alexis singing

I am an Assistant Professor of Linguistics at Northwestern University, specializing in semantics.

I direct the Child Language Development Laboratory, investigating what kids think about word and sentence meaning.

Negative events (Part 1) 08.18.2015

In 2012, I chaired organization of the University of Maryland's inaugural PHLINC (PHilosophy and Linguistics Colloquium), on the topic of //events//. One of the invited speakers (along with Paul Pietroski) was the philosopher Achille Varzi. He discussed the topic of "negative events", in particular, the question of whether there were any such things (a positive answer to this question is attributed to the linguist Henriette de Swart, in her 1996 Journal of Semantics paper on the semantics of not…until).

Some reasons that Varzi cites to think that such entities populate natural language ontology are: it seems that these things can be quantified over by adverbials (John often doesn't go running), and they enter into causal statements (John's failing to feed the cats caused Mary's anger). If quantifiers quantify over somethings, and if caused expresses a relation between events (as opposed to propositions, facts, etc), such data are indeed puzzling.

The issue can be put in perhaps starker linguistic light by considering perceptual reports. As a historical note, recall that James Higginbotham used the fact that perceptual reports like (1) are not synonymous with their correspondents like (2) to argue for the event analysis in the first place.

   (1)     Mary saw John leave.

   (2)     Mary saw that John left.

Do such constructions also provide ammunition for the view that negative events exist? Consider that, if (1) expresses a relation between events, for example,

then it should be that the corresponding sentence with negation in the embedded predication receives the analysis:

Yet, such a semantics is obviously incredibly weak: it predicts that an utterance of (1) will be intuitively judged true whenever Mary saw any event at all, apart from and even in addition to John's leaving!

This is perhaps why Varzi, instead, characterizes the logical form as:

Raising the question: what exactly is a NON-leaving?

On Varzi's proposal, a non-leaving is just a negative description of some salient/relevant/etc positive event. These are just regular old events, for some pragmatic reason or other negatively described, that can be quantified over by often, that can enter into causal statements, etc.

In other words, exactly the same event as satisfies the previous existential can satisfy this one:

To be continued…