The Value of Experiments

I have been reading Heim & Kratzer’s Semantics in Generative Grammar, which is an excellent introduction to formal semantics. On the whole, I’ve really liked the book, until I got to an example sentence in the 8th chapter:

(1) Every man placed a screen in front of him.

The authors claimed that this sentence was synonymous with

(2) Every man placed a screen in front of himself.

I though this was absurd, because to me the first sentence must mean that there is some man (let’s call him ‘Jim,’) and all the other men put a screen in front of Jim. It just can’t have the meaning of (2). I have a great deal of respect for the authors, but my immediate reaction was that this must be one of those cases in which linguists unconciously adapt their judgments to their theory (it was important for the theory Heim & Kratzer were developing that (1) mean the same as (2)).

Just to be sure, I walked into the office down the hall and took a poll of the seven people in it, none of whom study pronouns or are particularly familiar with the literature. Two of them agreed with me, but five agreed with Heim & Kratzer. So this may be a dialectical difference.

Now I feel bad about having doubted H&K, but in any case it is a good lesson about studying language: don’t trust your own intuitions. Get a second opinion.

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