DS-2005-03: What can you do? Imperative mood in Semantic Theory

DS-2005-03: Mastop, Rosja (2005) What can you do? Imperative mood in Semantic Theory. Doctoral thesis, University of Amsterdam.

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A common assumption in linguistic semantics is, that sentences of all
types share a common, truth conditional core. For non-declaratives this
means that we must distinguish between a mood-operator and a
propositional (truth-conditional) content. So, for instance, an
imperative sentence is treated as commanding that some proposition be
made true. In this dissertation it is argued that such an analysis is
not reasonable.

First of all, it makes declarative sentences the prime carriers of
meaning. This is a way to maintain compositionality (word meaning is
determined by the contribution to truth conditions alone), but at the
cost of creating an artificial divide between a semantics that accounts
for the meaning-relations between declaratives (such as consistency,
entailment, etc.) and a pragmatics that has to account for the
meaning-relations between non-declaratives.

Second of all, the mood/content analysis of imperatives fails to
explain some of the most striking features of such sentences: (i) the
properties of their (optional) subjects and (ii) their temporal and
aspectual orientation. Ad (i), by default imperatives do not have a
subject, but when they do, it functions as a means to pointing out who
is to comply with the given instructions. Thus the quantified subjects
in the examples below are not part of the truth conditional contents.

(1) Somebody get a doctor. (is not: see to it that somebody gets a
(2) Nobody make a move. (is not: see to it that nobody makes a move.)

On the mood/content account, we cannot give a semantic analysis of the
meanings of these sentences. This shortcoming is all the more striking
when it is noted that many languages have first and third person
imperatives. (One example, the Dutch ``laten wij/zij VP-inf'', is
discussed in some detail.) Ad (ii), imperatives are future oriented.
They do not contain stative VPs and, in general, they do not have a
past tense form. However, Dutch has a ``plusquamperfect imperative'',
expressing a reproach (a counterfactual instigation) and always
directed at the addressee.

(3) Had (*jij/*hij) dan ook gewoon de trein genomen!
(4) Was (*jij/*hij) toch lekker gaan fietsen!

Again, these phenomena cannot be dealt with if the imperative is merely
a mood-operator with pragmatic rules of use.

In contrast to the mood/content analysis, the dissertation defends a
semantic account that is characterized by the following traits.

(1) It is an update semantics. Declarative sentences are viewed as cues
to change one's state of information and imperative sentences are
viewed as cues to change one's to do list. This allows us to adopt a
one-level approach in which imperative meaning is not `derivative' or
Furthermore, by using a constructive update semantic model, we can give
a straightforward solution to the problems of disjunctive commands and
permissions, much discussed in the literature.

(2) It treats those ``cues'' as perspective-dependent. Imperative
sentences are interpreted from a subjective (second person)
perspective, which explains why in general they do not need an overt
subject. The quantified and non-second person subjects are analyzed as
perspective *shifters*, which explains why in English and Dutch they
are typically used when it is not clear from the context who are the
ones that are being instructed. The speech time is the default temporal
perspective, but the plusquamperfective operator is analyzed as a
shifting this perspective into the past, resulting in an irrealis
context of interpretation. This explains why it is meaningful to issue
a `command' from a past-tense point of view.

Taken together, these two traits---dynamic and perspectival---make for
a semantic approach in which declaratives do no longer form a
privileged sentence type. Instead, the variety of sentence types can be
accounted for by characterizing the different aspects of a person's
cognitive state and the different ways they can be altered.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Report Nr: DS-2005-03
Series Name: ILLC Dissertation (DS) Series
Year: 2005
Subjects: Language
Depositing User: Dr Marco Vervoort
Date Deposited: 14 Jun 2022 15:16
Last Modified: 14 Jun 2022 15:16
URI: https://eprints.illc.uva.nl/id/eprint/2045

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