Committee: Chris Barker (chair), Simon Charlow, Philippe Schlenker, Anna Szabolcsi, Adrian Brasoveanu (UCSC)
This dissertation argues for a specific semantic decomposition of morphological definiteness. I propose that the meaning of 'the' comprises two distinct compositional operations. The first builds a set of witnesses that satisfy the restricting noun phrase. The second tests this set for uniqueness. The motivation for decomposing the denotation of the definite determiner in this way comes from split-scope intervention effects. The two components—the selection of witnesses on the one hand and the counting of witnesses on the other—may take effect at different points in the composition of a constituent, and this has non-trivial semantic consequences when other operators inside the determiner phrase take action in between them. In particular, I analyze well-known examples of mutually recursive definite descriptions like 'the rabbit in the hat' (when there are two rabbits and two hats but only one rabbit in a hat and only one hat with a rabbit in it) as examples of definites whose referent-introducing and referent-testing components are interleaved rather than nested.
I further demonstrate that this picture leads to a new theory of so-called relative superlative descriptions like 'the kid who climbed the highest tree' (when there is no highest tree, per se, only a best tree-climbing kid), which explains the previously mysterious role of the definite determiner in licensing such readings. Building on this approach to superlatives, I develop a split-scope treatment of focus-marking and show that certain interpretations of exclusive adjectives may also be characterized as relative readings. Finally, I present new data based on binding patterns in definite and possessive descriptions that provide evidence for scope-theoretic treatments of relative readings, and especially for the analysis described in this dissertation according to which relative readings are a consequence of delayed evaluation of determiners.