von Fintel & Keenan 2018

Now officially published:

Kai von Fintel and Edward L Keenan. 2018. Determiners, Conservativity, Witnesses. Journal of Semantics, https://doi.org/10.1093/jos/ffx018.

Here’s a free access link.


A cherished semantic universal is that determiners are conservative (Barwise & Cooper 1981; Keenan & Stavi 1986). Well-known problem cases are only (if it has determiner uses) and certain uses of proportional determiners like many (Westerståhl 1985). Fortuny (2017), in a retracted contribution to this journal, proposed a new constraint (the Witness Set Constraint) to replace Conservativity. He claimed that his constraint is satisfied by only and the Westerståhl-many, thus correctly allowing the existence of these non-conservative determiners, whilst it is not satisfied by unattested non-conservative determiners (such as allnon). In fact, we show here that only does not satisfy Fortuny’s Witness Set Constraint (nor does Westerståhl-many, which we leave to the readers to convince themselves of). Upon reflection, it turns out that the reason is simple: the Witness Set Constraint is in fact equivalent to Conservativity. There simply cannot be non-conservative determiners that satisfy the Witness Set Constraint. We consider further weakening of the Witness Set Constraint but show that this would allow unattested determiners.

The Linguistics of Desire

Course Announcement: 24.979 The Linguistics of Desire

  • Kai von Fintel & Sabine Iatridou
  • Wednesdays 10-1 in 32-D461

We will discuss classic and current work on the semantics and syntax of desire constructions.

An initial list of readings can be found at http://stellar.mit.edu/S/course/24/fa17/24.979/

Course requirements for registered students:

  • Regular attendance
  • Class participation
  • Submit weekly questions/comments on the readings by Monday afternoon
  • Final paper on a topic related to the seminar (can satisfy Topics in Semantics or Topics in Syntax requirement, depending on the nature of the paper)

More Zombie Lingua shenanigans

[This is a joint post by Eric Baković and Kai von Fintel, crossposted from Language Log.]

Regular Language Log readers will be familiar with our continuing coverage of the goings-on at what we in the linguistics community have given the name Zombie Lingua — the Elsevier journal once universally known by its still-official name, Lingua — a journal that we believe should have been allowed to die a respectable death when its entire editorial board resigned en masse at the end of 2015 to start the new (and flourishing!) fair Open Access journal Glossa, published by Ubiquity Press.

Instead, Elsevier chose to prop the old journal up, dust it off, and continue to publish articles. The first few months to a year of Zombie Lingua‘s macabre semi-existence were helped along by the fact that there was a backlog of already-accepted articles, as well as expected articles for special issues that had already seen some articles published — and also by the astonishingly quick acceptance and publication of other articles in the revision backlog. The then-interim editor-in-chief, Harry Whitaker, must have been very eager to clear the decks and start off with a clean slate — and to keep the flow of publications going, of course, lest the journal be truly dead.

Whitaker is now officially co-editor-in-chief along with Marta Dynel, and they have recently authored an editorial announcing the direction in which they say they are now taking the journal. Whitaker and Dynel claim that Zombie Lingua is “returning to its roots” of “General Linguistics and cognate branches”, which they implicitly and disingenuously contrast with what Lingua had been publishing under the previous editorship. (See also this “publisher’s note”, where the journal’s return-to-roots is boastfully claimed to be “the reality of the future.”)

To those who have been keeping tabs on what has been published entirely under the current Zombie Lingua editorship, the editorial reads more like a defense of an internal decision to lower their editorial standards. In what is perhaps the most egregious case, the editors finally withdrew a published article that was clearly plagiarized — though reluctantly and after an unforgivably protracted period, and without acknowledgement of the charge of plagiarism.

It’s also worth noting that the Zombie Lingua editorial board that has been assembled has both expanded and contracted over time — contracted because a few new members had second thoughts, (re-)weighed the pros and cons, and decided that an extra line on their CV wasn’t worth lending their support to a journal that is dead in the eyes of a healthy portion of the field and that has quite obviously lowered their editorial standards. Those who have chosen to stay either have explicitly made the opposite calculus or just don’t appear to care one way or the other. That’s their right, of course, but we stand in judgment. (In reply to an email from us, one of the current board members wrote that “We should consider ourselves lucky that publishers deign to even touch our work.” Wow.)

