On the Semantic Composition of English Generic Sentences

  • Greg N. Carlson
Part of the Studies in Linguistics and Philosophy book series (SLAP, volume 39)


One part of the task in presenting a semantics for a natural language is to show how the meanings of the constituents of a sentence are combined with one another to build up a meaning for the whole sentence. To a certain degree, this part of the task can be worked on without committing oneself too specifically to any particular theory of meaning, and that is what I am going to try to do here. The construction of interest is that of generic sentences. Such sentences are found in all natural languages (though not in all artificial languages), but I will confine my remarks to how English generic sentences are built up from constituent meanings, ever hopeful that what I have to say about English will shed light on similar constructions in a wider range of natural languages. I will begin by giving a series of descriptions of what generic sentences are, working from the most notional and towards the most linguistic, to first stake out the domain of inquiry. I then turn to the semantic composition of such sentences, arguing that they are not uniformly of subject-predicate form, but that a wider variety of internal relations must be recognized. The overall purpose of the following discussion is to provide a set of general considerations that any formal semantic theory incorporating generics must contend with.1


Generic Predicate Generic Reading Generic Interpretation Generic Sentence Bare Plural 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Barwise, Jon and Perry, John: 1983, Situations and Attitudes, Cambridge: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  2. Bolinger, Dwight: 1970, ‘The Lexical Value of “It”’, Working Papers in Linguistics, University of Hawaii, pp. 57–76.Google Scholar
  3. Carlson, Greg N.: 1977, ‘A Unified Analysis of the English Bare Plural’, Linguistics and Philosophy 1, 413–56.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Carlson, Greg N.: 1980a, Reference to Kinds in English, New York: Garland Publishing.Google Scholar
  5. Carlson, Greg N.: 1980b, ‘Nomic Morphemes’, paper presented at the Fourth Groningen Round Table, Groningen, the Netherlands.Google Scholar
  6. Chierchia, Gennaro: 1984, ‘Topics in the Syntax and Semantics of Infinitives and Gerunds’, unpublished University of Massachusetts Ph.D. dissertation.Google Scholar
  7. Croft, William: 1986, ‘Universal Quantifiers and Generic Expressions’, Stanford University ms.Google Scholar
  8. Dahl, Osten: 1975, ‘On Generics’, in E. Keenan (ed.), Formal Semantics of Natural Language, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 99–111.Google Scholar
  9. Dahl, Osten: 1985, Tense and Aspect Systems, Oxford: Basil Blackwell.Google Scholar
  10. Declerck, Renaat: 1985, ‘The Manifold Interpretations of Generic Sentences’, Catholic University of Leuven ms.Google Scholar
  11. Dowty, David: 1979, Word Meaning and Montague Grammar, Dordrecht: D. Reidel Publishing.Google Scholar
  12. Farkas, Donka and Sugioka, Yoko: 1983, ‘Restrictive If/When Clauses’, Linguistics and Philosophy 6, 225–58.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Moravcsik, Julius and Gabbay, Dov: 1973, ‘Sameness and Individuation’, Journal of Philosophy 70, 513–26.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Kratzer, Angelika: 1977, ‘What ‘Must’ and ‘Can’ Must and Can Mean’, Linguistics and Philosophy 1, 337–55.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. ter Meulen, Alice: 1985, ‘Generic Information, Conditional Contexts, and Constraints’, in E. Traugott et al. (eds.), On Conditionals, Cambridge: Ambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  16. Milsark, Gary: 1974, ‘Existential Sentences in English’, Unpublished M.I.T. Ph.D. dissertation.Google Scholar
  17. Roberts, Craige: 1986, ‘Modal Subordination, Anaphora, and Distributivity’, Unpublished University of Massachusetts Ph.D. dissertation.Google Scholar
  18. Schubert, Lenart and Pelletier, F. Jeffry: 1986, ‘Problems in the Representation of the Logical Form of Generics, Plurals, and Mass Nouns’, in E. LePore (ed.), New Approaches to Semantics, New York: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  19. Smith, N. V.: 1975, ‘On Generics’, Transactions of the Philological Society 1975, 27 – 48.Google Scholar
  20. Stump, Gregory: 1981, ‘The Formal Semantics and Pragmatics of Free Adjuncts and Absolutes in English’, Unpublished Ohio State University Ph.D. dissertation.Google Scholar
  21. Stump, Gregory: 1985, The Semantic Variability of Absolute Constructions, Dordrecht: D.Reidel Publishing.Google Scholar
  22. Vendler, Zeno: 1967, Linguistics in Philosophy, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
  23. Verkuyl, H. J.: 1985, ‘Nondurative Closure of Events’, in J. A. G. Groenendijk et al. (eds.), Information, Interpretation, and Inference. Proceedings of the Fifth Amsterdam Colloquium. Dordrecht.Google Scholar
  24. Williams, Edwin: 1975, ‘Small Clauses in English’, in J. Kimball (ed.), Syntax and Semantics 4, 249–74.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1989

Authors and Affiliations

  • Greg N. Carlson
    • 1
  1. 1.University of RochesterUSA

Personalised recommendations