Quantifier Scope

The purpose of this project is to investigate the syntax of quantifiers and scope in the languages of the world. To this end, we have created a series of pictures that can be used to elicit scope judgments from native speakers of the language being investigated.

The study of quantificational elements (words like everything or nothing) in natural languages is an important source of evidence for syntactic structure and how syntactic operations work and interact. In numerous languages referential noun phrases reveal little about the syntax and its interface with semantics, particularly in free-word-order languages where such noun phrases can be freely reordered with few semantic consequences, and even dropped when their reference can be determined through salience or agreement. Quantificational elements, however, exhibit a much more constrained behavior, and interact with each other in ways that can reveal much about the structure of even free-word-order languages.

While such phenomena are of the utmost importance in investigating syntax and semantics, they can also be notoriously difficult to elicit judgments about, particularly when working through the medium of another language, as so often happens in the field, rather than exclusively in the language under investigation. The goal of this project is to develop a set of materials to aid in the investigation of quantificational phenomena in linguistic field work. To this end, we have created a series of pictures that can be used to test the meanings of sentences containing quantifiers.

An Example

An example picture appears on the right. This picture depicts four women, each riding a horse. All the horses are being ridden. Various sentences containing quantifiers can be constructed and tested in a truth value judgment task, in which the speaker simply judges whether the sentence is true or false of the situation/event depicted in the picture.

Suppose we are investigating English. We can ask about the truth of various sentences, like Every woman is riding a horse. Since this sentence is true of this picture, we know that the quantifier every in subject position can distribute over (take scope over) an indefinite in object position. We can also try the other way around: A woman is riding every horse. Most speakers (but not all) judge this sentence to also be true of this picture, meaning that an object can also take scope over a subject in English. We could also try various other things, such as the difference between all, every, and each, or the difference between passives and actives (Every horse is being ridden by a woman [true], A horse is being ridden by every woman [false]).

See the Materials page for more examples and discussion of methods.

About this site

This web site is intended for field linguists. Our goal is to provide materials that can be used by other field workers to investigate quantifiers and scope in other languages. If you have requests, suggestions, or discussion, please post them on the Feedback page.