One of my main areas of research is in the pragmatics of natural language, using tools from formal semantics, especially dynamic approaches. Broadly, this research addresses questions like: what do people talk about? How is aboutness and topicality indicated in natural language? What inferences can speakers draw about aboutness from past moves in discourse?

Much of this research is at the interface of pragmatics and compositional semantics. (Despite the way I’ve broken up topics on this webpage, I do not believe in a crisp division of any kind between these research areas.)

Related teaching: Semantics 1 and 2 cover the basics of pragmatics, and I often teach seminars related to advanced topics in these areas. (As does Justin Bledin in JHU Philosophy.)

The dynamics of questions

While I’ve worked on many topics to do with questions, two special focuses are suppositional questions and non-constituent questions (e.g. polar and alternative questions).

A suppositional question is one that appears in some context that involves a temporary supposition, for example in the consequent of a conditional. Understanding these pushes theories of both questions and conditionals to the limit. (Isaacs & Rawlins 2005; Isaacs & Rawlins 2008; Rawlins 2010; Bledin & Rawlins 2019)

  1. Bledin, Justin & Kyle Rawlins. 2019. What if? Semantics & Pragmatics 12(14). DOI: 10.3765/sp.12.14
  2. Isaacs, James & Kyle Rawlins. 2005. Speech acts under if-clauses. In Proceedings of CLS 41, 179–192.
  3. Isaacs, James & Kyle Rawlins. 2008. Conditional Questions. Journal of Semantics 25. 269–319. DOI: 10.1093/jos/ffn003
  4. Rawlins, Kyle. 2010. Conversational backoff. In Nan Li & David Lutz (eds.), Proceedings of SALT 20, 347–365. DOI: 10.3765/salt.v20i0.2550

Since graduate school, I’ve been interested in trying to understand polar and alternative questions, and other non-constituent question types: despite their apparent structural simplicity, they lead to a range of complicated data involving speakers’ expression of bias in discourse. Much of this work has pursued the idea that polar and alternative questions are used to signal alternative(s) in what the speaker takes to be the current Question Under Discussion. See Rawlins 2008; Biezma & Rawlins 2012; Biezma & Rawlins 2015; Frana & Rawlins 2016; Biezma & Rawlins 2016; Biezma & Rawlins 2017; Biezma & Rawlins 2017; Frana & Rawlins 2019.

Related teaching: in 2016 I taught an NASSLLI course “modeling questions and responses in discourse”, covering the pragmatics of questions and the relation between linguistic theories of questions and (pre-deep-learning) AI Question Answering systems, mainly Watson. The slides are still available.

See also: Questions and Compositionality

  1. Biezma, María & Kyle Rawlins. 2012. Responding to alternative and polar questions. Linguistics and Philosophy 35. 361–406. DOI: 10.1007/s10988-012-9123-z
  2. Biezma, María & Kyle Rawlins. 2015. Alternative Questions. Language and Linguistic Compass 9. 450–468. DOI: 10.1111/lnc3.12161
  3. Biezma, María & Kyle Rawlins. 2016. ‘Or what?’: Challenging the speaker. In Christopher Hammerly & Brandon Prickett (eds.), Proceedings of NELS 46, Vol. 1, 93–106. Download:
  4. Biezma, María & Kyle Rawlins. 2017. Or what? Semantics & Pragmatics 10. DOI: 10.3765/sp.10.16
  5. Biezma, María & Kyle Rawlins. 2017. Rhetorical questions: severing questioning from asking. In Dan Burgdorf, Jacob Collard, Sireemas Maspong, & Brynhildur Stefánsdóttir (eds.), Proceedings of SALT 27, 302–322. DOI: 10.3765/salt.v27i0.4155
  6. Frana, Ilaria & Kyle Rawlins. 2016. Italian ‘mica’ in assertions and questions. In Nadine Bade, Polina Berezovskaya, & Anthea Schöller (eds.), Proceedings of Sinn und Bedeutung 20, 234–251. Download:
  7. Frana, Ilaria & Kyle Rawlins. 2019. Attitudes in discourse: Italian polar questions and the particle ‘mica.’ Semantics & Pragmatics 12(16). DOI: 10.3765/sp.12.16
  8. Rawlins, Kyle. 2008. (Un)conditionals: an investigation in the syntax and semantics of conditional structures. UC Santa Cruz: Ph.D. Dissertation. Download:

