Workshop: Abstracts


18 – 19 January 2021

University of Amsterdam and Institute for Logic, Language and Computation



Retraction is the speech act whereby one undoes the effect of a previous utterance in a conversation. But how does that work? We argue that retractions should be understood as proposals to update the common ground in a certain way. Qua proposals, they only update the common ground if accepted. If rejected, all that is added to the common ground is that a proposal has been made. In this regard, retractions are no different from other typical speech acts, such as assertion. If the retraction of an utterance is accepted, then the participants go back on the conversational record, find the utterance at stake, remove the update of the common ground it brought about, and then run through subsequent updates if they are compatible. Our account has the resources to reconcile the idea that a retraction undoes a previous speech act with the idea that  a retraction cannot completely cancel the conversation that occurred after the speech act. We conclude by applying the account to a number of problematic cases.

laura caponetto — on refusing

Starting from the late ’80s and persisting until today, refusal has been garnering a great deal of attention in the academia and in public discourse. Consider, for example, discussions within ethics and legal scholarship around the practical importance of refusing when it comes to medical procedures and sexual encounters (see, e.g., Estrich 1987, Sumner 2011), or the lively debate in feminist philosophy of language on the silencing of women’s “No” to sex (see, e.g., Langton 1993, McGowan 2009). In this talk, I set out to disentangle the pragmatic structure of refusal – the illocutionary nature, felicity conditions, and normative shape of the speech act of refusing. I argue that our ordinary concept of refusal captures a whole family of speech acts, comprising acts such as rejecting, declining, and the like, which share some fundamental properties but also differ in important ways. In particular, I claim that all family members share the property of being ‘negative second-turn illocutions’, i.e. negative replies to some interrogative utterance previously spoken by the hearer. Only ‘proper refusals’ (that is, negative replies to permission requests), I submit, require speaker authority. Refusals pursue both a directive and a commissive point – they aim at directing the hearer’s conduct, but also constitutively commit the speaker to some future course of action. Against this backdrop, I construe the ‘refusal family’ as a subclass of the directives-commissives intersection. In the concluding section of the talk, I highlight how a theoretically grounded analysis of refusal has not only intrinsic value (it adds to speech act theory), but also significant implications for a number of recent debates concerning the moral and legal repercussions of refusing.

  • Estrich, S. (1987), Real Rape, Cambridge (MA), HUP.
  • Langton, R. (1993), “Speech Acts and Unspeakable Acts”, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 22(4): 292-330.
  • McGowan, M.K. (2009), “On Silencing and Sexual Refusal”, The Journal of Political Philosophy, 17(4): 487-494.
  • Sumner, L.W. (2011), Assisted Death: A Study in Ethics and Law, Oxford: OUP.

fausto carcassi and giorgio sbardolini — updates and semantic universals

Languages across the world have in their lexical inventories terms to convey Boolean operators, i.e. functions from truth values to a truth value. With two truth-values, True and False, there are sixteen such operators. However, only three of them have in fact been attested: and, or, nor. Moreover, there are patterns in the way they co-occur in lexical inventories, e.g. nor is not observed by itself. Previous explanations for these patterns argued that universals in the lexicalization of Boolean operators follow from combining a pressure for conceptual simplicity to one for communicative accuracy. However, these previous accounts have failed to define a measure of conceptual simplicity that does not itself rely on assuming the attested operators as primitive. In this paper, we develop a new proposal that, based on previous work in update semantics, defines a cognitively plausible measure of cognitive simplicity without assuming the attested operators as primitives. We do so in a bilateral extension of standard update semantics, which allows to calculate how linguistic information can be accepted in a context but also rejected.

