Bare plural generics are a ubiquitous part of natural language, allowing us to communicate about many different aspects of the world around us. We use them to express biological facts (“mammals give birth to live young”), normative judgments (“boys don’t cry”), causal relationships (“sugary sweets rot your teeth”) and even political slogans (“black lives matter”). Despite their prevalence in natural language, they have proven resistant to systematic semantic theorising.
Examples in the literature on generics are usually given in isolation, unembedded. When we consider cases where bare plurals are embedded under certain modal operators, we find that GEN, the unpronounced generic operator posited by just about every semantic analysis of generics, exhibits some unusual features. For example, there are readings where GEN appears to “disappear”, being replaced by a variety of modal auxiliary verbs and adverbs. In this talk, I present this data and ask what it means for the semantics of generics and modals.
I draw several conclusions from the data: (i) much about the semantics of GEN is still poorly understood; (ii) there is a close analogy between generics and Kratzer’s restrictor analysis of conditionals (2012); (iii) at least in some cases, the generic interpretation of bare plurals may be a ‘post-semantic’ mechanism, enabling us to interpret sentences with free variables.
The DPhil Seminar meets in the Ryle Room from 10–11am. All are very welcome to attend. Thomas Ralston will speak for about 30–40 minutes, followed by open Q&A. For the Teams link, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
Visit the DPhil Seminar website for details.
DPhil Seminar Convenor: Mariona Miyata - Sturm