The bulk of the linguistics community has rallied behind Glossa and against
Zombie Lingua
, heeding the call to support the former (with our submissions and reviewing time) and to starve the latter. In responding to review requests from Zombie Lingua, a number of our colleagues have explicitly indicated their reasons for turning down the request. The editors have been duly forwarding some of these to Chris Pringle, the Executive Publisher of Zombie Lingua, who has responded by taking precious time out of his executive schedule to reply directly (and at some length) to our colleagues, relating Elsevier’s “side” of the story of Lingua/Glossa.

Some of Pringle’s messages have made their way to Glossa‘s (and Lingua‘s former) editor, Johan Rooryck. In the interests of transparency, Rooryck has posted this correspondence on his website, including Rooryck’s subsequent exchanges with Pringle. Since the issues under discussion concern the reasons for and methods by which Rooryck and his editorial team resigned from Lingua, Rooryck has also included a point-by-point refutation of Pringle’s allegations, as well as a comprehensive collection of Rooryck’s correspondence with Elsevier in late 2015, both leading up to the editorial board’s resignation and in its aftermath. (The current contents of this page on Rooryck’s website have also been included at the end of this post.)

One has to wonder what Pringle thinks that he, Zombie Lingua, or Elsevier stand to gain from these personalized replies to review request rejections. Pringle must somehow believe that the hearts and minds of our colleagues can be won back by “correcting the record” on a dispute that he characterizes as being between a petulant journal editor and the journal’s patronizing publisher. But, as Rooryck’s documentation makes abundantly clear, this was an attempted negotiation between the full editorial board of the journal, entirely responsible for the vetting and shepherding of its content, and the journal’s publisher, entirely responsible for charging readers too much for subscriptions to particularly-formatted versions of this content and authors too much for the apparent privilege of publishing individual articles in Open Access (with no compensatory discount on subscriptions, mind you – this is what has been properly called ‘double-dipping‘).

In sum, there can be little doubt that Zombie Lingua continues to be the walking dead.

Current content of Johan Rooryck’s Interaction with Elsevier page (as of 8/17/2017)

    The 2017 Elsevier campaign

  1. My point-by-point, fact-checking-style refutation of allegations made by Elsevier’s Executive Publisher Chris Pringle about the Lingua/Glossa transition in mails (e.g. 3 and 4 below) written to invited Lingua reviewers who decline to do reviews because of the transition to Glossa.
  2. My correspondence with Chris Pringle (Executive Publisher, Elsevier) regarding his message to Reviewer 2, 8 August 2017.
  3. Mail from Chris Pringle (Executive Publisher, Elsevier) to Declining Lingua Reviewer 2.
  4. Mail from Chris Pringle (Executive Publisher, Elsevier) to Declining Lingua Reviewer 1.
  5. An attempt to rewrite history in an editorial by Chris Pringle (Executive Publisher, Elsevier) for the publisher in Lingua 194 (July 2017), and my Facebook reply to it.
  6. My refutation of claims made at ARCL 2017 regarding Elsevier’s APC proposal to the Lingua editors.
  7. October–November 2015

  8. My mail to Elsevier of 5 November 2015, requesting rectification of Tom Reller’s (Vice President and Head of Global Corporate Relations, Elsevier) public statement about the resignation of the Lingua editorial board on 4 November 2015.
  9. The correspondence about the Lingua Editorial Board’s collective resignation between Guido Vanden Wyngaerd, for the Board, and Chris Tancock (Senior Publisher, Elsevier), 27 October 2015.
  10. My letter of resignation of 26 October 2015. The other editors sent similar letters.
  11. Elsevier’s response of 16 October 2015, signed by Chris Tancock (Senior Publisher, Elsevier) to the Lingua editorial team’s letter of renegotiation of 7 October 2015.
  12. Mail correspondence with David Clark, Senior Vice President, Elsevier, of 16 October 2015, following up on our meeting at the European Commission Workshop Alternative Open Access Publishing Models: Exploring New Territories in Scholarly Communication. Brussels, 12 October 2015.
  13. The Lingua editorial team’s letter of renegotiation to Elsevier to publish Lingua in Open Access on (what is now known as) Fair Open Access Principles, 7 October 2015.