We show that the attested operators are conceptually simpler than the remaining Booleans. Moreover, we show that the patterns in co-occurrence of Boolean operators can be explained by balancing conceptual simplicity and simplicity of use.

manfred krifka — performative updates and the modelling of non-assertoric vs. assertoric speech acts

Classical dynamic semantics models the development of truth-conditional aspects of the Common Ground in conversation by the incremental reduction of a set of indices (cf. Stalnaker 1978). The update of a context set c by a proposition φ is c ⋂ φ, the set of indices i in c for which φ holds as well. This models the increase of information about the actual word-time index i₀, which is supposed to be an element of the context set, and which is not changed in this process. Hence it captures assertoric speech acts (and perhaps inquisitive speech acts, as requests for information), but is silent about other linguistic acts, such as commands, promises, wishes, exclamatives and explicit performatives. Such speech acts arguably do not merely describe the world-time i₀ as it is, but change it in a way that the effect of the speech act holds. Szabolcsi (1982) characterizes this “performative” update as the minimal change of an index i₀ to one in which a proposition φ that describes the effect of the speech act holds, i₀[φ]. Informative and performative updates can be combined in one model (cf. Krifka 2014), with informative update c +inf φ = {i∈c | φ(i)}, which does not change the indices of c but restricts c to those indices for which φ holds, and performative update c +perf φ = {i[φ] | i∈c}, which changes the indices of c minimally such that φ holds. I will propose a model of branching world/time indices with a discrete temporal order that can capture the difference between the two update types.

Certain sentences can be ambiguous between an informative and a performative reading. The border is open can be an assertion or a legal act. Both interpretations are based on the same core proposition, λi[open(i)(b)]. Informative update of c results in {i∈c | open(i)(b)}, i.e. c is restricted to the set of those indices i for which it holds that the border is open; this is new information. Performative update of c results in {i[λi[open(i)(b)]] | i∈c}, i.e. c is changed to the set of indices that differ minimally from the indices of c insofar as at them the border is open; this is a change of the state of the world. We see that the resultant state of performative acts can be described by propositions, a well-known tool in formal semantics that was originally developed to capture descriptive aspects of language.

I will apply this general approach to a variety of speech acts. (a) Explicit performatives (Koschmieder 1930, Austin 1961, Eckardt 2012) like I (hereby) appoint you to chief sommelier have the effect that after the act, the addressee is appointed chief sommelier, and consequently is chief sommelier if the appointment has this legal force; at the same time, this information is present in the context set, i.e. part of the common ground. (b) Performative deontic modals (Kaufmann 2012) like You must clean up the living room! change the slate of obligations of the addressee such that after the change they contain the obligation to clean up the living room. (c) Optatives (Grosz 2011) like If only Mary had come to my party! and I wish Mary had come to my party! bring about a change after which the wish of the speaker is manifest, i.e. the proposition that the speaker wishes that Mary had come to the speaker’s party is true; also, this information becomes part of the common ground. (d) In a similar way, exclamatives (d’Avis 2002, Rett 2011) like What a beautiful painting! make manifest that the speaker is astonished about the beauty of the painting, and (e) expressives (Gutzmann 2015) like It hurts! or Ouch! make manifest that the speaker undergoes pain. The case of (f) commissives of the form I will clean up the living room is particularly interesting, as it can be shown that due to their future orientation, the informative and the performative interpretation have the same overall effect; this is a plausible reason why promises are rarely marked as separate speech-act categories.

The sharp distinction between constative and performative utterances that Austin (1962) sets out with famously breaks down, which means that assertoric speech acts have a performative component as well. In Krifka (2015) I have argued that the prime effect of an assertion is that the speaker publicly commits to the truth of the core proposition, and that the expression of this commitment is a performative update. With the assertion The border is open the speaker changes the indices of the context set c such that after this change, the speaker is liable to the truth of the core proposition, λi[open(i)(b)]. The typical intention behind this declaration of liability is to achieve an additional informative update of c by the core proposition, which can be derived as a conversational implicature. In Krifka (to appear) I have proposed a representation of assertions that assumes that the additional commitment level is syntactically realized. I will show how the assertive use and the performative use of a sentence like The border is open differ, and why only the former can contain operators such as seriously, fortunately, apparently and certainly.

