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Linguistics and Philosophy 8 (2): pp. 263 - 282 (1985)

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DO WE NEED

INTERVAL

SEMANTICS?

M a n y sentences - as, for example, 'John played the piano for an hour

yesterday' - involve explicit reference to intervals of time. Surely everyb o d y would agree that they cannot be properly analyzed without invoking

intervals; everybddy, therefore, is an interval semanticist in this sense.

H o w e v e r , the term 'interval semantics' has recently been used in a

narrower sense, to denote a certain modification of what is known as

possible-world semantics. It is this modification that this article is concerned with.

1. I N T E R V A L SEMANTICS

As well known, the basic idea of possible-world semantics is that the actual

world is one of m a n y possible worlds, and that propositions, properties,

relations, individual concepts, and the like can be explicated as settheoretical entities o v e r a logical space consisting of couples of the form

( W , T}, where W is a possible world and T a time. A proposition is

explicated as the class of those world/time couples at which the proposition is true, a property as a function associating each world/time couple

with the class of individuals instantiating the property at that couple, and

an individual concept as a function associating with each world/time

couple the individual which embodies, or is picked out by, the concept at

that couple. T h e c o n c e p t of Miss America, to use an illustration given in

Dowty, Wall, and Peters,

is that function which for each index (i.e. each world/time couple) gives the person picked out

by the name ('Miss America') at that world and time. (1981, p. 176)

T h e proponents of interval semantics argue that this a p p r o a c h is in need of

reform. On their view, the logical space of world/instant couples is too

narrow and must be supplanted by a logical space of couples of the f o r m

( W , I), where W is a world and I is an (uninterrupted) interval of time.

T h e idea is usually credited to Bennett and Partee, who, according to

Dowty

made the fundamental revision of taking truth of an atomic sentence at an interval as basic.

That is... an index is taken to be an ordered pair consisting of a possible world and an

interval, and an interpretation function [to] assign to each constant a function from the set of

all indices to an appropriate extension. (1979, p. 138)

D o w t y accepts the proposal in his book. K a m p reports that

Linguistics and Philosophy 8 (1985) 263-282. 0165-0157/85.10

O 1985 by D. Reidel Publishing Company

264

PAVEL TICH~(

[a semantic description] which has received much attention in recent work on tense and

aspect, relates to the temporal elements with respect to which such semantic notions as truth

and satisfaction are (recursively) defined. For Cocchiarella these elements are simply

instants; but in subsequent work it has been claimed that such semantic concepts must be

analysed as relations between expressions and intervals rather than between expressions and

moments of time. (1979, p. 392)

Cresswell states that

until very recently a temporal index [at which a sentence is assessed for truth and falsity]

would have been thought of as a single moment or instant of time, but certain authors have

considered that the appropriate index is rather a time interval... This paper accepts the idea.

(1977, p. 7)

Barry Richards makes the same assumption:

a proposition.., is a function from worlds and intervals to truth-values. (1982, p. 68)

This switch from instants to intervals may seem a minor alteration at first

sight; but a little reflection reveals that it necessitates a radical revision of

some of the most basic semantic intuitions.

T o begin with, the intervalist proposal requires a radical revision of our

intuitive notion of proposition. As ordinarily understood, a proposition is

the sort of thing that one can assert. Moreover, once a proposition is

asserted, it is a matter of objective fact whether the assertion is correct.

For example, when someone asserts that

(1)

It is 30 C

because at the m o m e n t of assertion, it either is 30 C or it is not. This

simple account of asserting is neatly explicated in ordinary possible-world

semantics, where a proposition is thought of as a class of world/instant

pairs. E v e r y act of assertion determines a unique world/instant pair,

namely the one which consists of the world ~which happens to be actualized

and of the instant which happens to be current when the assertion is made.

The assertion is then correct just in case this distinguished pair is a

m e m b e r of the proposition.

