Direct Compositionality and 'Uninterpretability': The Case of (Sometimes) 'Uninterpretable' Features on Pronouns

Journal of Semantics 29 (3):305-343 (2012)
The goal of this paper is to investigate a case in which certain features have been argued to sometimes play a role in the interpretation of an expression and sometimes not—in particular, the case of gender and person features on pronouns.1 That these are in certain configurations only agreement features which have no semantic content has been explored in numerous places; for an especially detailed study, see Kratzer (1998, 2008); see also Heim (2008), von Stechow (2003) and others. I argue here that the view that these are ‘uninterpretable’ is incorrect; they do in fact play the normal role in the semantic composition and their appearance of uninterpretability comes from the particular role they play in the interpretation of focus.2 In a nutshell, the proposal is that these features make no contribution to the focus value of an expression (i.e., they play no role in the computation of a set of alternatives in the sense of Rooth 1984), but they are always fully interpreted in the regular semantic value of an expression. The ‘punchline’ of this paper centres on the interaction of these features with paycheck pronouns—I will show that this interaction provides striking confirmation for the proposal here and presents a serious challenge to the agreement solution. But before turning to the details of the analysis and the paycheck evidence, let me step back to discuss just what is at stake in broader terms. The agreement hypothesis maintains that in certain cases these features play the expected role in the interpretation while in other cases they are only agreement features and play no role in the semantic computation. As will be documented below, this view—if correct—would pose a very real threat to the hypothesis of direct compositionality. Thus, the case of features on pronouns is not just a small and isolated piece of grammatical investigation, but one with quite striking implications for the organization of the grammar
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