It’s Like This:

Muffy E. A. Siegel, Dept of English, Temple University: Like:

the Discourse Particle and Semantics

Using data from interviews with high school students, I first adduce evidence that lends support to Schourup’s (1985) claim that the United States English adolescent hedge like is a discourse particle signalling a possible slight mismatch between words and meaning. Such a particle would generally be included in a grammar in a post-compositional pragmatic component, but, surprisingly, like also affects basic semantic attributes. These include both truth-conditions and the weak/strong distinction-though only in existential there and sluicing sentences. I argue that the differential behaviour of like in various constructions selecting weak NP’s stems from the restricted free variable it introduces, a variable which only there and sluicing require. This variable is available for binding, quantifier interpretation and other syntactic-semantic processes, yet is pragmatically conditioned. Indeed, I show that, due to its formal properties, like can be interpreted only during the assignment of model-theoretic denotations to expressions, along the lines of Lasersohn’s (1999) pragmatic haloes. These results support the idea that weak/strong is not a unitary distinction and suggest that the various components of grammars must be organized to allow information from pragmatic/discourse elements to affect basic compositional semantics. Journal of Semantics [via NPR’s Morning Edition]. [Isn’t it, like, appropriate that a study of the use of like is written by a Muffy?]