Nothing so simple can be said on the intervalist approach, which takes a

proposition to be a class of world/interval pairs. One cannot say that an

assertion of such a proposition is correct just in case the couple consisting

of the world which is actualized and of the interval which is current when

the assertion is made is a m e m b e r of the proposition. For there is no such

thing as the interval current when the assertion is made. Any assertion is

made in the middle of no end of current intervals. It is unclear which of

them is relevant in evaluating the assertion.

T o illustrate, consider the class of couples of the form (W, I), where W

DO WE NEED

INTERVAL

SEMANTICS?

265

according to the intervalist, is a perfectly good proposition, one which is

true in any world 'at' any half-hour interval. Now suppose that someone

tries to assert that proposition, perhaps by uttering

(2)

It is half-an-hour,

objective condition must be satisfied in order for the assertion to be

correct? There is obviously no such condition, hence the speaker did not

state anything. The class of world/interval pairs in question thus does not

represent a proposition in the ordinary sense of the term. And this is why

(2), as distinct from (1), is a piece of unintelligible nonsense.

Interval semanticists themselves never discuss expressions like (2),

despite the fact that 'sentences' of that sort illustrate the essence of their

proposal in a pure form. But the comments just made about (2) apply with

equal force to 'sentences' which they do discuss; for example

(3)

(4)

(Dowty, 1979, p. 333). (3) is supposed to express the class of world/interval couples ( W, I) such that John is in Boston twice in W 'at' I. But when

(3) is asserted, which world/interval couple must be in that class in order

for the assertion to be acceptable? (3) is clearly no more intelligible than

(2): when someone tells us that John is in Boston, it is absurd to ask 'How

many times?'; and an answer to an absurd question is itself absurd.

Similarly, (4) is supposed to express the class of world/interval couples

(W, I) such that I is a one-hour interval 'at' which John sleeps in W. But

which interval must John sleep 'at' in order for a given assertion of (4) to

be true?

Some intervalists (for example, Richards) try to resolve the difficulty by

imagining that the maker of an assertion somehow deictically selects a

definite current interval of time with respect to which he intends the

assertion to be evaluated. This, however, is implausible on at least two

counts. For one thing, it is difficult to see how this interval selection can

possibly be communicated. (Note that the sentence 'John is in Boston

twice today' cannot express the same intervalist proposition as (3) does, for

it is presumably true or false, as the case may be, at any of today's

one-instant intervals.) Besides, the interval would often have to be

selected with an unrealistically high degree of accuracy. Suppose, for

266

P A V E L TICH'Y

example, that John's nap is exactly one hour long and someone asserts (4)

in the middle of it. Then on Richards's theory, the statement will be false

not only if the selected interval is ever so slightly shorter or longer than an

hour, but also if it is of the right length but ever so slightly shifted

backwards or forwards vis-a-vis the actual duration of the nap.

Other authors (e.g., Kamp, 1979, p. 392) seem to assume that the

proper temporal index of evaluation is always the interval whose only

element is the instant of assertion. On that assumption, any assertion of (3)

or (4) would be invariably incorrect. But then it would seem to follow that

any denial of (3) or (4) is invariably correct. This, however, hardly agrees

with linguistic practice: it is hardly correct to say 'John does not sleep for

an hour' in the middle of John's one-hour n a p )

A natural solution - one which is in full agreement with linguistic

practice - would be to declare that neither (3) nor (4) is a well-formed

sentence. But interval semanticists are understandably disinclined to take

this way out, for it is a hallmark of their approach to write such sentences

without attaching the asterisk of impropriety.

But even assuming that the question of the proper evaluation interval of

an assertion has been somehow settled, there still remains a problem as to

what particular proposition (i.e., which particular set of world-interval

couples) an asserted sentence expresses. This is because it is unclear what

the extensions of various quite simple lexical items at a world-interval pair

are supposed to be.

