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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Event structure predicts temporal interpretation of English and German past-under-past relative clauses


Linguistic descriptions of complex events have to map their temporal structure onto language. Formal accounts of embedded tense have argued that syntax mirrors event structure: Following directly from the syntactic properties of relative clauses, in complex sentences, events described by a relative clause are interpreted only relative to the utterance time and bear no temporal relation to the events of a matrix clause. From an event structural perspective, however, the temporal relationships between events do not have to mirror syntactic relations; rather, a central, salient event may anchor peripheral situations in time independent of its syntactic encoding. In two studies in English and German, we test which interpretations are accessible for past-under-past relative clauses, showing that tense interpretation in relative clauses is dependent on the matrix clause – at least when the matrix sentence describes a salient anchoring event, and the relative clause a backgrounded situation. Our results challenge the assumption that syntactic dependencies determine the temporal construal of events and provide new insight into how temporal semantic features are mapped onto linguistic structure.

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