Institute of English Languages and Literatures

Workshop "Information Structure  and Ambiguity -
The Process of Integrating Sentences into Discourse"

7.-8. October 2019, University of Tübingen


Organized by RTG 1808 'Ambiguity' and Project A7 of the SFB 833

Organizers: Andreas Konietzko, Alvaro Cortés Rodríguez, Lorenz Geiger, Andreas Kehl, Maren Rohleder, Susanne Winkler

Mercator fellow: Peter W. Culicover (The Ohio State University)

Workshop venue: Brechtbau, Wilhelmstr. 50, Room: 027

Please register by email to: ambiguitaetspam
(Registration will close on 30. September 2019)

Invited speakers

Kristine Bentzen (Universitetet i Tromsø), Peter Culicover (The Ohio State University), Kordula De Kuthy (Universität Tübingen), Joachim Jacobs (Bergische Universität Wuppertal), Andrew Kehler (University of California, San Diego), Roger Levy (MIT), Valéria Molnár (Lunds Universitet), Sophie Repp (Universität zu Köln), Craige Roberts (The Ohio State University), Hannah Rohde (The University of Edinburgh), Judith Tonhauser (The Ohio State University, Universität Stuttgart)

Workshop description

Issues of ambiguity resolution in natural language have been studied since Aristotle, but many of the basic challenges still remain to be solved: how are grammatical form and function related in a specific discourse setting? How is it possible that we communicate quickly and seemingly effortlessly and compute and produce novel and often incomplete grammatical expressions without experiencing conflict in interpretation? What computational mechanisms drive the process of integrating sentences into discourse? This conference sets out to find an answer to these basic questions by bringing together syntacticians, semanticists and psycholinguists who investigate the mechanisms through which grammatical expressions are integrated into discourse.

The leading idea is based on two converging processes. On the one hand, the form-function relation is determined by bottom-up processes, such as syntax and semantics. On the other hand, it is determined by top-down processes, such as pragmatics, which integrates insights from information structure theory. Information structure in turn interfaces with the grammatical form-meaning component, as well as the theory of questions under discussion (QuD), which models discourse structure dynamically. The mechanisms that are at work in this integration process comprise specific linguistic phenomena such as information structure, word order, anaphora, sentence types and aspects of processing, expectations, predictions of the upcoming linguistic expression and the specific perspective from which an event is told. A perspective shift as in (1) makes an otherwise ungrammatical sequence perfectly acceptable (from Culicover & Winkler in prep.).

  1. Secret Recordings Reveal Mubarak’s Frank Views on a Range of Subjects
    Context: Mr. Mubarak is also heard insisting that, in addition to conspiring with the United States, Mr. Morsi was collaborating with the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which the United States has labeled a terrorist organization...
    a. Hei said ‘the Americans’ were ‘liars.’
    b. Hei accused them of spreading false rumors that Mr. Mubaraki might try to hand the presidency to his son Gamal, who had taken up a senior position in the ruling party and begun shaping Egyptian policy. [Kirkpatrick 2013, New York Times, 9/23/13]

Without the shift in perspective signaled by the attribution of 'false rumors' to 'them', the coindexation between the pronoun and the R(eferential)-expression in (1b) would be ruled out by the grammatical constraint, known as Condition C (cf. Chomsky 1981, 1986).

The challenging aspect of this research is to find out how syntax, semantics and pragmatics work together in the integration process. At the sentence level, syntax and information structure are responsible for making a sentence fit into the preceding context and the common ground (cf. e.g. Jacobs 1993, 1999, Krifka and Musan 2012). At the pragmatic level, QuD models provide tools that show how discourse is structured and how sentences are optimally integrated into discourse (cf. Roberts 2012, Velleman and Beaver 2016). The dynamic development of coherent discourse and expectations on what will come next might provide an answer to the question why ambiguity does not always lead to interpretive conflict (cf. Kehler & Rohde 2017, Levy 2013). From a processing perspective, potentially ambiguous expressions are often only understood in the intended and discourse appropriate way.