Consider 'yesterday'. On the world/instant approach there is no problem. The extension of 'yesterday' in world W at moment T is simply the

latest interval which is a day and precedes T. But once instants have been

traded for intervals, no such simple answer is forthcoming. What is the

extension of 'yesterday' 'at' an interval which straddles two days? What is

its extension 'at' a year-long interval, say 'at' 1983? Dowty and Richards

try to solve the problem by relegating 'yesterday' to a class of expressions

whose extension at a world/interval index is not a function of that index at

all and is determined in an index-independent way. (It is therefore

somewhat confusing that Dowty calls yesterday an indexical constant.

This terminological confusion is hardly alleviated by Dowty's treatment of

'now', a constant which one would expect to come from the same box as

'yesterday'. For the extension of 'now' at a world-interval index is,

according to Dowty (1977, p. 333), uniquely determined by the index: it is

identical with the temporal component of the index. And this, he says, is

what makes that constant fully indexical.) It is of the essence of possibleworld semantics to represent the meaning of a term as a function from

world/time indices to appropriate extensions. When the temporal corn-

DO

WE NEED

INTERVAL

SEMANTICS?

267

be treated that way.

But let us set 'yesterday' aside and consider 'Miss America'. As

mentioned above, on the world/instant approach, the meaning of the term

is represented by a function which takes a world and a moment to whoever

holds the title in that world at that moment. It is far from clear, on the

other hand, which function from world/interval pairs to individuals is

supposed to represent the meaning of the term on the intervalist approach.

Given that a fresh Miss America is selected every year, what is to be the

value of the function at a pair consisting of the actual world and an interval

in the middle of which an annual selection is made? Should perhaps the

term 'Miss America' be treated the way Richards and Dowty treat

'yesterday', namely as taking semantic value independently of the

world/interval index?

Similar comments apply to property words. It is obvious, for example,

which function from world/instants to classes of individuals represents the

meaning of 'is in Boston' on the punctualist approach. But if the

representing function is to be defined at world/intervals, we have a

problem whenever the interval in question is of positive duration. Since

people constantly cross Boston's city boundary in both directions, it is

unclear which individuals should belong to the value of that function 'at'

such an interval: those who spend all of it within the boundary, or s o m e of

it, or perhaps m o s t of it?

Pending a resolution of all these problems, it remains unclear what is the

meaning of a sentence like 'Miss America is in Boston'. The interval

semanticist wants to represent its meaning as the class of world/interval

pairs at which the sentence is true. But consider any interval which

includes either a crowning of Miss America or a crossing by Miss America

of Boston's city limits. Is the sentence true or false at that interval? Either

option seems at odds with our intuitions. Should we perhaps posit further

truth values? Some intervalists (e.g., Kamp, 1979, p. 397) indeed suggest

that perhaps we should.

We thus see that the innocent looking step of replacing instants by

intervals amounts in fact to a major revision of some basic principles

underlying possible-world semantics.Thus the reasons which motivate the

step should be very compelling indeed. What are they?

2. M O T I V A T I O N

interval semanticists by way of motivating the new approach.

268

P A V E L TICH~(

(5)

The truth of this sentence depends on the length and temporal location of

intervals which John spends drawing a (full) circle. But such an interval

cannot be defined as one consisting of moments at which John draws a

(full) circle. Since drawing a circle takes time, there are no such moments,

hence no intervals at all would fall under such a definition. Therefore, the

sentence 'John draws a circle', embedded in (5), must take truth-values at

intervals, not moments.

Argument 2 (Dowty, 1979, p. 139). Consider

(6)

The truth of this sentence depends on the length and temporal location of

intervals which John spends playing the piano. But an interval of this sort

cannot be defined as a maximal interval consisting of moments at which it

is true to say that John plays the piano. An hour of John's piano-playing

can legitimately contain short brow-wiping or nose-blowing breaks,

during which John does not play the piano. Such an hour would not fall

under that definition. Therefore, the sentence 'John plays the piano',

embedded in (6), must take truth-values at intervals, not just moments.

Argument 3 (Kamp, 1979, p. 392-3). Consider

(7)

The truth of this sentence depends on the length of the intervals which

Fritz spends writing an article. But an interval of this sort cannot be

defined as a maximal interval consisting of moments at which it is true to

say that Fritz writes an article. Since Fritz may start on an article before he

has finished another, some intervals falling under this definition would be

too long. Therefore, the sentence 'Fritz writes an article', embedded in (7),

takes truth-values at intervals, not just moments.

