Assistant Professor and Interim Director of Graduate Studies, Department of Cognitive Science
Dr. Rawlins is interested in the area of semantics, as well as closely related fields, syntax and pragmatics. There are two core empirical topics that much of my work focuses on. One is an understanding of how questions work in natural languages. That is, how are questions constructed, what can they mean, and how do/can people respond to them? The other is an understanding of how people talk about hypothetical situations — situations that will happen in the future, that might happen, that didn’t happen but could have, or that couldn’t have happened at all. People engage in this kind of conversation pervasively, using specific linguistic resources — modal words like English “might”, “would”, “should”, and so on, conditional adjuncts like “if Alfonso comes to the party” and “to get to the party”, as in “if Alfonso comes to the party, it will be fun” and “to get to the party, you should get off 83 at Falls Rd.” My goal is to understand the linguistic structure and properties of these resources, and understand the way the grammar models meanings of such sentences.
More generally, he is interested in the semantics of modification: the meanings of adverbs, adjectives, and how they interact with the meanings of sentences the appear in. He is also interested in the question of what role the idea of compositionality mentioned above actually plays in the grammar, and how strong of a principle it is. Finally, he is interested in the formal “power” of grammars — grammars form a hierarchy of what kinds of languages they can describe, and it is an unsettled question as to where grammars of natural languages (and their parts) fall on this hierarchy. The main idea I am pursuing is that the semantic component of the grammar is more powerful in this sense than certain other components.