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.

publications

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On how verification tasks are related to verification procedures: A reply to Kotek et al. 2017

by Tim Hunter, Jeffrey Lidz, Darko Odic, and Alexis Wellwood; Natural Language Semantics

Kotek et al. (2015) argue on the basis of novel experimental evidence that sentences like 'Most of the dots are blue' are ambiguous, i.e. have two distinct truth conditions. Kotek at al furthermore suggest that when their results are taken together with those of earlier work by Lidz et al. (2011), the overall picture that emerges casts doubt on the conclusions that Lidz et al. drew from their earlier results. We disagree with this characterization of the relationship between the two studies. Our main aim in this reply is to clarify the relationship as we see it. In our view, Kotek et al.'s central claims are simply logically independent of those of Lidz et al.: the former concern which truth condition(s) a certain kind of sentence has, while the latter concern the procedures that speakers choose for the purposes of determining whether a particular truth condition is satisfied in various scenes. The appearance of a conflict between the two studies stems from inattention to the distinction between questions about truth conditions and questions about verification procedures.

semantics | psycholinguistics | superlatives | number

The anatomy of a comparative illusion 2017

by Alexis Wellwood, Roumyana Pancheva, Valentine Hacquard, and Colin Phillips; under review

Comparative constructions like More people have been to Russia than I have are generally perceived as acceptable and meaningful by native speakers of English; yet, upon closer reflection, they are judged to be incoherent. This mismatch between initial perception and more considered judgment challenges the idea that we perceive sentences veridically, and interpret them fully; it is thus potentially revealing about the relationship between grammar and language processing. This paper presents the first detailed investigation of these so-called 'comparative illusions'. We test four hypotheses about their source: a shallow syntactic parser, some type of repair by ellipsis, an incorrectly-resolved lexical ambiguity, or a persistent event comparison interpretation. Two formal acceptability studies show that speakers are most prone to the illusion when the comparative supports an event comparison reading. A verbatim recall task tests and finds evidence for such construals in speakers' recollections of the sentences. We suggest that this reflects speakers' entertaining an interpretation that is initially consistent with the sentence, but failing to notice when this interpretation becomes unavailable at the than-clause. In particular, semantic knowledge blinds people to an illicit operator-variable configuration in the syntax. Rather than illustrating processing in the absence of grammatical analysis, comparative illusions thus underscore the importance of syntactic and semantic rules in sentence processing.

Supplemental material: Stimuli used for acceptability judgments, experiment 1, Stimuli used in sentence recall, experiment3, Summary report of preliminary experiments

psycholinguistics | semantics | comparatives | events

Decomposition and processing of negative adjectival comparatives 2017

by Daniel Tucker, Barbara Tomaszewicz & Alexis Wellwood; accepted for The semantics of gradability, vagueness, and scale structure: Experimental perspectives, Cognition and Mind series, Springer

Recent proposals in the semantics literature hold that the negative comparative less and negative adjectives like short in English are morphosyntactically complex, unlike their positive counterparts more and tall. For instance, the negative adjective short might decompose into little tall (Rullmann 1995; Heim 2006; Büring 2007; Heim 2008). Positing a silent little as part of adjectives like short correctly predicts that they are semantically opposite to tall; we seek evidence for this decomposition in language understanding in English and Polish. Our visual verification tasks compare processing of positive and negative comparatives with taller and shorter against that of arguably less symbolically-rich mathematical statements, A > B, B < A. We find that both language and math statements generally lead to monotonic increases in processing load along with the number of negative symbols (as predicted for language by e.g. Clark and Chase 1972). Our study is the first to examine the processing of the gradable predicates tall and short cross-linguistically, as well as in contrast to extensionally-equivalent, and putatively non-linguistic stimuli (cf. Deschamps et al. 2015 with quantificational determiners).

semantics | psycholinguistics | comparatives | negation

The object : substance :: event : process analogy 2017

by Alexis Wellwood, Susan J. Hespos & Lance Rips; accepted for Oxford Studies in Experimental Philosophy, Volume 2, Oxford University Press

Beginning at least with Bach (1986), semanticists have suggested that the objects/events and substances/processes that nouns and verbs apply to are strongly parallel. We investigate whether these parallels can be understood to reflect a shared representational format in cognition, which in turn underlies aspects of the intuitive metaphysics of these categories. We hypothesized that a way of counting (atomicity) is necessary for object and event representations, unlike substance or process representations. Atomicity is strongly implied by plural language (some gorps, for novel gorp) but not mass language (some gorp). We investigate the language-perception interface across these domains using minimally different images and animations designed to encourage atomicity ('natural' spatial and temporal breaks), versus those that should not ('unnatural' breaks). Testing preference for matching such stimuli with mass or count syntax, our results support Bach’s analogy in perception, and highlight the formal role of atomicity in object and event representation.

semantics | events | psycholinguistics | number

States and events for S-level gradable adjectives 2016

by Alexis Wellwood; Semantics and Linguistic Theory (SALT) 26

The event analysis is only rarely incorporated into degree-theoretic treatments of adjectival comparatives. I propose a neodavidsonian account of predications like Ann was happy that involves quantification over both states and events. This 'double-eventuality' analysis is motivated primarily by how stage-level gradable adjectives interact with temporal for-phrases in two classes of comparatives, which I differentiate as 'low' versus 'high' attachment of the comparative morpheme. Low attachment comparatives express canonical degree readings (more available), while high attachment involve comparing numbers of occasions (available more). I resolve these patterns by positing a stative core for adjectives, and the possibility of mapping properties of states to properties of events. Low attachment interpretations, then, involve comparison of states, and high involve comparison of (pluralities of) events. I show that the analysis extends to other cases where states and events can do work for adjectives outside of comparatives.