Do the premises of Dowty's and Kamp's arguments establish the

conclusions?

Each of the examples illustrates the fact that for an interval to have a

property is not the same thing as for each instant in the interval to have

that property. The fact is obvious, the properties of being one hour long,

and having passed, being trivial cases in point: a one-hour interval does

not consist of one-hour instants, and an interval which has not passed yet

maY nevertheless contain many instants which have already passed.

Dowty's and Kamp's arguments simply provide further cases: the property

of being taken by John to draw a circle, the property of being devoted by

DO

WE

NEED

INTERVAL

SEMANTICS?

269

John to playing the piano, and the property of being spent by Fritz writing

a (complete) article. But these observations nowise necessitate the

authors' conclusion that the atomic sentences embedded in (5), (6), and (7)

have to be evaluated at intervals of time rather than moments of time. All

the invoked data can be equally well accounted for by assuming that (5),

(6), and (7) involve quantification over time intervals. Instead of construing the predicates 'draw a circle', 'play the piano', and 'write an article' as

signifying properties which individuals instantiate at intervals, they can be

construed as relations between individuals and intervals. Drawing a circle,

for instance, can be construed as a relation R which obtains between an

agent and an interval just in case the agent spends no more and no less

than that interval drawing a full circle. (5) can then be analyzed as saying

that there exists an interval I such that I is past, I is one hour long, and

John bears R to I. On this construal, (5) as a whole is true or false, and the

embedded (open) subclause 'John bears R to 1' satisfied or countersatisfied, at moments of time, not intervals.

This, in fact, is the style of analysis proposed by Barry Taylor in Taylor

(1977). On his theory, the word 'stab' signifies a relation, Stab, between

the stabber, the stabbed and the interval taken up by the stabbing. His

paraphrase of 'Brutus is stabbing Caesar', for example, is then

where 't' ranges over intervals of time and r- is the subinterval relation.

Just like the formula as a whole, its subclause 'Stab(b, c, t)' evaluates at

instants, not intervals. (In fact, for any particular value of t, 'Stab(b, c, t)'

is an 'eternal' sentence true either at all instants or at none.) Taylor's

approach is thus an antithesis of what goes under the name 'interval

semantics.' The fac t that some interval semanticists (e.g., Dowty, 1979, p.

166) treat Taylor as an honorary member of the intervalist movement

shows that they are not fully aware of the gravity of their own proposal.

Taylor is an interval semanticist only in the trivial sense of entertaining

intervals at all: his logical space is the conventional one.

However, interval semantics and Taylor's theory do have a common

source: the realization, on the part of the proponents, that the extension of

a non-stative verb in a world cannot be exhaustively described in the form

of a function which associates individuals with classes of instants. Circledrawing, for example, is not fully described by such a function, for an

individual who draws circles the way a chain-smoker Consumes cigarettes

would have to be associated with a class of instants forming a long,

uninterrupted interval, from which the break-down into one-circle intervals could not be recovered.

270

PAVEL TICHY

3. I N T E R V A L S

But interval semanticists are mistaken if they think, as they seem to do,

that the extension of a non-stative verb can be adequately described by a

function which associates individuals with classes of continuous intervals.

C o n s i d e r 'draw a circle' again. Is the circle-drawing history of the world

captured by associating each individual with the class of minimal uninterrupted intervals during which the individual succeeds in drawing a full

circle in that world?

Imagine that John, who has taken up circle-drawing as a hobby, started,

at the beginning of 1983, to draw an unusually large circle which he did

not complete until the end of the year. T h e circle-drawing function will

record this fact by associating John with a class of intervals one of which is

the whole of 1983. But this uninterrupted year-long interval yields no

information concerning the distribution of times which John devoted to

the project. Thus the function does not enable us to decide the truth-value

of, say,

(8)

even if we know how John divided his year between work and leisure.

