All are welcome to attend Alanah McKillen’s PhD Dissertation Defense.

Title: On the interpretation of reflexive pronouns

When: Thursday, March 31st  at 10:00am

Where: Arts Buildling, room 230 (followed by a reception in the lounge)


This dissertation is concerned with the interpretation of reflexive pronouns and how their interpretation requirements affect the formulation of Condition A in binding theory. In Standard Binding Theory, reflexives are assumed to be interpreted as bound-variables only (Chomsky, 1981; Reinhart, 1983; Büring, 2005). This assumption is explicitly reflected in Condition A, which requires that reflexives must be locally bound-variables. In this dissertation I question how well motivated this assumption is.

To test the bound-variable-only assumption for reflexives, I investigate the readings that reflexives give rise to in VP-ellipsis and focus constructions. It has previously been observed that reflexives are ambiguous in VP-ellipsis, giving rise to both a strict and sloppy reading (Dahl, 1973; Sag, 1976; Hestvik, 1995; Fiengo and May, 1994). Rather than take this as evidence for both referentially interpreted and boundvariable reflexives, as is the case with ambiguities that arise with non-reflexive pronouns (Sag, 1976; Reinhart, 1983; Heim and Kratzer, 1998), previous accounts aim to derive strict readings of reflexives while maintaining the bound-variable-only assumption (Hestvik, 1995; Büring, 2005). However, I argue that these accounts run into problems which could be avoided if reflexives were able to be interpreted as coferential with their antecedents, and not just as bound-variables.

The readings of reflexives in focus constructions have received far less attention. Judgements are mixed, with reflexives being claimed to only be interpreted as sloppy, and the strict reading being unavailable or marginal (McCawley, 1967; Heim and Kratzer, 1998; Reinhart and Reuland, 1993), which would seem to support the bound variable-only assumption. Yet others – such as Dahl (1973), Büring (2005), Roelofsen (2008), and Ahn and Sportiche (2014) – claim both strict and sloppy readings are equally possible. I present experimental evidence in this dissertation which shows that strict reflexives in focus constructions are judged as acceptable to speakers, and argue that these readings cannot be accounted for with the assumption that reflexives are interpreted as bound-variables only; and that instead, a binding theory is needed in which reflexives can be coreferential with their antecedents.

With the need for coreferential reflexives established, the remainder of this dissertation is concerned with how Condition A can be formulated to incorporate this interpretation option, and how strict readings in VP-ellipsis and focus constructions will follow once it has been incorporated. I follow Sauerland (2013) in adopting a Condition A which is built into the compositional semantics as an argument identity presupposition, which will allow reflexives the option of coreference, and accounts for strict readings as instances of weakened presupposition projection. Compared to the option of modifying Standard Binding Theory, this presuppositional approach appears to be more insightful, but is not without complications. In order for weakened projection to occur, Sauerland (2013) assumes that a presupposition must be purely presuppositional. I present data which are problematic for this assumption and outline a new direction for the conditions under which weakened projection in focus alternatives may proceed, which is based on the relation the presuppositional element bears to the focus-marked phrase.