Keenan & I on witnesses

In the fall of 1984, just back from half a year at Cambridge University, I switched universities from Münster to Köln. While in Cambridge, I had decided to study linguistics in addition to English and Philosophy. I did eventually take some intro classes, but what really sucked me in was an advanced seminar offered by Professor Paul Otto Samuelsdorff, who somehow had a manuscript copy of “Boolean semantics for natural language” by Ed Keenan and Leonard Faltz. In the seminar, Samuelsdorff and three of us students embarked on a close study of the book. While I had the mathematical background, everything else was new and exciting. In the same semester, I worked my way through Barwise & Cooper’s “Generalized quantifiers and natural language” and I also discovered Larry Horn’s thesis “On the semantic properties of logical operators in English”. Those three works taken together were simply a revelation and made me decide that this was my calling and that I was going to be a semanticist. [See my post on Eco for further stuff about that time.]

During my time as a graduate student, I met Ed several times at various conferences where I was presenting my work on exceptive phrases. One time he was in Amherst to give talks about the semantics of reflexives and the two of us spent a pleasant afternoon in the Black Sheep calculating and speculating about various technical ideas in generalized quantifier theory that had come up in my work.

Working with one of my scientific idols has been quite an honor (and pleasure).

Asleep at the wheel at Zombie Lingua?

[This post is co-authored by Eric Bakovic and me, cross-posted from Language Log.]

We have been following an ongoing story involving Zombie Lingua with great interest. For those unaware of it, and perhaps for those with only some awareness of it, here is what we currently know.

It will help to start by identifying the main characters in this story:

OK, here we go.

On Sept. 17, Youssef shared via Facebook a 13-page plagiarism complaint that he had submitted to Zombie Lingua’s editorial office a week earlier, with a copy of the message sent to the editor’s personal email address. Youssef notes in this post that he had yet to receive any kind of response, and that he had finally reached someone at Elsevier via their support center live chat. In a comment on the post, Youssef reports that the editor finally responded with a message saying that they take plagiarism “very seriously” and that they would investigate, very soon after which they sent Youssef’s complaint directly to Mashaqba & Huneety, giving them 30 days to respond to it.

Even though Youssef appears to be, quite understandably, rattled by this whole situation, he reports that he is cautiously optimistic about this most recent development. On the other hand, Youssef has very legitimate concerns about the extent of the problem that he has uncovered here. In a later comment on the Sept. 17 Facebook post, he reports with dismay his finding that Mashaqba & Huneety have published another article this month (“Emphatic segments and emphasis spread in rural Jordanian Arabic“, Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences 7(5), pp. 294-298) that may also involve some plagiarism of Youssef’s dissertation. Youssef appears to us to be taking appropriate steps to handle this larger problem, and we support him in his efforts. In the case of the ultimate resolution with Zombie Lingua and Mashaqba & Huneety, we share his optimism, and equally cautiously.

So, that’s where we’re currently at.

Our main concern here is with the conditions at Zombie Lingua that we believe have also significantly contributed to this particular situation. In a post just last month, one of us (Kai) went through the peer-reviewed articles that Zombie Lingua had published since January 2016 up to that point, and based on their submission receipt, revision receipt, and acceptance dates, concluded there is probably not much if any editorial oversight going on over at Zombie Lingua. This is not terribly surprising, given the make-up of the interim editorial board that Elsevier has cobbled together: it is quite simply not representative of the breadth of the field, which stands in sharp contrast with the stated mission of the journal.

The journal is devoted to the problems of general linguistics. Its aim is to present work of current interest in all areas of linguistics. Contributions are required to contain such general theoretical implications as to be of interest to any linguist, whatever their own specialisation.

[Side-note, perhaps for another time: several of the articles now appearing in Zombie Lingua seem to us to be quite outside the scope of this mission.]