Since a circle can be drawn in fits and starts, a function describing the

circle-drawing activities in a world should associate individuals with

classes of broken as well as unbroken intervals.

But a little reflection reveals that the admission of broken intervals

would still not be enough. An individual can display two distinct circledrawing behaviours over the very same interval of time, solid or broken.

H e can draw one circle with his right hand and another circle with his left

foot, taking exactly the same time over both. A function which associates

each individual with the class of intervals during which the individual

draws a circle does not tell us, as regards a given interval o~ this sort,

whether it is one during which the individual accomplished one, two, or

even more circle-drawing feats. One may know the function and yet be at

a loss to determine the truth-value of the sentence

(9)

Examples of this sort suggest that an adequate description of the circledrawing activities taking place in a world must take the form of a function

associating each individual not with the (continuous or broken) timestretches he spends drawing a circle but with those of his behaviours which

amount, in that world, to drawing a circle.

A behaviour is a kind of episode. What is an episode? An episode is best

conceived as a series of momentary basic events happening over some

DO

WE NEED

INTERVAL

SEMANTICS?

271

which make it up, and the stages can in turn be identified with propositions

stating their occurrence. Thus, a particular fall of rock X can be identified

with the class of true propositions of the form

X is in place P at time T,

for every instant T within the duration of the fall. The individual

propositions in the class are rather like individual frames in a film clip,

except that film frames are temporally discrete and contain information

relating not only to the episode depicted but also to the background

against which it unfolds.3

A circle-drawing behaviour by John is an episode of this sort. It may

consist of a series of positions of John's right hand (i.e., of propositions of

the form: John's right hand is in such-and-such position at such-and-such

time). Another circle-drawing behaviour may consist of a series of

positions of John's left foot. These will be two numerically distinct

episodes even if they take up exactly the same interval of time.

The inadequacy of the intervalist approach is most strikingly manifested

in its inability to deal with truncated behaviours. Suppose that John was

struck by lightning in the middle of drawing a circle. Although the circle

was never finished, it is nevertheless true to say that

(10)

How can one account for this in a theory which represents the extension of

'draw a circle' by associating individuals with time intervals? Since the

class of intervals associated with John relative to the actual world will

contain only intervals during which John in fact produces a complete

circle, no member of that class will correspond to the actual circle-drawing

effort thwarted by the lightning. The duration of that effort will, of course,

be an initial segment of an interval during which John draws a full circle in

some other possible world. But the mere circumstance that John spends an

interval drawing a circle in some unactualized possible world has by itself

no bearing on what John does during an initial segment of that interval in

the actual world. It may have a bearing, however, if the alternative

(unactualized) world satisfies some further condition. What condition?

According to Dowty (1977, p. 57) and Dowty (1979, p. 146) it is the

condition of being exactly like the actual world up to the time of the

interruption. Dowty suggests, in other words, that on the assumptions of

the example, (10) is true because there is an unactualized possible world

which is exactly like the actual world up to the time of the lightning strike

and in which John succeeds in completing the circle. But is there such a

272

PAVEL TICHY

world? It seems obvious that in a world which is exactly like the actual

world up to the time of the lightning strike, the strike also takes place and

aborts John's drawing effort. (There may be possible worlds, of course, in

which a lightning strike is powerless to deflect people from finishing their

drawings, but such worlds are not governed by causal principles w h i c h

govern the actual world, and are not, therefore, exactly like the actual

world at any time.)

Dowty's condition is thus clearly too strong and needs weakening. The

alternative world in which John finishes the actually unfinished circle need

not coincide with the actual world, up to the interruption, in all respects.

All that need be required is that it contain the episode which constitutes

John's actual unfinished effort, say a certain series of positions of John's

right hand. Since the irreversible atmospheric process which actually

eventuated in the lightning strike is no part of that episode, it need not

occur in the alternative world. Now if in the alternative world the episode

in question extends into a full-blown circle-drawing behaviour by John,

John is correctly said to have been actually drawing a circle when the

lightning struck. In other words, (10) is actually true because a piece of

behaviour which he actually displayed just prior to the lightning strike, is

completable into an (unactualized) circle-drawing episode.

