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Theoretical Syntax & Semantics

Theoretical Syntax and Semantics

We welcome both undergraduate and graduate applicants who are interested in learning about and conducting research on syntax and/or semantics.

Learn more about the Department of Linguistics BA, MA, and PhD programs.
Contact Edward Rubin, Aniko Csirmaz, or Benjamin Slade with questions about studying syntax and semantics at the U.


The study of syntax is the investigation of the rules, principles, and processes which determine the structure of sentences in human languages. Syntax can be seen as the governing principles defining which combinations of linguistic symbols are deemed to be correctly structured by natural language speakers.

The scientific study of natural language syntax can be found as early as the Aṣṭādhyāyī, the 4th-c. BC Sanskrit grammar of the Indian grammarian Pāṇini. In the Western world, the systematic study of syntax was largely neglected or conflated with other objects such as logic, until the late 1950s, with the rise of theories of generative grammar developed by Noam Chomsky and others.

It is this traditional of syntactic inquiry which is continued in our department. Faculty and students are trained and work in Chomskyan syntax, using the framework of the Minimalist Program. This approach to syntax is intriguing and challenging because it seeks to reduce the theoretical apparatus to the bare minimum. Essentially, syntax is constrained only by the lexicon (the repository of words) as well as the meaning and sound form of sentences.


Semantics consists of the study of the relationships between symbols or signs such words, phrases, sentences, and discourses, and what these elements mean or stand in for:— their denotations and senses.

Central to semantic research in our department is the principle of semantic compositionality, a concept seemingly independently arrived at by Yāska, the pre-Pāṇinian Indian grammarian (6th-5th c. BC); George Boole, the early 19th-c. English logician; and Gottlob Frege, the late 19th-c. German mathematician and philosopher-logician. This principle of compositionality is the idea that the meaning of a complex expression is determined by the meanings of its constituent parts and the rules used to combine them.

Semantics thus has philosophical roots, but since the 1970s linguists have become intimately engaged in this tradition of research, particularly after Richard Montague developed a formalized approach to the semantics of natural language, popularized amongst linguists by Barbara Partee. Montague’s formal semantics drew upon the logical system of lambda calculus developed by Alonzo Church (later shown to be a model of computation equivalent to a Turing Machine, and also implemented in the design of computer programming languages like Lisp), revolutionising the study of meaning in natural language.

The focus of semantic research in our department is the study into the nature of the combinatorial rules of natural language semantics and the provision of precise characterisations of meanings expressible in human language, following in the tradition of Montague semantics.


Thus syntax is concerned with what makes phrases/sentences well-formed and semantics with how well-formed syntactic structures are interpreted. Yet well-formed sentences bear meaning and meaningful sentences bear structure: that is, syntax and semantics interact, and many of the arguably most interesting linguistic phenomena involve data whose explanation necessarily involves the interaction of syntax with semantics. One such cluster of phenomena is the behavior of repetitive elements like again and the prefix re- (see in more detail below). Repetitive elements are interesting for a variety of reasons. First, they are a type of adverbs – this class of elements have presented a number of interesting puzzles to syntacticians and semanticists alike. Second, there are several elements which express repetition (again, re-, anew); this makes it possible to contrast the behavior of these elements. Third, repetitives allow us to explore the interaction of syntax and semantics in a way few elements in language do. One well-known property of again is that it allows for different interpretations in examples such as Fred closed the door again: either Fred has closed the door before, or the door was closed before (possibly by someone other than Fred). Quantifiers (expressions such as everyone, a door) and information structure (topic and focus) also shed light on the interaction of syntax and semantics and they constitute areas of interest of our faculty.


Edward Rubin

My research focuses on syntax and its interfaces, especially Modifiers, Case, Functional Categories, Syntactic underpinning of morphological factors, the nature and role of syntactic features, etc. My current projects deal with features and syntactic architecture more generally, and include one concerning the licensing of adverbial nominals and another on Bulgnaiṡ, a northern Italian dialect. I often work with co-authors and welcome finding shared interests to work on with students.