Which brings us to Mashaqba & Huneety’s article-in-press. The original submission was received on November 16, 2015, revisions were received on May 14, 2016, and it was accepted on July 7, 2016. Lingua‘s prior (and Glossa‘s current) editor-in-chief, Johan Rooryck, has stated for the record that his editorial team did not handle this submission. Rooryck has further explained to us that unsolicited manuscripts submitted in mid-November 2015 and later were left for the new team to handle, to ensure some continuity in the review process. (Rooryck’s editorial team had officially announced its imminent departure in October 2015.)

So, the new editorial team sent Mashaqba & Huneety’s submission out for review, shepherded it through revisions, and accepted it. How was the plagiarism not detected at any point in this process? A big part of the answer to this question, we believe, is the lack of a proper phonology editor. Not one of the members of the current board can be described as someone who is current in phonology, someone who would know (or know of) the right people to ask to review any submission — reviewers who would be in the best possible position to ferret these problems out before they reach this stage (in case the editors themselves are not).

The conclusion we draw from this fiasco is that Zombie Lingua is limping blindly along, and that linguists with the right (that is, wrong) incentives may feel reasonably justified in thinking that their submissions to Zombie Lingua will receive little if any thoughtful review or editorial push-back. This has long been the accusation hurled at so-called “predatory journals”, and it is clearly now available for hurling at a high-cost subscription journal brought to you by a “reputable” publisher.

However, so long as there are sharp eyes and brave souls like Islam Youssef in our community — and so long as Zombie Lingua‘s editorial team and Elsevier do the right thing in response to complaints like his — the push-back needed in cases like this one at least stands a small chance of being successful.


[These are some thoughts as I’m getting ready to teach our first semester graduate introduction to semantics. This fall, I’m also serving as acting Graduate Program Director, while Sabine is on sabbatical leave. So, I figured I should write down some points that I often address in sermons in introductory classes. Let me know if you have comments or disagree with anything.]

Any scientific topic of sufficient theoretical complexity and with interesting empirical breadth cannot be taught from first principles. Teaching and learning of such topics is a messy affair, something that it’s important to get used to. Many of these thoughts are also relevant when one is confronted with a new article at the cutting edge of research or when one is listening to a research presentation.

Ideally, one might start from what is common ground among the students in the class (or one’s readers). But especially when people with different backgrounds and diverse interests come together, there’s actually very little that is truly common ground. So, what to do? One strategy is to pretend there’s more common ground than there really is and let people catch up as fast they can.

Presupposition Accommodation

In a way, when you’re new to a topic, you’re in a kind of situation that is familiar from the study of “presupposition accommodation” (I wrote a survey-ish article about this a while back). Imagine you enter an elevator and two people you vaguely know are in the middle of a conversation. One says “she’s in town for a conference.” The other: “we should talk to her about epistemic modality in Bulgarian”. And so on. As an eavesdropper, you can learn a lot from such conversations even if you never figure out who “she” is. Your task is to piece together what the common ground of the conversation is, without being explicitly informed about everything that’s being taken for granted. In classes and reading new work, that’s very often the case as well. Of course, while in the elevator it might be a faux pas to just barge in and ask who they are talking about, in classes it’s OK to ask clarifying questions about things that seem to be taken for granted. Maybe the question will be deflected and deferred to a later time, a conversation outside class or a TA tutorial, but at least it’s fine to register that you’re not entirely on board with the assumptions being made.

It’s important to get comfortable with not understanding everything, working to figure out the essence of what’s going on, and patiently and actively waiting for the pieces to drop into place. Yes, it’s often disorienting but if you keep at it, the picture will become clearer over time and tools and concepts will become second nature eventually.


In other words, you need to become used to feeling “stupid”. I mean this in an entirely non-disparaging sense: obviously, you’re not stupid. What it is is that you’re not completely understanding a complex topic. Of course, that is in fact the permanent condition of science. The whole point of science is to work at things we don’t understand and make some progress towards understanding, but that progress will then result in even more things we don’t understand. Answers to questions simply beget more questions. On my office door, I have a print out of a short article on this very topic.

