Modal Indefinites

Paula Menéndez-Benito

  • Area: LaLo
  • Level: A
  • Week: 1
  • Time: 11:00 – 12:30
  • Room: C3.06


Modal indefinites are existential items that convey modal inferences. Across languages, modal indefinites express two types of modal meanings (Haspelmath, 1997). Epistemic indefinites give us information about the epistemic state of the speaker. For instance, the use of Spanish algún in (1) signals that the speaker does not know which doctor María  married (see Alonso-Ovalle and Menéndez-Benito 2015 for a recent overview of epistemic indefinites). Random choice indefinites indicate that an agent made an indiscriminate choice (Kim and Kaufmann, 2007; Choi, 2007; Choi and Romero, 2008; Rivero, 2011a,b; Alonso-Ovalle and Menéndez-Benito, 2013; Chierchia, 2013; Fălăuș 2014). For example, the Spanish sentence in (2), with the random choice indefinite uno cualquiera, compares what Juan actually did (e.g., buying book a) with other alternative, non- actual, actions that he could have undertaken (e.g., buying book b, buying book c) and says that all those actions count as the same for Juan.

(1)  María se casó con algún médico.
María SE married with ALGÚN doctor
‘María married some doctor or other’
(2)  Juan compró un libro cualquiera.
Juan bought a book cualquiera
‘Juan bought a random book’

The goal of this course is to provide a critical overview of representative research on modal indefinites, addressing questions such as: How do the modal contents expressed by indefinites differ from those attested in the verbal domain? How do modal indefinites interact with other modal elements and why? What is the source of the modal effect? This course will allow students to get acquainted with two current research programs: the development of an explanatory semantic typology of indefinite phrases and the investigation of modality across categories.


The target audience for this course are graduate students who have taken at least one introductory course in formal semantics at the graduate (M.A. or Ph.D.) level.

Tentative Outline

Day 1. Introduction. Modal indefinites: descriptive overview and research questions. Some parameters of variation. Types of modal content. Epistemic indefinites: degrees of ignorance, type of evidence, interaction with non-epistemic modals, interaction with plurality. Random choice indefinites and modal selectivity.

Day 2. Epistemic indefinites 1. The source of the modal effect. Assessment of the implicature analysis (Alonso-Ovalle and Menéndez-Benito, 2008, 2010; Fălăuș ̧, 2014; Chierchia, 2013).

Day 3. Epistemic indefinites 2. The source of the modal effect: assessment of a pragmatic ap- proach based on conceptual covers. (Aloni and Port, 2013). Exploring new empirical generalizations: epistemic indefinites and evidential constraints (Alonso-Ovalle and Menéndez- Benito, 2013a).

Day 4. Random choice indefinites 1. Type of modality. Assessing the counterfactual approach (Choi, 2007; Choi and Romero, 2008).

Day 5. Random Choice Indefinites 2. Modal Selectivity. Assessing the decision-based approach (Alonso-Ovalle and Menéndez-Benito, 2013b). Taking stock.


Lecture 1
Lecture 2
Lecture 3
Lecture 4
Lecture 5

Overviews and Monographs

Alonso-Ovalle Luis and Paula Menéndez-Benito  (2015). Epistemic Indefinites. Exploring Modality Beyond the Verbal Domain. Oxford University Press

Alonso-Ovalle Luis and Paula Menéndez-Benito (2013c). Two Views on Epistemic Indefinites. Language and Linguistics Compass, 17(2):105–122

Alonso-Ovalle Luis and Paula Menéndez-Benito  (to appear). Free Choice Items and Modal Indefinites. In Lisa Matthewson, Cécile Meier, Hotze Rullmann, and Thomas Ede Zimmermann (eds.), Companion to Semantics. Wiley

Chierchia, Gennaro (2013). Logic in Grammar. Polarity, Free Choice and Intervention. Oxford: Oxford University Press