Author Archives: Joe Pater

Rebecca Tollen colloquium

Rebecca Tollen of the University of Delaware will be presenting “Split case marking at the syntax-pragmatics interface: How morphosyntax affects pronoun interpretation” (joint work with Lauren Clemens) in our next Linguistics colloquium, Friday Dec. 1 at 3:30 in ILC S221. An abstract follows. All are welcome!

ABSTRACT:  Anaphoric pronouns such as “it” in sentences like “The dog chased the cat, and it bit the rabbit” are linguistically ambiguous and therefore dependent on prior context for interpretation. In this talk, I examine how the morphosyntactic case forms (nominative, accusative, ergative, absolutive) of noun phrases in a prior clause (e.g., “the dog” and “the cat”) influence a listeners’ choice of antecedent for the ambiguous pronoun. Data is drawn from an earlier experimental study (Tollan & Heller, 2022) of split-ergativity in Niuean (Austronesian), as well as new results from Copala Triqui (Oto-Manguean), which exhibits Differential Object Marking. Collectively, these findings indicate that accusative-marked objects are preferred as referents for pronouns over unmarked ones (in Copala Triqui), but that ergative-marked subjects are in fact dispreferred over unmarked (i.e., absolutive) ones (in Niuean). Lastly, a follow-up study on English, which adopts a type of “pseudo-marking” to allow manipulating prominence of subjects and of objects within a single experimental paradigm, provides support for a generalization that marking increases interpretative saliency of objects, but not of subjects.  

Jennifer Spenader RIP

We have received the very sad news that Jennifer Spenader, who was a visitor to our department in 2017, died on November 11th. An obituary, from which we share below a brief but very nice description of Jennifer and her work, can be found at this link:

Jennifer was full of fun and brimming with enthusiasm for any endeavor, but she was also one of those fortunate souls who truly enjoyed her work. She worked as an Assistant Professor of Computational Linguistics at Stockholm University before taking a permanent position in 2005 at the University of Groningen where she thrived as a professor in the Institute for Artificial Intelligence. She was beloved by her colleagues and her students.

50th Anniversary Campaign, 50th Anniversary UMOP

50th Anniversary Campaign

In connection with our department’s 50th Anniversary we are launching a 50th Anniversary campaign for the future of the department. To contribute, please go to this page: On that page, you will find the following description of the Endowment fund that we are targeting with this campaign (though donations directed in other ways are welcome!)

Support the Future
Linguistics Department Endowment
The Linguistics Department was founded in 1971 with the intention of creating an outstanding, accessible, and progressive academic program. Nearly 50 years later, it is one of the most highly regarded linguistics departments in the world and maintains its founders’ ethos. A gift to the endowment is an investment in the future and the founders’ legacy.

Whether or not you donate, another way you can help is by sharing the link above on your social media, with the information that on the occasion of our 50th anniversary we are fundraising for the future of the department by targeting the endowment.

50th anniversary UMOP

Earlier this year, we announced a 50th Anniversary UMOP. We are now reminding you about it, and setting the deadline for February 1. There will be both a scholarly works volume, and a volume for history and less formal recollections, and pictures. It would be great to have a broad representation of work by current and former residents of South College and the ILC in these volumes. On the scholarly side, this is a great chance to draw attention to new or older work (though make sure you have copyright or permission to republish any previously published work).

Submission links and other details can be found here:
As a teaser for the final product, see below for links to a few contributions to the history volume. 

Anne-Michelle Tessier’s “South College: A fond roast of a UMass Linguistics icon”
Tim Austin’s “A Partial Early History of GLSA and UMOP”
Don Freeman’s “Linguistics at UMass Amherst: Ends and Beginnings”

From Here to Career!

There was strong Linguistics participation in the “From Here to Career” event on Homecoming Friday, Nov. 3. Alum Emily Brewster (Linguistics and Philosophy BA 1999) was there to discuss career paths, and her work at Merriam-Webster, with current Linguistics undergraduates. Her Merriam-Webster colleague Peter Sokolowski (MA French Literature) was also on hand to chat with our undergraduates, including Brian Cho and Loong-Kei Chin, who recently collaborated with him on a computational search to find definitions that Noah Webster wrote that are in the current dictionary (more on that in an upcoming UMLAUT).