  • Austin, John L. 1961. Performative utterances. In: Urmson, J.O. & G.J. Warnock, (eds), Philosophical Papers. Clarendon Press.
  • Austin, John L. 1962. How to do things with words. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • d’Avis, Franz-Josef. 2002. On the interpretation of wh-clauses in exclamative environments. Theoretical Linguistics 28: 5-32.
  • Eckardt, Regine. 2012. Hereby explained: An event-based account of performative utterances. Linguistics and Philosophy 35: 21-55.
  • Grosz, Patrick Georg. 2011. On the grammar of optative constructions. Doctoral dissertation. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT.
  • Gutzmann, Daniel. 2015. Use-conditional meaning: Studies in multidimensional semantics. Oxford University Press.
  • Koschmieder, Erwin. 1930. Durchkreuzungen von Aspekt- und Tempussystemen im Präsens. Zeitschrift für Slavische Philologie 7: 341-358.
  • Krifka, Manfred. 2014. Embedding illocutionary acts. In: Roeper, Tom & Margaret Speas (eds), Recursion. Complexity in cognition. Springer, 125-155.
  • Krifka, Manfred. 2015. Bias in Commitment Space Semantics: Declarative questions, negated questions, and question tags. SALT 25. 328-345.
  • Krifka, Manfred. To appear. Layers of assertive clauses: Propositions, judgments, commitments, acts. In: Hartmann, Julia & Angelika Wöllstein, (eds), Propositionale Argumente im Sprachvergleich: Theorie und Empirie. Tübingen: Gunter Narr, Prepublication on Lingbuzz.
  • Rett, Jessica. 2011. Exclamatives, degrees and speech acts. Linguistics and Philosophy 34: 411-442.
  • Stalnaker, Robert. 1978. Assertion. In: Cole, Peter, (ed), Pragmatics. New York: Academic Press, 315-323.
  • Szabolcsi, Anna. 1982. Model theoretic semantics of performatives. In: Kiefer, Ferenc, (ed), Hungarian linguistics. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 515-535.

craige roberts — imperatives in a dynamic pragmatics

I offer a semantics and pragmatics for imperatives, developed in the framework of a dynamic pragmatics in the vein of Portner (2004, 2018, 2018b) and Roberts (1996/2012, 2012b, 2018). Context on this approach constitutes the scoreboard (Lewis 1979) of the language game in play; it is articulated into several types of information shared by the interlocutors, including a Common Ground (or the corresponding Context Set CS), a stack of questions under discussion (QUD), and the publicly evident goals and plans to which they are individually and jointly committed (G; cf. Portner’s (2004, 2007) ToDo lists). Each utterance is a move which functions to update the scoreboard. The three central types of illocutionary acts—assertions, interrogations, and directions—are canonically made by uttering linguistic tokens differing in semantic type: propositions (sets of possible worlds) vs. questions (sets of sets of propositions) vs. directed properties (functions from worlds to sets of entities, indexed to an addressee). Semantic content is compositionally derived and static; and semantic type is determined by clause type— indicative, interrogative, imperative—as indicated in LF, a syntactic representation of logical form. But illocutionary force is determined purely pragmatically as a function of the state of play in the language game, as reflected in the dynamic scoreboard: Only utterances (Bar-Hillel 1971: ordered pairs of a linguistic constituent and a context of utterance) have illocutionary force; and only consideration of the CS, QUD and interlocutors’ evident goals and intentions reflected in G permits one to infer the intended force of an utterance, i.e. the way in which the speaker proposes to update the context with its contextually resolved semantic content.

I will briefly sketch how this framework affords us an account of the semantics and pragmatics of imperatives which has the virtues of the best previous accounts (in particular those of Portner 2004, 2007, 2011b; Kaufmann 2006 (as Schwager), 2012; Charlow 2011, 2014; and Condoravdi & Lauer 2012), while avoiding problems that arise in those accounts. The semantic content of an imperative used to issue a directive is understood to constitute a conditional goal for addition to the goals to which the targeted addressee is publicly committed. Imperatives’ variable flavor, as in Kaufmann (2012), is captured by the deontic character of this commitment to goals, along with a presupposed Kratzerian modal base and ordering source used to capture their conditional character. Understanding imperatives in this way naturally helps to illuminate classic problems like Ross’ paradox (1941) and the problem of free choice permission (Kamp 1973).