Natural Language Semantics

, Volume 26, Issue 3–4, pp 193–251 | Cite as

Plurality effects in an exhaustification-based theory of embedded questions

  • Alexandre Cremers
Open Access


Questions embedded under responsive predicates and definite descriptions both give rise to a variety of phenomena which can be grouped under the term plurality effects: quantificational variability, cumulativity, and homogeneity effects. This similarity has not gone unnoticed, and many proposals have taken inspiration in theories of definite plurals to account for these effects with embedded questions (Dayal in Locality in WH quantification: questions and relative clauses in Hindi, Kluwer, Dordrecht, 1996; Lahiri in Questions and answers in embedded contexts, Oxford studies in theoretical linguistics 2, Oxford University Press, New York, 2002; a.o.). Recently these phenomena have received less attention, as the field has focused on the so-called intermediate exhaustive reading of embedded questions instead, after Spector (Exhaustive interpretations: what to say and what not to say, Presentation at LSA Workshop: ‘Context and Content’, 2005) called into question the traditional dichotomy between weak and strong exhaustive readings. As a result, the intermediate exhaustive reading has been accounted for at the expense of empirical coverage in other areas. In this paper, I propose a modular theory which derives the currently much discussed exhaustive readings without giving up the rich semantics necessary to account for plurality effects. My account of quantificational variability, cumulativity, and homogeneity effects builds on recent work on these phenomena in the nominal domain by adopting a categorial approach to embedded questions, while the strong and intermediate exhaustive readings are implemented using an independent strengthening mechanism suggested in Klinedinst and Rothschild (Semant Pragmat 4(2):1–23, 2011). The resulting theory not only recovers important results on plurality effects; it offers new, simple solutions for some puzzles presented in George (Question embedding and the semantics of answers, Ph.D. dissertation, UCLA, 2011; Thought J Philos 2(2):166–177, 2013) and Paillé and Schwarz (in: Stockwell (ed) Proceedings of WCCFL 36, vol 36, Cascadilla Proceedings Project, Somerville, 2018), naturally derives readings that had been postulated in previous literature (Preuss in Issues in the semantics of questions with quantifiers, Ph.D. dissertation, Rutgers University, 2001), makes correct predictions in many unexplored cases, and is compatible with recent results in psycholinguistics. In the last sections I justify my assumptions and show how possible limitations I inherit from the theories I build on can be accommodated under standard assumptions.



This work has benefited from helpful feedback from so many people that I’m not entirely sure I should claim authorship. I am very grateful to Maria Aloni, Richard Breheny, Lucas Champollion, Emmanuel Chemla, Danny Fox, B. R. George, Hadas Kotek, Manuel Križ, Clemens Mayr, Friederike Moltmann, Floris Roelofsen, Bernhard Schwarz, Yael Sharvit, Anna Szabolcsi, Wataru Uegaki, Yimei Xiang, and the audiences at SuB 20 (Tübingen), the “Questions and Attitudes” Workshop (CMU), the “Sentences and Embedded Clauses” workshop (IHPST), and presentations at MIT, NYU, and the UvA. The manuscript benefited from detailed comments from Angelika Kratzer and Irene Heim, as well as two anonymous reviewers, and careful copy editing by Christine Bartels. All remaining errors are mine. I am particularly indebted to Benjamin Spector for in-depth discussions on many aspects of this work. I gratefully acknowledge financial support from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO).


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.ILLC – Universiteit van AmsterdamAmsterdamThe Netherlands

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