semantics | comparatives | adjectives | events | states

Addressing the two interface problem: Comparatives and superlatives 2016

by Ewan Dunbar, Alexis Wellwood; Glossa [open access]

How much meaning can a morpheme have? Syntactic and morphological analyses generally underdetermine when distinctions in meaning between two forms are due to (i) the presence of an additional syntactic head or to (ii) different information coded on the same head. Surveying patterns across hundreds of languages, Bobaljik (2012) hypothesizes that superlative forms universally consist of a comparative morpheme plus an additional superlative morpheme, e.g., tallest is underlyingly [ SUP [ CMPR [ TALL ] ] ]. Bobaljik's hypothesis includes, in part, a speculative proposal for a universal limit on the semantic complexity of morphemes. We offer a concrete basis for this proposal, the 'No Containment Condition' (NCC). The NCC is a constraint on grammars such that they cannot contain a certain semantic representation for a unitary head, if that representation can be constructed out of the semantic representations of two heads. Illustrating the proposal, we take Bobaljik's analysis of forms like tallest further, into [ [ [ CMPR SUP ] MUCH ] TALL ]. Based in semantic analysis, our suggestion introduces Bresnan's (1973) classical analysis of comparatives into the decomposition of superlatives.

morphology | semantics | comparatives | superlatives | adjectives

Syntactic and lexical inference in the acquisition of novel superlatives 2016

by Alexis Wellwood, Annie Gagliardi, and Jeffrey Lidz; Language Learning and Development

Acquiring the correct meanings of words expressing quantities (seven, most) and qualities (red, spotty) present a challenge to learners. Understanding how children succeed at this requires understanding not only what kinds of data are available to them, but also the biases and expectations they bring to the learning task. The results of our word-learning task with 4 year-olds indicates that a "syntactic bootstrapping" hypothesis correctly predicts a bias towards quantity-based interpretations when a novel word appears in the syntactic position of a determiner, but leaves open the explanation of a bias towards quality-based interpretations when the same word is presented in the syntactic position of an adjective. We develop four computational models that differentially encode how lexical, conceptual, and perceptual factors could generate the latter bias. Simulation results suggest it results from a combination of lexical bias and perceptual encoding.

acquisition | superlatives | determiners | number | adjectives

Participant structure in event perception: Towards the acquisition of implicitly 3-place predicates 2015

by Alexis Wellwood, Angela Xioaxhue He, Jeffrey Lidz, and Alexander Williams; University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics

In acquiring a semantics, children relate their experience of their world to their experience of speakers. When we study this in the lab, we often presume to understand the first part of this relation: we take for granted how the child will experience the world of our experiment, and test for how she will experience an attendant event of speech. Such presumptions are fair. But they need to be justified, when the experience we impute to the child is much richer than what the world presents objectively. In this paper we discuss one such case, reporting on several experiments targeted at assessing event perception in pre-linguistic infants, following the lead of Gordon (2003). We begin by characterizing what a 'participant role' is, and how certain acquisition heuristics that depend on this notion are meant to facilitate verb learning.

acquisition | events | argument-structure

On the semantics of comparison across categories 2015

by Alexis Wellwood; Linguistics & Philosophy, 38(1)

This paper explores the hypothesis that all comparative sentences—nominal, verbal, and adjectival—contain instances of a single morpheme that compositionally introduces degrees. This morpheme, sometimes pronounced much, semantically contributes a structure-preserving map from entities, events, or states, to their measures along various dimensions. A major goal of the paper is to argue that the differences in dimensionality observed across domains are a consequence of what is measured, as opposed to which expression introduces the measurement. The resulting theory has a number of interesting properties. It characterizes the notion of ‘measurement’ uniformly across comparative constructions, in terms of non-trivial structure preservation. It unifies the distinctions between mass/count nouns and atelic/telic verb phrases with that between gradable and non-gradable adjectives. Finally, it affords a uniform characterization of semantically anomalous comparisons across categories.

semantics | comparatives | events | adjectives

Measuring Predicates 2014

by Alexis Wellwood; University of Maryland linguistics dissertation

Determining the semantic content of sentences, and uncovering regularities between linguistic form and meaning, requires attending to both morphological and syntactic properties of a language with an eye to the notional categories that the various pieces of form express. In this dissertation, I investigate the morphosyntactic devices that English speakers (and speakers of other languages) can use to talk about comparisons between things: comparative sentences with, in English, more… than, as… as, too, enough, and others. I argue that a core component of all of these constructions is a unitary element expressing the concept of measurement.

The theory that I develop departs from the standard degree-theoretic analysis of the semantics of comparatives in three crucial respects: First, gradable adjectives do not (partially or wholly) denote measure functions; second, degrees are introduced compositionally; and three, the introduction of degrees arises uniformly from the semantics of the expression much. These ideas mark a return to the classic morphosyntactic analysis of comparatives found in Bresnan (1973), while incorporating and extending semantic insights of Schwarzschild (2002, 2006). Of major interest is how the dimensions for comparison observed across the panoply of comparative constructions vary, and these are analyzed as a consequence of what is measured (individuals, events, states, etc.), rather than which expressions invoke the measurement.

This shift in perspective leads to the observation of a number of regularities in the mapping between form and meaning that could not otherwise have been seen. First, the notion of measurement expressed across comparative constructions is familiar from some explications of that concept in measurement theory (e.g. Berka 1983). Second, the distinction between gradable and non-gradable adjectives is formally on a par with that between mass and count nouns, and between atelic and telic verb phrases. Third, comparatives are perceived to be acceptable if the domain for measurement is structured, and to be anamolous otherwise. Finally, elaborations of grammatical form reflexively affect which dimensions for comparison are available to interpretation.

semantics | comparatives | events | adjectives

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