This rather obvious idea cannot, of course, be formally implemented if

the extension of 'draw a circle' is represented by associating individuals

with classes of intervals rather than classes of episodes. On the interval

approach, Dowty's unsatisfactory solution seems the only available one.

But granted that, as the foregoing considerations seem to show, the

formal explication of verbs must proceed in terms of episodes rather than

intervals, the question still remains exactly what role should be assigned to

episodes in semantic theory. Should interval semantics be perhaps superseded by episode semantics, in which the truth-value of a statement would

be relative to world and a particular episode? The absurdity of such a

proposal is manifest. The only tenable conclusion is that statements

containing verbs like 'draw a circle' must be analyzed as involving

reference to relations between individuals and episodes and quantification

over episodes.

Each episode uniquely determines the time stretch that it takes up; call

it the running time of the episode. Now suppose O relates each individual

to his circle-drawing behaviours. The truth-condition of

(11)

(11) is true (now, at the very present moment) iff John bears Q to at least

DO WE NEED

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SEMANTICS?

273

one episode whose running time is current. Thus the truth of (11) will often

depend on John's conduct over an interval a part of which is already in the

recent past and another part still in the immediate future. But this does not

alter the fact that it is the present, momentary truth-value of (11) that is at

issue: just like the circumstance that the velocity of a moving body at time

T depends on the positions of the body shortly before and shortly after T,

does not alter the fact that the velocity is the momentary velocity of the

body at the instant T.

The truth-condition of (5) can be explained in terms of Q very much the

way it was explained above in terms of the individual/interval relation R:

(5) is true iff there is at least one episode E such that the running time of E

is a past one-hour interval and John bears O to E. Since the running time

of an episode may be scattered, it is easily seen how the truth-condition of

(8) can be stated in terms of O. But more importantly, (9) presents no

problem either: (9) is true iff John bears O to no more than one episode

whose running time is included in yesterday. This truth-condition is not

satisfied if yesterday John drew two circles simultaneously. Finally, (10) is

true iff the lightning strike occurred during the running time of an (actual)

episode forming an initial segment of an episode to which John bears O in

some world or other. 4

Things, incidentally, are even more complicated. John can draw two

circles at the same time not only by drawing one with his hand and the

other with his foot. If he has two pencils suitably attached to the opposite

ends of a stick, he can draw two circles using just one hand. In this case

only one bodily movement is involved, yet two drawings of a circle take

place. Or, to take a less contrived example, if John throws a stone and kills

two birds, only one behaviour on John's part is involved, yet two

bird-killings take place. This shows that a particular killing of a bird is

characterized not by a single episode, but by an ordered couple of episodes:

a particular avicidal behaviour on the part of the killer, which may be

called the labour episode of the killing, and the death of a particular bird,

which may be called the upshot episode. Two such couples may share their

labour episode and yet be distinct. The extension of a verb like kill a bird

or draw a circle in a world thus cannot be described by associating each

individual with the class of bird-killing behaviours exhibited by the

individual in the world, but with the appropriate class of labour-episode/

upshot-episode couples.

Several independent linguistic phenomena point towards such explication of verbs. Consider the progressive again. Suppose that John

succeeded in pleasing Henrietta by surface mail: he wrote a nice letter

which she received two days later. There may nevertheless be no time at

274

PAVEL TICHY

was writing the letter, he was not pleasing Henrietta yet (she may have

been utterly miserable at that time); but two days later, when Henrietta

was duly pleased, John may have been no longer engaged in pleasing her:

he may have been busy writing to Eunice, or he may have been dead; in

neither of the two cases would he have been correctly reported to be

pleasing Henrietta. On the other hand, when John pleases Henrietta by

giving her a piggy-back ride, then at any time during the ride when

Henrietta is already pleased, John is correctly said to be pleasing her. The

explanation which suggest itself is that the progressive is correctly used

only during the temporal overlap, if any, of the labour episode (i.e., the

writing or the burdened running) with the upshot episode (Henrietta's

pleasure). When there is no overlap, as in the pleasure-by-correspondence

case, the progressive is appropriate at no time.

