Why relational nominals make good concealed questions

Chris Barker

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    Concealed questions are determiner phrases that are interpreted as if they were questions. For instance, I found out Bill's age can be paraphrased as I found out what Bill's age is. It has long been observed by Löbner and others that DPs headed by inherently relational nouns such as age make excellent concealed questions, but simple DPs headed by sortal nouns such as brick do not: it is difficult or impossible to interpret ??I found out the brick as meaning anything, let alone as containing a concealed question. I argue that this systematic restriction on concealed questions follows from the nature of questions in natural language. Questions generally contain two parts: a foreground, which identifies a set of alternatives, and a background, which distinguishes among those alternatives. For instance, the question Who left? identifies a set of relevant people (the foreground) and asks which of those objects have the property of leaving (the background). My main claim is that in order to qualify as a concealed question, a DP must provide both a foreground and a background. For a DP headed by a relational noun, such as Bill's age, this is natural: the set of ages serves as the alternatives (the foreground), and the property of standing in the appropriate relation to the possessor (Bill) serves as the distinguishing property (the background). In contrast, simple sortal DPs provide only a set of objects (e.g., the set of bricks), without providing any property for distinguishing one brick from another. It is this lack of foreground/background structure that makes DPs headed by sortal nouns defective as concealed questions.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Pages (from-to)12-29
    Number of pages18
    StatePublished - Oct 1 2016


    • Concealed questions
    • Possessives
    • Questions
    • Relational nouns
    • Structured meanings

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Language and Linguistics
    • Linguistics and Language


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