B5: "Psycholinguistic Work on Coercion: Resolving Compositional Conflicts during Online Comprehension" (Oliver Bott)

Mon 16.15-17.45, Wed 9.15-10.45, Thu 11.15-12.45, Fri 14.15-15.45

Room: 0.01




In view of the combinatorial nature of linguistic meaning, semanticists agree that some version of the Fregean Principle of Compositionality must hold. But there is also consensus that the richness and complexity of semantic representations to be observed in natural language go far beyond what is determined by purely grammatically driven processes. When interpreting a sentence, we draw on information from context and world knowledge. And within certain limits we even manage to cope with compositional conflicts that lead to meaning adjustments, which have been termed coercion operations. This course addresses coercion processes in real-time interpretation at the semantics-pragmatics interface, focusing on those processes that result in the introduction of covert events or the covert shift between different subclasses of events. In particular, the course addresses the question of when and how these meaning adjustments are achieved during incrementally processing individual, decontextualized sentences, but also sentences embedded in their larger discourse context.


Coercion has been on the agenda in semantic theory and psycholinguistic research for more than a decade now. During the last fifteen years psycho- and neurolinguists have thereby mainly concentrated on two particular types of coercion: aspectual coercion from a punctual event into a series of events (1), and complement coercion from an object into an event (2). The course will provide a comprehensive overview over these studies, but will also discuss other coercion types only rarely investigated in experimental research.


(1) John coughed for many hours.
(2) John began the book.


When trying to evaluate the theoretical implications of this body of research for semantic theory it is often far from clear what can be concluded because what counts as coercion heavily depends on the theoretical background chosen. It is thus not surprising that semantics and psycho/neurolinguistics have not influenced each other as much as they might have. The course will show, however, that multidisciplinary efforts using experimental evidence can, in fact, enable us to decide between theoretical alternatives. This is particularly important because there are alternative proposals that derive coerced meanings in fundamentally different ways. The proposed coercion theories vary between semantic, pragmatic and underspecification accounts. Others have even claimed that apparent (aspectual) coercion may not in reality involve any coercion at all, but instead be related to the resolution of quantificational restrictions.


Regarding psycholinguistics and psycholinguistic models of language comprehension, the course will demonstrate that the phenomenon of coercion is important because it opens a window into the real-time processing of supra-lexical semantics. It enables us to gain a better understanding of the cognitive processes involved in the construction of complex meaning. The course will conclude with considerations on how coercion operations fit into existing psycho- and neurolinguistic models of online comprehension.


Lecturer: Oliver Bott, Universität Tübingen