Linguistics and English Language

Meaning and grammar seminar

Speaker: Rebecca Woods (Newcastle University)

Title: The syntax and semantics of biased questions: insights from child acquisition of English (joint work with Tom Roeper, UMass Amherst)

Abstract: Biased questions, in particular high negation questions (1) and tag questions (2), are a fertile ground for debate in formal linguistics.

  1. Didn’t you want that?    HiNegQ
  2. You wanted that, didn’t you?    TagQ

As noted by Romero (2020), many lines of analysis exist, of which two predominate: the “verum” line (Romero and Han 2004; Romero 2015; Bill and Koev 2022) and the “speech act” line (Asher and Reese 2007; Krifka 2015, 2017). These lines cover slightly different empirical spaces; they also make different predictions with respect to acquisition and acquirability.

In terms of acquisition, the “verum” line predicts that HiNegQs and TagQs should be acquired at the same time, or TagQs should follow HiNegQs, as they analyse TagQs as containing a HiNegQ (Bill and Koev 2022). The analysis also predicts that both positive and negative TagQs should emerge simultaneously, or positive TagQs should precede negative ones, as the structure of positive TagQs is minimally simpler than that of negative TagQs.

The ”speech act” line makes quite different predictions. Following Krifka (2017), TagQs could be acquired before HiNegQs because TagQs contain low, not high, negation, which is both more transparent and lower in the tree than high negation which operates over an extra-propositional object. Asher and Reese’s (2007) analysis also predicts TagQs to be syntactically simpler than NegQs, though the use of both TagQs and NegQs is, by their account, contingent on complex conversational axioms, which would be difficult for very young children to acquire.

We will present evidence from child production of English as captured in the CHILDES database that the speech act line better reflects the acquisition trajectory of children both quantitatively and qualitatively. We will make a new proposal for the structure of negative tags and of biased questions, based on Krifka (2015, 2017) that captures the differences in their acquisition, and strengthen this proposal using new adult judgement data that focuses on felicitous uses of and responses to negative tags and biased questions. Future work including analyses of positive tags and other instances of high negation (such as negative polar exclamatives) is briefly sketched.


  • Asher, Nicholas and Brian Reese. 2007. Intonation and Discourse: Biased Questions. In Shin Ishihara, Stefanie Jannedy and Anne Schwarz, eds. Interdisciplinary Studies on Information Structure (ISIS) 8, pp.1-38. Potsdam: Universitätsverlag Potsdam.
  • Bill, Cory and Todor Koev. 2022. Bias in Tag structures. Submitted for inclusion in Manfred Krifka et al (eds), Biased Questions: Experimental Results and Theoretical Modelling, to appear with Language Sciences Press.
  • Krifka, Manfred. 2015. Bias in commitment space semantics: Declarative questions, negated questions and question tags. In Sarah D’Antonio, Mary Moroney and Carol-Rose Little (eds), Proceedings of SALT 25 (pp.328–345). Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University.
  • Krifka, Manfred. 2017. Negated polarity questions as denegations of assertions.
  • Romero, Maribel. 2015. High negation in subjunctive conditionals and polar questions. In Proceedings of Sinn und Bedeutung 19 (pp.499–516). Göttingen: University of Göttingen.
  • Romero, Maribel. 2020. Form and function of negative, tag, and rhetorical questions. In Viviane Déprez and Maria-Teresa Espinal, eds. The Ocford Handbook of Negation (pp.235-254). Oxford: OUP.
  • Romero, Maribel and Chung-hye Han. 2004. On negative yes/no questions. Linguistics and Philosophy 27(5), 609–658.


Seminars are organised by the meaning and grammar research group.

Meaning and grammar research group

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Jan 24 2023 -

Meaning and grammar seminar

2023-01-24: The syntax and semantics of biased questions: insights from child acquisition of English

Room 2.11, Appleton Tower, 11 Crichton Street, Edinburgh, EH8 9LE