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Situation theory and the semantics of propositional expressions

Paul Howard Portner, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This paper discusses the variety of propositional expressions in English: gerunds, infinitives, and indicative and subjunctive clauses. It is proposed that, by using a variety of situation semantics developed by Kratzer (1991a), one can assign different characteristic sorts of propositions to each class of expressions. On this theory, propositions are sets of possible situations, where situations are parts of worlds; a possible world is simply a maximal possible situation. A uniform analysis of subordination is also given. When these types of phrases are subordinated, they always denote functions from reference situations to propositions. Gerunds may be considered to denote sets of minimal situations. This allows an analysis which does not postulate an ambiguity of the idea that sometimes they denote sets of events but that other times they denote propositions (Vendler (1967)). The reference situation is used in giving a semantics for imperfectivity that allows gerunds, the progressive, and free adjuncts to be treated uniformly. For infinitives, in contrast, are argued to denote sets of situations which extend into the future from the reference situation, thus providing an understanding of the idea that they are future-oriented and irrealis (Bresnan (1972)). There are at least two kinds of subjunctive in English. Given a reference situation, one type denotes a set of situations incompatible with it. The other type requires its reference situation to be one in which something is obliged. Finally, with indicative clauses the reference situation is used as part of the analysis of sequence of tense phenomena. The proposition they result in is always persistent: it includes a supersituation of any situation in it. The characteristic propositions each type of phrase denotes lets us understand the selectional restrictions that a variety of propositional attitude verbs have.

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Recommended Citation

Portner, Paul Howard, "Situation theory and the semantics of propositional expressions" (1992). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9305882.