The present construal of verbs also makes it possible to give a natural

explication of the intuitive distinction between achievement verbs and

performance verbs. Draw a circle, kill a bird, and please Henrietta are

achievement verbs because with them the upshot episode (i.e., the

achievement) is always materially disjoint from the labour episode (i.e., the

effort). Other verbs allow for, or even require, material overlap. Quarrel

with Henrietta is a case in point. The quarrelsome behaviour that John

exhibits when quarrelling with Henrietta is an inalienable part of the result,

the quarrel as a whole.

With some verbs, like stick out one's tongue, the labour coincides

entirely with the upshot. When John is reported to have stuck his tongue

out, there is no implication that he achieved anything over and above the

tongue-sticking behaviour itself. (One may, of course, achieve various

things by sticking out his tongue: upset Henrietta, extinguish a candle, and

the like. But unlike upset Henrietta or extinguish a candle, the verb stick

out one's tongue is incapable of reporting any such behaviour-transcending achievements.) Verbs of this sort are known as performance verbs. A

performance verb is thus one which associates individuals with couples of

episodes whose components coincide.

It should be obvious that no such distinction can be drawn if the

extension of a verb is represented by associating individuals with classes of

intervals. But note that it would be no help to replace intervals with

couples of intervals. Push a cart is clearly an achievement verb, the

pushing effort being materially disjoint from the achievement, i.e., the

motion of the cart. Yet temporally the two episodes coincide. Thus

replacing episodes with their running times would clearly obliterate the

distinction in kind between push a cart (an achievement verb) and stick out

one's tongue (a performance).

DO WE NEED

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SEMANTICS?

275

But what all the above arguments show is merely that ordered couples of

episodes have to be invoked in any semantically adequate account of

c o m m o n sentences. T h e y do not begin to show that sentences take

truth-values with respect to such couples, that the couples must be

promoted to the status of indices of evaluation. When John sticks out his

tongue while drawing a circle, two labour/upshot couples take place. But

surely we do not want to say that John draws a circle is true relative to (or

'at') one of the two couples and false relative to the other. T h e sentence is

true relative to the instant at which it is affirmed because there exists an

appropriate circle-drawing episode couple both components of which are

in progress at that instant.

T h e same goes for the arguments presented by Dowty, Kamp, and

others in favour of intervals. All they establish is the undeniable fact that

intervals play an important role in analyzing many ubiquitous sentences.

T h e y do not begin to show that sentences take truth-values relative to

intervals. And we have seen why it is not a good idea to assume that they

do. For one thing, a switch from instants to intervals as indices of

evaluation opens a Pandora's box of artificial problems lacking any

contact with linguistic intuition. Besides, it breeds unrealistic expectations

concerning the amount of Semantic burden that intervals can bear.

4. THE

SIMPLE PAST

that some properties of intervals cannot be reduced to the properties of

instants belonging to those intervals. T h e r e is, for example, no property

such that for any interval I to be one in which John draws a circle, it is

necessary and sufficient that each instant of I have that property. It is this

very observation which has prompted the intervalist revolution.

It is odd, therefore, that the same theorists fail to appreciate a fact

which, although distinct from the one just mentioned, bears a strong

family resemblance to it. What I have in mind is the equally undeniable

fact that some properties of intervals cannot be defined by specifying what

sort of subintervals they contain. Some interval properties can, of course,

be so defined. For example, for any interval I to be one during which John

draws a circle at least once, it is necessary and sufficient that there exist a

(proper or improper) subinterval of J during which John draws a circle at

least once. But there is no property such that for any interval I to be one

during which John draws a circle exactly twice (or every 5 minutes, or hal]:

the time) it is necessary and sufficient that there exist a subinterval of I

which has that property. In particular, the property of being an interval in

which John draws a circle exactly twice (or every 5 minutes, or half the

276

P A V E L TICH<I

time) does not fill the bill. Yesterday, for example, may fail to be an

interval during which John draws a circle exactly twice (or every 5

minutes, or half the time) despite containing subintervals during which

John does draw a circle exactly twice (or every 5 minutes, or half the time).