When you’re in an almost perpetual state of progressive ignorance, and if you’re always surrounded by other super-smart people, it is very easy to lose sight of the inevitability of the feelings of “stupidity”. Instead, one easily starts to actually believe that one is inadequate and really is stupid compared to the others. This phenomenon is very widespread. I suffer from it myself. It’s important to be aware of it and if possible, turn it into a positive power. Here are two ways of thinking about it:

  1. “In the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.” (Bertrand Russell, “The Triumph of Stupidity”, 1933). Russell’s observation has been substantiated in psychological research and is known as the “Dunning-Kruger Effect”.

  2. Another term for the dynamic is “Imposter Syndrome”. At the last LSA Summer Institute, Penny Eckert and Monica Macaulay gave a presentation on the syndrome and the slides are available. Here is a good blog post with further links on this set of issues.

Coping with boredom

At the other end of the spectrum, a class may at times underchallenge you. You may already (think you) know everything or the pace is such that anything that is new to you takes very little effort to pick up. So, you’re bored. There are three strategies to cope with such boredom and it may make sense to mix these strategies depending on your energy levels, the semester schedule, and what else you have to do.

Coast: You might decide to just take it easy for a while: just do the little that is needed to stay with the class and devote your energies to other tasks. This is legitimate. Faculty may choose to do this as well at times. It can’t be the dominant strategy, though, if it means that you’re not moving forward in your chosen field.

If the material appears too easy for you, there are two ways of deepening your engagement and thereby making it appropriately hard again.

Going meta: figure out how you would teach the material. The easiest way to do this is to actually teach it: in groups with your fellow students, some of whom probably find the material more challenging than you do, work on explaining things a different way from the way it was done in class. And even if you don’t have such an early outlet for your pedagogical insights, presumably in a few years you will definitely have to teach and it’s good to have thought about it beforehand. Pedagogical insights are also very useful for writing papers because the deeper your penetration of the topic is and the better you understand what it takes to convey its intricacies, the clearer your prose will be.

Deep dive: any topic has fractal levels of complexity. We may skate over that in class but you can go deeper. Find current research in the area and read it. Think about using other methodologies to study the relevant phenomena: what is the language acquisition angle on the topic? Is there relevant psycholinguistic work? What is the cross-linguistic picture? How do syntax, semantics, morphology, phonology work together? If you find anything that grabs your interest, pursue it, talk to colleagues and faculty about it. Rinse and repeat.

Checking on the zombies

Prompted by an exchange with Brooke Larson on twitter, I decided it was time to check on the health of everyone’s favorite zombie, the journal Lingua, whose editorial team defected en masse to start the open access journal Glossa. Since January this year, Zombie Lingua has been edited by “Interim Editor-in-chief” Harry Whitaker. Since January 1, the journal has published an impressive number of peer-reviewed articles: 49 in total (there are some others, like introductions to special issues, that have no peer review information). I inspected the date information on those articles. Here’s the upshot:

  • all of the articles were first submitted before January 2016. So, there have not been any articles published that were submitted to Zombie Lingua in its new incarnation.
  • 36 articles (73%) were accepted by the old team and just published in 2016.
  • 13 articles (27%) were accepted by the new team after a revised version (using the feedback from the old team) was submitted.
  • 10 of the 13 articles (77%) accepted by the new team were accepted on the very day they were received, so with little or no editorial oversight. In fact, on one day (March 31), seven articles were submitted and accepted on the spot. A banner day.

I think it’s safe to say that we have no evidence that Zombie Lingua is alive.

S&P Early Access

[Reposted from the S&P Editors Blog]

Visitors to S&P’s homepage will see our newest feature in action. Accepted papers for which we have a LaTeX source file will, with the authors’ permission, now immediately be published in an “early access” version. They will already be assigned their final DOI, so they can be linked and referred to as officially published. This way they can be listed on CVs with all their final citation details (with the sole exception of missing page numbers, since we won’t know how many pages the article has until the final typeset version).

This year’s volume of S&P already shapes up to be epic. We invite you to browse through the amazing collection of articles that our authors have entrusted to S&P.

