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  • The Syntax and Semantics of Unselected Embedded Questions
  • David Adger and Josep Quer

The selection of clausal complement type by embedding predicates constitutes a privileged domain for the assessment of interface issues between different modules of the grammar. This article addresses the selectional problem posed by embedded if-questions (of semantic type 〈t, t〉) appearing as arguments of noninterrogative predicates like ‘admit’ or ‘say’ (which are assumed to select a that-clause of type t). We show that such unselected embedded questions (UEQs) are semantically sensitive to the same set of elements as polarity sensitive items, and this sensitivity constrains their distribution and interpretation. The proposal is that UEQs are headed by a semantically sensitive determiner Δ, which is covert in English (a counterpart of either) but overt in Basque. After raising, the UEQ leaves a variable of type t, thus solving the selectional problem. The interplay between s-selection, c-selection and lexical semantic specifications is argued to account for a number of other puzzles in clausal complementation.*


In early generative grammar, clausal arguments were commonly assumed to be dominated by a nominal projection of some kind (Rosenbaum 1967). As views of clause structure became more sophisticated, this idea was rejected, and clausal arguments were assumed to be headed by complementizers. We argue in this article that it was somewhat premature to reject wholesale the idea that projections more usually associated with nominals also occur in clause structure. More specifically we will defend the hypothesis that both clauses and nominals may be headed by a determinerlike projection. However, unlike the early work referred to, we do not propose an empty nominal head for clauses, but rather an extra layer of functional structure corresponding to D. Moreover, we do not believe that such determiner layers are present in all clause types, but rather that they occur when forced to by s-selectional requirements (expressed in our system by functional application of types).

We motivate this approach on the basis of the distribution and interpretation of a certain type of embedded question, showing that not only are there syntactic arguments for determinerlike functional structure high up in these clauses but also that the semantics of this determiner plays an equivalent role to the semantics of certain Ds in nominal phrases: it binds off an open position and is sensitive to certain licensing configurations. [End Page 107] This leads to a major theoretical point: the composition of predicates with their arguments proceeds using the same fundamental mechanisms, irrespective of whether the argument in question is a proposition or an individual. In both cases determiners may act as the interface between predicates and their arguments, a point which is not commonly accepted.

We will develop the argument by introducing a problem for standard theories of selection, where predicates appear to be combining with the wrong type of argument. We show that these particular arguments appear to be semantically sensitive in the same way that nominals headed by polarity sensitive determiners are. It turns out that there is strong syntactic evidence that these clauses are headed by a polar determiner and we argue that this determiner is most closely akin to overt either. A theory of selection and of DP interpretation incorporating the idea that movement may be driven by type-theoretic concerns derives the correct interpretations for the constructions we are interested in, and the solution to the original selectional problem emerges as a byproduct of this. Finally we discuss the relationship between mood marking in these clauses and their interpretation, showing how subjunctive and indicative moods give rise to different interpretational outcomes.

1. The selection of clausal complements

1.1. Current approaches

As is well known, predicates that require clausal complements subcategorize for different types of clausal complements. In early work (e.g., Chomsky 1965), this relationship is encoded by endowing the lexical predicate with syntactic subcategorization features. In this way, the following paradigm can be accounted for:

  1. 1. The bartender maintained that he was sober.

  2. 2. *The bartender maintained if/whether he was sober.

  3. 3. *The bartender inquired that he was sober.

  4. 4. The bartender inquired if/whether he was sober.

The verb maintain is lexically specified as...


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pp. 107-133
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