Aniko Csirmaz

I am mainly interested in issues related to syntax and its interfaces with semantics and the lexicon. My current work focuses on adverbial modification on the syntax-semantics side. My research also addresses the interaction of phonology, semantics and syntax, as shown, for example, by the effect of phonology on quantifier scope interpretation.

Verbal structures show aspectual differences and nominal structures vary in whether they are countable or not. Aspect involves, among others, the issue of whether a certain eventuality is seen as one that has a natural endpoint or not.

  1. In (1a), the eventuality is understood to end when the song is over. The eventuality in (1b), in contrast, has no natural endpoint; it can continue for an arbitrarily long time. As the examples show, adverbial modification identifies these two groups of eventuality descriptions.
    1. Bill sang an Irish song (in two minutes)
    2. Bill sang Irish songs (for an hour)
  2. Nominal structures can be countable or uncountable, as illustrated by the object in (2a) and (2b), respectively.
    1. Bill ate a doughnut
    2. Bill ate rice

In connection with these properties, I am interested in a variety of questions. These include the following:

  • How are aspect and countability determined?
  • What is the lexical entry of the elements that play a role in determining aspect and countability?
  • If there is variation in the aspectual properties of an eventuality description, then why does that variation arise?
  • What are the properties, including the syntactic positions, of the adverbials that identify aspect?
  • What is the range of adverbials that identify aspect?
  • Is it an arbitrary fact that “in”-adverbials appear with natural endpoints and “for”-adverbials with events that lack such an endpoint?
  • What is the range and what are the properties of classifiers, which can make an uncountable nominal countable? 

Prosody, structure and interpretation interact in several ways. Hungarian shows some examples of this interaction.

  1. First, focused elements (which bear nuclear stress, indicated by underlining) appear in the immediately preverbal position.
    Vili azétteremben evett
    Vili the restaurant-in ate
    “Vili ate in the restaurant (and not at home)”
  2. Note that if there is no focused constituent, nuclear stress falls on the verb:
    Vili evett az étteremben
    Vili ate the restaurant-in
    “Vili ate in the restaurant”

Given the position of the nuclear stress in sentences without focus and the place of focus, it is natural to propose that the focus moves to the preverbal position to ensure that it receives nuclear stress (see É. Kiss 1998, Szendrői 2003). Second, some Hungarian sentences allow different interpretations, depending on whether certain constituents are stressed or not. In the example below, the postverbal quantifier can only scope over the preverbal quantifier if the former is stressed (see, for example, É. Kiss 2004).

  1. Kevés vendég kóstolt meg minden köretet
    few guest tasted perfective every
    “Few guests tasted every side dish” (There were few guests overall who tasted every side dish)
  2. Kevés vendég kóstolt meg minden köretet
    few guest tasted perfective every
    “For every dish, few guests tasted it” (For every side dish, there were few guests who tasted it)

I am interested in exploring the ways in which prosody interacts with other components in grammar and in why such interactions are possible.

  • Szendrői, Kriszta (2003). A Stress-Based Approach to the Syntax of Hungarian Focus. Linguistic Review (20) 1
  • Kiss, Katalin É. (1998). Identificational Focus and Information Focus. Language (74): 245 273
  • Kiss, Katalin É. (2004). The Syntax of Hungarian. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Benjamin Slade

My primary research concerns the intersection of formal semantic, syntactic, & morphological analysis with the study of historical change in language. Much of my research involves Sanskrit, Nepali, Sinhala, Hindi/Urdu, and other languages of the Indian subcontinent. Ongoing projects include syntax & semantics of quantifier particles and repetitives, reduplication in Jamaican Creole, compound verbs in Indo-Aryan, & morphology of Rastafari English.

In a number of languages we find that the particles used to form questions also act to form disjunctions and indefinites (existential quantification). Such particles are sometimes referred to as Question particles or, perhaps more accurately, Quantifier particles. The distribution of such particles across a syntactically diverse set of contexts is seen clearly in languages like Japanese, and a number of languages of Sri Lanka and southern India including Sinhala and Malayalam; and appears as well in some Na-Dene languages of the American northwest like Tlingit and in Finno-Ugric languages like Hungarian. Even English shows some limited patterns of a similar sort. Less robustly, particles involved in universal quantification also show up in the formation of conjunctions in some of the above languages. Of additional interest is the fact that indefinites whose formation includes a Q-particle show a strong tendency to be epistemic indefinites:— indefinites which explicitly signal the speaker’s lack of knowledge regarding some aspect of the identification of the entity in question.