Sriharsha Ayyagary, Nathaniel Korn, Jenna Marino and Emily Brewster
Loong-Kei Chin, Peter Sokolowski and Brian Cho

Amanda Rysling Colloquium Friday at 3:30

Amanda Rysling of UC Santa Cruz will be presenting “Comprehenders spend both more and less effort on focus than we might expect” (abstract below) in our colloquium series Friday Nov. 10 at 3:30 in ILC room S211. We are looking forward to welcoming our accomplished alum (PhD 2017) back to campus!


Over the past half-century, psycholinguistic studies of linguistic focus — often described as the most important or informative part of a sentence — have found that comprehenders preferentially attend to focused material and process it more deeply or effortfully than non-focused material. But psycholinguists have investigated only a limited subset of focus constructions, and we have not come to an understanding of how costly focus is to process, what factors govern that cost, or why the language comprehension system behaves in the way that it does, and not others. In this talk, I discuss the problem for language comprehenders presented by the category of focus, and present evidence that focus processing in reading is generally costly, but this cost can be attenuated by the presence of contrastive alternatives to a focus in the context before that upcoming focus. Evidence from the processing of second-occurrence foci demonstrate that comprehenders seem to work harder than they should have to in processing given focused material, while other evidence suggests that comprehenders aren’t working as hard as they might have done to find and prioritize upcoming foci. These findings add to our understanding of what it means to be good enough or efficient in language processing, delineating conditions under which comprehenders do (not) find apparently important material to be worth processing deeply or effortfully.

UMass at NWAV 51

There was a large contingent of UMass folks at the 51st New Ways of Analyzing Variation conference held at Queen’s College October 13-15 2023.

Chloe Ostiguy, a recent BA recipient, presented “Caregiver Narratives: Variation in the Input and Child African American Language” (joint work with Lisa Green and Harmony Donald)

Dan DeGenaro, another recent BA recipient, presented “Acting different(-ly): Bringing derivational morphology into variationist linguistics”

Alessa Farinella, a current PhD student, presented “Moving beyond prosodic transcription in the analysis of African American English intonation: a case study with BIN utterances” (joint work with Lisa Green and Kristine Yu)

Si Berrebi, a visitor from Tel Aviv University, presented “Rhythm as a contested marker of ethnicity in Modern Hebrew” (joint with Sharon Peperkamp)

Joe Pater presented “Social and Phonological Factors in (r) Variation in 1930s Inland Massachusetts” (joint work with James Stanford), and “Is MaxEnt Cumulativity too restrictive? Evidence from varieties of NYC AAE”

Colloquium: Adrian Stegovec of the University of Connecticut

Adrian Stegovec of the University of Connecticut will be presenting “Short scrambling as smuggling: The argument from Slovenian ditransitives” in the Linguistics colloquium series (abstract below). The talk will take place in ILC Room S211 at 3:30 Friday October 27. All are welcome!

Abstractː Languages differ in how they realize ditransitive clauses: some, like English, have more than one option: a double object construction or a prepositional dative construction, others, like Japanese, Korean and most Slavic languages, only seem to allow the double object construction. In addition, languages of the latter type often allow a seemingly free alternation with respect to the order of the two objects. In the past, this free object order alternation was analyzed either as: optional movement of one object over the other (the scrambling analysis), or two distinct underlying ditransitive constructions (the dual base analysis). In this talk I will argue for a third type of analysis: one object moves over the other smuggled inside the VP (cf. Collins 2005a,b).

I will use Slovenian (Slavic) as the main case study, and show that neither the scrambling analysis nor the dual base analysis are fully satisfactory. The former faces problems with contexts where object order is restricted (causative and benefactive readings, verb sensitivity, and idiomatic readings), while the latter faces issues with explaining quantifier scope asymmetries while also introducing a lot of redundancy into the analysis that is not reflected in the cross-linguistically attested ditransitive case patterns. The proposed solution builds on the approach to projection of Chomsky (2013, 2015). The key is that when second object merges with a VP, it creates an ambiguous labeling scenario ({NP,VP}), which I argue has two equivalent resolutions: (i) movement of the VP with the first object inside (Kayne 2005; Collins 2021), or (ii) movement of the second object. This crucially derives both free object order in the general case and the restrictions on object order in select contexts, as due to the specifics of the VP-movement analysis it is possible for selectional restrictions to filter out either derivation (i) or (ii). Time permitting, I will show that the proposed analysis can be extended to the English dative alternation and Romance ditransitives, specifically the issue of “disguised” double object constructions: ditransitive constructions that look like prepositional dative constructions on the surface, but syntactically and semantically pattern with double object constructions.

