Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Sam Al Khatib

Committee Members

William McClure

Jon Nissenbaum

Anna Szabolcsi

Subject Categories

Semantics and Pragmatics


wh-indefinites, Mandarin Chinese, epistemic reading


This dissertation investigates the non-uniformity of Chinese wh-indefinites. The different algebraic structures associated with the different wh-indefinites are shown to play a signif- icant role in determining their possible readings. Specifically, those wh-indefinites that are associated with an unordered algebraic structure can give rise to an epistemic reading in both positive and negative sentences. Those wh-indefinites that are associated with a structure of total ordering never have an epistemic reading. They have an existential reading in posi- tive sentences and generate an insignificance reading under a clausemate negation. Shenme ‘what’ is a special in that it straddles both types of wh-indefinites. When it is interpreted as kind-denoting, it is associated with an unordered structure and has an epistemic read- ing; when it is degree-denoting, however, it is associated with a structure of total ordering, leading to an insignificance reading under a clausemate negation.

The proposed analysis through the lens of algebraic structure not only accounts for the non-uniformity of Chinese wh-indefinites, but also sheds light on the semantics of the particles that interact with the wh-indefinites. The multi-functional particle dou is an example. Two different groups of theories have been proposed to explain its different uses. The first group analyzes dou as a distributor and the second takes it to be semantically equivalent to English even. Bringing in the insights of the algebraic theory of Chinese wh-indefinites, I argue that the second group of theories is on the wrong track.