goal of this book was to provide an overview to the topic of mood in formal semantics. Portner has done this very successfully. The section on verbal mood provides an extensive overview that covers the canonical work in mood, especially in Romance languages. Most impressively, he allows the previous research to interact with each other, and as he points out weaknesses of one approach, he suggests how others have filled that gap. Chapter 3 (sentential mood) also provided extensive background on sentence mood. While the information was very important and examples were helpful, the organization of the chapter was a bit confusing at times. There were several jumps back and forth between concepts in this chapter in particular. For example, sentence mood, clause type and sentential force are presented in 3.1. Next is speech act theory (3.2) and dynamic theory (3.3). Section 3.2 reviewed previous theories separated by author and includes a subsection on dynamic theory. Section 3.3 was organized by clause types. In the last section, we return to the first subsection to talk about theories of clause type systems and sentence mood (3.4). However, this is only a minor issue. The last chapter in the book briefly presented background on irrealis and evidentiality. As the author noted, this section was incomplete. While Portner does include a great summary of the theories that he presents, I would direct the reader to other sources on both of these topics. Nevertheless, the book does an exceptional job at presenting important research on both verbal and sentential mood.

The second goal of this book was to posit new ideas of semantics and pragmatics in mood. In Chapter 4, Portner presents his Partially Ordered Set of Worlds (POSW) Framework, which is used to explain both verbal and sentential mood. He often refers to this framework “sketch of analyses”, and I would argue that this is an accurate description of his proposal. In this theory, he provides formalizations but this section only includes one example of natural language. This framework appears to have promise, but it lacks development. Based on the fact that the author includes suggestions for the elaboration of this framework, I believe that Portner’s intention for presenting this framework is to open the idea up for future research.

I would highly recommend this book to a scholar wanting to learn more about a semantic approach to mood. A familiarity with formal semantics would assist the reader in understanding the plentiful formalizations presented, but even those unfamiliar with this theoretical approach will benefit from reading this book. If you are planning on starting a research project on mood (or even if you have already started), this book will be a strong asset.


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Elliot, J. (2000). Realis and irrealis: forms and concepts of the grammaticalization of reality. Linguistic Typology, 4:55-90

Faller, M. (2002). Semantics and Pragmatics of Evidentials in Cuzco Quechua. PhD thesis, Stanford University.

Farkas, D. (1992). On the semantics of subjunctive complements. In Hirschbuiler, P. and Koerner, K., eds, Romance Languages and Modern Linguistic Theory, p. 69-104. Benjamins, Amberdam and Philadelphia.

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Kathryn Bove is an assistant professor at New Mexico State University. Her primary areas of research are semantics, language contact, and mood/modality.

Page Updated: 25-Jun-2020