Aloni Colloquium Friday Oct. 6 at 3:30

Maria Aloni of the University of Amsterdam will present “Neglect-zero effects at the semantics-pragmatics interface” in the Linguistics Colloquium series, Friday Oct. 6th in room S211 of the ILC. An abstract follows. All are welcome!  


In Free Choice (FC) and Epistemic Possibility (EP) inferences, conjunctive meanings are derived from disjunctive sentences contrary to the prescriptions of classical logic [Kam73, Zim00]:

FC: You may go to the beach or to the cinema  => You may go to the beach and you may go to the cinema 

EP: It is raining or snowing  => It might be raining and it might be snowing

[Alo22] presented a formal account of FC and EP inferences in a Bilateral State-based Modal Logic (BSML). The novel hypothesis at the core of this proposal is that these inferences are neither conversational implicatures nor semantic entailments but rather a straightforward consequence of a tendency in human cognition to neglect models that verify sentences by virtue of an empty witness set (neglect-zero). 

There are two different ways to implement neglect-zero in BSML: (i) syntactically, using the [ ]+-enrichment function from [Alo22]; and (ii) model-theoretically, ruling out the empty set from the set of possible states (BSML*). These two implementations both derive FC and EP inferences and their cancellation under negation, but differ for example in their predictions with respect to the debated case of Negative FC (only derivable in BSML*) [MRSB21]:

NegFC: It is not required that Mia buys both apples and bananas =>  It is not required that Mia buys apples and that Mia buys bananas.

In the talk, after illustrating and motivating the neglect-zero hypothesis, I will compare its predictions with those of alternative accounts in the neo-Gricean, grammatical and lexicalist tradition [Sau04, BLF20, Gol19].


[Alo22] Maria Aloni. Logic and conversation: the case of free choice. Semantics & Pragmatics, 15(5), 2022.

[BLF20] Moshe E. Bar-Lev and Danny Fox. Free choice, simplification, and innocent inclusion. Natural Language Semantics, 28:175–223, 2020.

[BSK19] Oliver Bott, Fabian Schlotterbeck, and Udo Klein. Empty-set effects in quantifier interpretation. Journal of Semantics, 36:99–163, 2019.

[Gol19] Simon Goldstein. Free choice and homogeneity. Semantics and Pragmatics, 12(23):1–47, 2019.

[Kam73] Hans Kamp. Free choice permission. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 74:57–74, 1973.

[MRSB21] Paul Marty, Jacopo Romoli, Yasutada Sudo, and Richard Breheny. Negative free choice. Semantics & Pragmatics, 14(13), 2021.

[Sau04] Uli Sauerland Scalar Implicatures in Complex Sentences. Linguistics and Philosophy, 27:367–391, 2004.

[Zim00] Ede Zimmermann. Free choice disjunction and epistemic possibility. Natural Language Semantics, 8:255–290, 2000.

Dillon presenting to UMass NLP Tuesday 10/3 at 11:30

From the UMassNLP mailing list – all are welcome to attend! Zoom link left out for security – please e-mail Joe Pater if you need it!

SpeakerBrian Dillon

Title: Surprisal does not explain syntactic disambiguation difficultyTime: Tuesday 10/3 (11:30-12:30)

Abstract: Prediction has been proposed as an overarching principle that explains human information processing in language and beyond.  To what degree can processing difficulty in syntactically complex sentences—one of the major concerns of psycholinguistics—be explained by predictability, as estimated using computational language models?  A precise, quantitative test of this question requires a much larger scale data collection effort than has been done in the past.  We present the Syntactic Ambiguity Processing Benchmark, a dataset of self-paced reading times from 2000 participants, who read a diverse set of complex English sentences.  This dataset makes it possible to measure processing difficulty associated with individual syntactic constructions, and even individual sentences, precisely enough to rigorously test the predictions of computational models of language comprehension.  We find that the predictions of language models with two different architectures sharply diverge from the reading time data, dramatically underpredicting processing difficulty, failing to predict relative difficulty among different syntactic ambiguous constructions, and only partially explaining item-wise variability.  These findings suggest that prediction is most likely insufficient on its own to explain human syntactic processing.

Bio: Brian Dillon is an Associate Professor in the Linguistics Department. He is a psycholinguist who specializes in adult language comprehension. He is specifically interested in the role of syntax in incremental sentence processing.


Baird at ServiceNow

Maggie Baird, a current PhD candidate finishing up her dissertation, has started a position as a Content Analyst at ServiceNow. She is on the Operational, Analytics, Linguists and Labellers team working with data for GenAI and LLMs. Congratulations Maggie!