  • Slade, Benjamin. 2011. Formal and philological inquiries into the nature of interrogatives, indefinites, disjunction, and focus in Sinhala and other languages. Urbana: University of Illinois dissertation. [available here]
  • Slade, Benjamin. 2013. Question-particles and relative clauses in the history of Sinhala, with comparison to early and modern Dravidian. In Grammatica et verba / Glamour and verve — Studies in South Asian, Historical, and Indo-European Linguistics: A Festschrift in Honor of Professor Hans Henrich Hock on the Occasion of His 75th Birthday, eds. Shu-Fen Chen & Benjamin Slade, 245–268. Ann Arbor: Beech Stave Press. [pre-print here]
  • Slade, Benjamin. 2015a. Sinhala indefinites with a certain je ne sais quoi. In Epistemic indefinites, eds. Luis Alonso-Ovalle & Paula Menéndez-Benito, 82–99. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [pre-print here]
  • Slade, Benjamin. 2015b. A short history of English epistemic indefinites. In Epistemic indefinites, eds. Luis Alonso-Ovalle & Paula Menéndez-Benito, 100–113. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [pre-print here]

One prominent feature of modern Indo-Aryan languages is the use of compound verbs, a particular sort of verb-verb collocation where one of the verbal elements behaves as a “light verb”, that is with much of its normal semantic content bleached, which modifies the other (“main”) verb. Common “light” (or vector) verbs in Indo-Aryan include GIVE, TAKE, GO, COME, FALL, RISE. Despite many superficial similarities in compound verb formations in different Indo-Aryan languages, significant differences are to be found in morphosyntactic constraints on compound verbs (such as which member of the compound determines whether the combination counts as syntactically transitive), semantic constraints on possible V1-V2 combinations (which V1s can combine with which V2s), and resulting semantics of V1-V2 combinations (generally completive but not invariably and often including other features such as speaker evaluation). My research has looked at the origins of Indo-Aryan compound verbs, and differences in the morphosyntax and semantics of compound verbs in different languages, especially Hindi and Nepali (Slade 2013, 2016). Future research plans in this area include investigation of compound verbs in Sinhala, and comparison between Indo-Aryan and Dravidian compound verbs.

  • Slade, Benjamin. 2013. The diachrony of light and auxiliary verbs in Indo-Aryan. Diachronica 30.4: 531–578. [pre-print here]
  • Slade, Benjamin. 2016. Compound verbs in Indo-Aryan. In World of Linguistics: South Asia, eds. Hans Henrich Hock, Elena Bashir, & K.V. Subbarao. Berlin: De Gruyter. [pre-print here]

Profs Csirmaz and Slade lead a research project on the syntax and semantics of repetitives crosslinguistically. Repetitive elements of interest in English include again, re-, anew, once more, again and again, amongst other. E.g. Charles rose again, James reread the book, &c. Specific subareas of inquiry within this research project include: identifying differences between repetitives such as English again and re-, which differ both syntactically and semantically; determining how repetitives interact with other elements such as quantifiers and affected arguments; the role of morphological reduplication and repetition and their structural realisations in iterative/pluractional formations including English searched again and again vs searched and search and Jamaican Creole buod buod-op “seal up with boards intensively” vs. buod-op buod-op “seal up with boards repeatedly”.

Students are also engaged in collaborative research within this project, including John Blackham, who is writing his MA thesis on historical changes in the morphosyntax and semantics of English repetitives again and back, and Anna Deakins, an undergraduate student engaged in research with Slade & Csirmaz through the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP).

  • Csirmaz, Aniko & Slade, Benjamin. in press. Result states and repetitive adverbs. Acta Linguistica Hungarica. [pre-print here]


Last Updated: 5/31/22