Barbara Partee

What was the broad question that you most wanted to get an answer to during your time in the program?

I didn’t know anything when I started the program, and didn’t have any questions of my own to begin with – I was just absorbing ideas, and becoming curious about various things as I went. I remember wrestling for quite a long time with a question Ed Klima raised in syntax class in my first semester: why is it obligatory to have a relative clause with “those of the boys”? I think that one has been answered, though it wasn’t during my four years; it turned out not to be a matter of syntax.

The main ‘broad’ question that was intriguing me during my last two years was this one: Do transformations ever change meaning?

That problem was one that I cared about, since Klima’s beautiful work on negation in English involved an optional rule changing some to any under negation, yielding two non-synonymous sentences (1a-b) from the same underlying structure. And that violated the then-recently formulated Katz and Postal hypothesis that transformations didn’t change meaning, i.e. that deep structure determined meaning. And that hypothesis seemed very attractive and strong; it even made it into Aspects.

(1)   a.  Sandy didn’t answer some of the questions.
      b.  Sandy didn’t answer any of the questions.

But semantics then was in too amorphous a state for me to want to try to work on it head-on; syntax was much more satisfying to work on. In a third-year seminar where we presented potential dissertation topics, I gave a very unsuccessful attempt to solve the problem of some-any alternation syntactically, and (wisely) abandoned it as a dissertation topic because I could only find a very ugly solution involving three separate some’s. Wisely, because that problem needed semantic tools that didn’t then exist and which I wouldn’t have been able to invent.

(As an alternative dissertation topic, I suggested trying to assemble what had been done so far in transformational grammar into a grammar of English. Chomsky, in 1964 no more experienced as a thesis advisor than I was as a thesis writer, said that sounded like a nice idea. I thought a thesis was a one-year take-home exam; at the end of a year, I had written about subjects and objects (about 1/30 of my outline, with an early version of the unaccusativity hypothesis), and turned in what I’d done; that was my dissertation.)

What is the current status of this question? Has it been answered? Did it turn out to be an ill-conceived question? If it?s a meaningful question as yet unanswered, please tell us what you think the path to an answer might be, or what obstacles make it a hard question.

Has it been answered? Well, so much has changed that the question can’t be asked in exactly that form any more. But it has been “answered” many times in many ways, and in the more general form, “What is the relation between syntax and semantics?”, remains one of the most interesting and difficult questions in the field. I wouldn’t presume to try to write a short paragraph on what I think the path to an answer might be, when so many of us MIT alumni have written so much about that over the past 50 years. The idea of trying to put our heads together to discuss what obstacles make it so hard and so perennially contentious might be a very constructive exercise – we might be able to make headway on THAT question without fighting too much.