Echoes of Eco

[Sorry, couldn’t resist that title.]

My favorite classes at the Hittorf-Gymnasium in Münster were Math, Chemistry, Latin, and Philosophy. My philosophy teacher, Herr Ledwig, in particular, was formative. We read lots of seminal European philosophy (Aristotle, Descartes, Vico, Weber, …). I spent a lot of time in the public library looking at and borrowing plenty of stuff that was a true challenge. I struggled through the writings of Benjamin, Adorno, and Marcuse. When I graduated and enrolled at the University of Münster, I decided not to become the mathematician that I had once thought I was going to be. I became an English major with Philosophy and History of Arts as minors.

Around that time, in 1982, Eco’s The Name of the Rose appeared in the German translation and was an instant sensation. I devoured the book. I was immediately and completely obsessed with everything that had to do with the book. Aristotle, medieval history, medieval philosophy, James Bond, semiotics, aesthetics, Latin, Greek, whatever. I taught myself enough Italian to read Eco’s thesis on medieval aesthetics. I read his Theory of Semiotics. I read Peirce. I took Professor Schepers’ classes on medieval logic at the Leibniz Research Institute, where we read Ockham and William of Sherwood in the original. I read Quine’s Word and Object.

When I spent a year at Cambridge University as an exchange student and English major, I dutifully did my work on English Romantic poetry and on the modern/post-modern novel, but really I was finally discovering my future profession: the study of semantics within general linguistics. This was then cemented when I returned to Germany and switched universities to study in Cologne. There, the revelations were Professor Samuelsdorff’s seminar on the recently circulating manuscript of Keenan & Faltz’s Boolean Semantics for Natural Language and my independent reading of Barwise & Cooper on generalized quantifiers and of Horn’s thesis on The Semantics of Logical Operators in English. I had found my calling. In a seminar on Aristotle and the medieval Islamic scholars, I discovered the Islamic logicians’ work on exceptives and their correspondences in medieval logic. This directly led to my first generals paper at UMass a couple of years later (which then became my first journal article in the new journal Natural Language Semantics).

Just before I came to UMass, in 1986, I attended a summer school in Munich, where I took classes with Robin Cooper and Roland Hausser. At that time, there was a conference in town where Eco gave a talk on “Fakes”. Afterwards, I went down to ask him a question. I shook his hand and was barely able to speak, completely star-struck.

Looking back on this story, there’s a lot of serendipity and luck (I can’t believe I got into the UMass program to learn semantics from Angelika, Barbara, and Emmon). But, there’s also Eco. He was simply pivotal in helping me find my passions. Rest in peace, Maestro.

MIT Support for Glossa

[Reproducing a statement published this morning in the MIT Linguistics Newsletter:]

Below is a statement from the MIT Linguistics Faculty on open access and the new journal Glossa. We’re following our colleagues at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. Similar statements are being considered on other campuses. For background, you can consult this post at Language Log and a statement from Glossa’s editor-in-chief Johan Rooryck. [Update: See now also a similar statement from linguists across the University of California system.]

MIT Linguistics Faculty Statement of Support for Glossa

We, the undersigned linguistics faculty of MIT, state our strong support for the principle of open access to scholarly communication, as affirmed in the Open Access Policy of the MIT Faculty. In the context of this commitment, we also state our strong support for the editorial team that recently left the journal Lingua and started the fair open access journal Glossa. We firmly expect that Glossa will inherit and exceed the quality and reputation of the earlier journal. We applaud MIT’s support for the Open Library of Humanities, the organization that, together with the LingOA initiative, is underwriting Glossa. We pledge to further the aims of open access in our actions as editors, reviewers, and authors.

Adam Albright
Sylvain Bromberger
Noam Chomsky
Michel DeGraff
Kai von Fintel
Edward Flemming
Suzanne Flynn
Danny Fox
Martin Hackl
James Harris
Irene Heim
Sabine Iatridou
Michael Kenstowicz
Samuel Jay Keyser
Shigeru Miyagawa
Wayne O’Neil
David Pesetsky
Norvin Richards
Roger Schwarzschild
Donca Steriade
Kenneth Wexler