Focus ambiguities, for instance, are typically resolved at the discourse level. In this case, top-down factors such as givenness marking and bottom-up factors such as word order can be considered as having a disambiguating force (cf. Höhle 1982, Jacobs 1991, Culicover and Winkler 2008). There is also an interesting form-function ambiguity at the level of sentence type that interacts with the common ground and discourse. For instance, questions can be understood as information seeking or rhetorical, depending on the context, the common ground and the communicative goals of the participants (cf. Rohde 2006, Molnár & Winkler in press). Also interrogatives and exclamatives may exhibit the same superficial syntactic surface structure. In such cases additional means of disambiguation such as particles and intonation may be used.

Against this background, the workshop targets (but is not limited to) the following research areas: (i) Referential ambiguities in discourse, (ii) Ambiguity reduction in discourse: Incrementality and predictability in discourse processing, and (iii) Syntax and discourse: (un)marked word order and focus constructions as (dis)ambiguation procedures. The research questions to be targeted are the following:

  1. How do information structure and QuD models bridge the gap between sentence  structure and discourse? Which mechanisms allow us to explain and predict coherent discourse development?
  2. How can discourse phenomena be explained that arise from givenness marking (such as prosodic reduction, pronominalization, ellipsis) and those that arise from focus marking (such as wh-movement, topicalization)?
  3. What is the role of word order in disambiguation? What is the benefit of using syntactically costly reordering operations? What factors determine whether an information-structurally more ambiguous word order will be used or an information-structurally less ambiguous word order?
  4. How is ambiguity at the sentence type level resolved? What factors determine whether e.g. a question will be interpreted as rhetorical or information seeking?
  5. What is the role of processing in sentence integration in discourse? What evidence is there that information structure and QuD models ultimately interact with processing?
  6. To what extent are potential ambiguities at any level of representation constructed and discarded in the course of processing

The goal of this workshop is to provide a forum for researchers from syntax, semantics, pragmatics, information structure and discourse structure to bring together their research on the interface between grammar and discourse.

Selected references:
Chomsky, N. 1981. Lectures on Government and Binding. Dordrecht: Foris. Chomsky, N. 1986. Knowledge of Language: its nature, origin and use. New York: Praeger. Culicover, P. W. and S. Winkler. 2008. English Focus Inversion. Journal of Linguistics 44 (3), 625-658. Höhle, T. N. 1982. Explikationen für ‘normale Betonung’ und ‘normale Wortstellung’. In W. Abraham (ed.), Satzglieder im deutschen. Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag, 75-153. Jacobs, J. 1991. Focus ambiguities. Journal of Semantics 8. 1-36. Jacobs, J. 1993. Integration. In M. Reis (ed.), Wortstellung und Informationsstruktur. Tübingen: Niemeyer, 64-116. Jacobs, J. 1999. Informational Autonomy. In P. Bosch and R. van der Sandt (eds.), Focus. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 56-81. Kehler, A and H. Rohde. 2017. Evaluating an Expectation-Driven QUD Model of Discourse Interpretation. Discourse Processes, 54-3, 219-238. Kirkpatrick, D. D. 2013. Secret Recordings Reveal Mubarak’s Frank Views on a Range of Subjects. The New York Times 2013/09/23. Krifka, M. and R. Musan. 2012. Information structure: Overview and linguistic issues. In M. Krifka and R. Musan (eds.), The expression of information structure. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton, 1-44. Levy, R. 2013. Memory and surprisal in human sentence comprehension. In R. P. G. van Gompel (ed.) Sentence processing. Hove: Psychology Press, 78-114. Molnár, V. and S. Winkler (in press). Strategic Functions of Questions and Ambiguity: A Comparison between German and Swedish. In: M. Bauer and A. Zirker (eds.) Strategies of Ambiguity. Routledge. Roberts, C. 2012. Information structure in discourse: Towards an integrated formal theory of pragmatics. Semantics and Pragmatics 5(6), 1-69. Rohde, H. 2006. Rhetorical Questions as Redundant Interrogatives. San Diego Linguistic Papers 2, 134-168. Velleman, L. and D. Beaver. 2016. Question-based models of information structure. In C. Féry and S. Ishihara (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Information structure. Oxford University Press, 86-107.