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Sorting a complex world: an experimental study of polysemy and copredication in container and committee nominals


This dissertation is an investigation of the nature of the ambiguity of two classes of nominal expressions in English: container phrases, such as bottle of wine, which may be interpreted as primarily a predicate true of a container (Ana broke that bottle of wine) or of an entity standing in a containment relation to that container (Ana drank that bottle of wine), and committee nominals, such as committee of linguists, which may be interpreted as a predicate true of an abstract social object (That committee was founded last year) or of the individuals standing in a membership relation to that social object (That committee met this morning).

Through a series of acceptability judgment experiments, I show that both types of phrases support copredication, contrary to the prediction of extant accounts, being able to enter into multiple predication relations which require, via selectional restrictions, that they make available both types of interpretations simultaneously (Ana broke the bottle of wine that Lea drank/ The committee that was founded last year met this morning). In this way, they are shown to display behavior similar to well known cases of nominal polysemy (Ana burned the book that Lea translated).

Based on these results, I argue that these two cases belong to a broader landscape of meaning flexibility, and that the specialized meaning shift operations previously proposed are both inadequate, because they predict the unacceptability of copredication, and unnecessary, if these can be analyzed in general frameworks of polysemy and coercion.

The dissertation then explores the possibility of doing so in two such frameworks: Asher’s (2011) system of complex types, and Dolling’s (1995) system of meaning shifts between sortal domains. It points to the ways in which they can be successfully applied to the case of container and committee nominals, but also their limitations, particularly with regards to their predictive and explanatory power, calling attention to the question of understanding not only what formal mechanisms are necessary to account for copredication, but crucially what properties may characterize the relations, such as containment and membership, which underlie systematic meaning flexibility.

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