Attention in discourse

Recently, Justin Bledin and I have been exploring how utterances can draw attention to issues without explicit questions, and what the consequences are for these attentional shifts. (Rawlins 2010; Bledin & Rawlins 2016; Bledin & Rawlins 2020)

  1. Bledin, Justin & Kyle Rawlins. 2016. Epistemic Resistance Moves. In Mary Moroney, Carol-Rose Little, Jacob Collard, & Dan Burgdorf (eds.), Proceedings of SALT 26, 620–640. DOI: 10.3765/salt.v26i0.3812
  2. Bledin, Justin & Kyle Rawlins. 2020. Resistance and Resolution in Discourse. Journal of Semantics 37(1). 43–82. DOI: 10.1093/jos/ffz015
  3. Rawlins, Kyle. 2010. Conversational backoff. In Nan Li & David Lutz (eds.), Proceedings of SALT 20, 347–365. DOI: 10.3765/salt.v20i0.2550

Definite descriptions in context

My first qualifying paper in in grad school was about definite descriptions, and I’ve dabbled in them ever since. Most recently, I’ve been collaborating with former PhD student Sadhwi Srinivas on this topic looking especially at a range of cross-linguistic data on definiteness. See Rawlins 2005; Rawlins 2006; Rawlins 2006; Rawlins 2015; Srinivas & Rawlins 2020; Srinivas & Rawlins 2022; Srinivas & Rawlins 2021; Srinivas, Rawlins & Heller 2021.

  1. Rawlins, Kyle. 2005. Possessive Definites and the Definite Article. UCSC Linguistics Qualifying paper. Download:
  2. Rawlins, Kyle. 2006. Of-possessive Pivots. Paper presented at Stanford Existentials Fest. Download:
  3. Rawlins, Kyle. 2006. Possessive antecedents to donkey pronouns. In Donald Baumer, David Montero, & Michael Scanlon (eds.), Proceedings of WCCFL 25, 337–345. Cascadilla Press. Download:
  4. Rawlins, Kyle. 2015. Indifference and scalar inferences in free relatives. In Paula Menéndez-Benito & Luis Alonso-Ovalle (eds.), Epistemic indefinites, 267–287. Oxford University Press. DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199665297.003.0012
  5. Srinivas, Sadhwi & Kyle Rawlins. 2020. An experimental investigation of the role of uniqueness and familiarity in interpreting definite descriptions. In Nari Rhee & Ryan Budnick (eds.), Proceedings of PLC 43, Vol. 26.
  6. Srinivas, Sadhwi & Kyle Rawlins. 2021. On the Indefinite Readings of Kannada Bare Nominals. In D. K. E. Reisinger & Marianne Huijsmans (eds.), Proceedings of the 37th West Coast Conference on Formal Linguistics, 214–225. Download:
  7. Srinivas, Sadhwi & Kyle Rawlins. 2022. Anaphoric variability in Kannada bare nominals. In Ishani Guha, Sana Kidwai, & Martha Schwarz (eds.), Proceedings of (F)ASAL-10, Download:
  8. Srinivas, Sadhwi, Kyle Rawlins & Daphna Heller. 2021. Asymmetries between uniqueness and familiarity in the semantics of definite descriptions. In Joseph Rhyne, Kaelyn Lamp, Nicole Dreier, & and Chloe Kwon (eds.), Proceedings of SALT 30, 694–713. DOI: 10.3765/salt.v30i0.4854