Friday, July 26, 2013

Scope in Nominalizations

van Hout, Kamiya, and Roeper (2013) discuss a difference in possible scope readings in nominalizations. They observe that sentence (1) can mean two different things:

(1) The election of nobody surprised me.

On what they call the narrow scope reading, sentence (1) means `Nobody at all was elected, and that was surprising.' On the wide scope reading, it means `Of those elected, none of them was surprising.'

In contrast to (1), sentence (2) only has the wide scope reading:

(2) Nobody's election surprised me.

van Hout, Kamiya, and Roeper (2013) view the narrow scope reading as derived by reconstruction, and devise a theory where reconstruction is blocked in sentence (2). The details of this theory are not important here. Rather, I want to suggest that something else is going on in these examples, and that is whether or not the negative quantifier is interpreted as sentential negation. In sentence (2), nobody as the possessor of the subject is preferentially taken to negate the entire clause, such that negation actually negates the main predicate `surprise'. The wide scope reading is the result of negative quantifiers being complex: they consist of an existential quantifier and negation (e.g., Jacobs 1991). If negation is interpreted as sentential negation, what is left as the possessor is an existential quantifier. The reading is then the negation of `someone's election surprised me,' or, `it is not the case that anyone's election surprised me.' This is van Hout, Kamiya, and Roeper's wide scope reading.

The idea is that a negative quantifier as a subject or the possessor of a subject is preferentially interpreted as sentential negation. If we make the nominalization containing the negative quantifier a non-subject, then we can force it to be sentential negation or not by fronting it and either doing negative inversion, or not. A fronted negative phrase plus subject-auxiliary inversion is interpreted as sentential negation; a fronted negative phrase without subject-auxiliary inversion is not interpreted as sentential negation. Consider the following:

(3) With the election of nobody was I surprised.
(4) With nobody's election was I surprised.

The sentences in (3) and (4) only have van Hout, Kamiya, and Roeper's wide scope reading. In contrast, (5) and (6) only have the narrow scope reading:

(5) With the election of nobody, I was surprised.
(6) With nobody's election, I was surprised.

There is no contrast between the election of nobody and nobody's election once we control for sentential versus non-sentential negation. In particular, (6) has the reading that (2) is said to lack, while (5) only has one reading when it should be ambiguous.

If all of this is correct, then the scope facts described by van Hout, Kamiya, and Roeper (2013) do not reveal much about the derivation of nominalizations, and they are not about reconstruction or its lack.


van Hout, Angeliek, Masaaki Kamiya, and Thomas Roeper (2013), Passivization, Reconstruction and Edge Phenomena: Connecting English and Japanese Nominalizations. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 31: 137-159.

Jacobs, Joachim (1991), Negation. In Arnim von Stechow and Dieter Wunderlich (eds.), Semantics: An International Handbook of Contemporary Research, pp 560-596. Berlin: de Gruyter.

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