Interval semanticists overlook this fact in defining the past and future

tenses. For definiteness, let us consider the simple past. (The comments

which follow carry easily over to the future tense.) A simple-past statement tells us something about a past interval of time, traditionally known

as the reference time: yesterday, last year, the reign of Queen Victoria,

before World War II, and the like. It tells us that the reference time

satisfies some condition or other. Thus the sentence

(12)

which John drew a circle. (Those who take the view that a past-tense

statement is perfectly intelligible without an explicitly specified or tacitly

understood reference time (see, e.g. Hintikka (1982), p. 9), should test it

by phoning the Weather Bureau and asking 'Did it rain?', to see whether

the answer will be an unqualified 'Yes'.)

In many past-tense statements the relevant condition is of the same form

as in (12): an interval satisfies the condition iff it contains a subinterval of a

specified sort. But in other past-tense statements the condition is not of

that form. As we have seen, the condition that the sentence

(13)

particular sort.

Yet the way the intervalists explicate the past tense is based on the

assumption that all reference-time conditions are of the former kind. On

Richards's theory (1982, pp. 99-100) the past tense of a base proposition

A with reference time J has the logical form

Past(J(A)),

where for any proposition A,

subinterval I' of I such that A is true in W at I';

and

that A is true in W at J.

DO

WE

NEED

INTERVAL

SEMANTICS?

277

the form

Past(J, A ),

where for any proposition A and interval J,

subinterval I' of J such that A is true in W at I'.

It is easy to check that these two analyses ascribe to past-tense statements

the same truth-condition. Both Richards's Past(J(A)) and Dowty's Past

(J, A) are true in a world 'at' an interval iff J is before that interval and A

is true 'at' at least one of J's subintervals. But we know already that this

truth-condition cannot be correct. For suppose that yesterday John drew a

circle first thing in the morning, then shortly before lunch, and again after

dinner. Then on the Dowty-Richards truth-condition not only (12) but

(13) too is true, for yesterday does contain a subinterval (namely, the a.m.

part of that day) in which John drew a circle exactly twice.

Thus in general, a past tense statement does not say that the reference

time contains a subinterval of a certain sort. Rather, it says that the

reference time itself is of a certain sort. More particularly, it says that the

reference time is an interval in which the underlying proposition (say, that

John draws a circle) is true with a certain frequency. It is the function of

phrases like 'exactly twice', 'every five minutes', and 'half the time' to

indicate the frequency in question; these phrases are thus fittingly called

frequency adverbs.

In order for the underlying proposition to be true, during the reference

time, with a certain frequency, it is not in general enough that it be true

with that frequency in a proper subinterval of the reference time. In some

special cases it is, as with the frequency adverb 'at least once'. But 'at least

once' is only one of a wide range of frequency adverbs and it is a mistake

to build its meaning into the past-tense operator (Dowry) or into

reference-time operators (Richards). One has to assume, rather, that a

definite frequency adverb, F, occurs in the logical structure of every

past-tense statement, and that the structure of such a statement is

Past(F(A), J).

Dowty and Richards were misled by the syntactic fact that the frequency

adverb 'at least once' is often suppressed in the surface structure.

It might be argued that if this analysis is correct then interval semantics

is inevitable. For F(A) must clearly be true or false of intervals of time, not

278

PAVEL TICHY

that the result of applying a frequency adverb to a proposition is another

proposition. T h e premise is hardly uncontroversial. It is hardly obvious

that

(14)

John draws a circle exactly twice (every five minutes, half the

time)

someone's company, or reluctantly; each of these is a manner of drawing a

circle. But is exactly twice, every five minutes, or half the time a manner of

drawing a circle? C o m m o n sense would have it that it is not John that may

or may not draw a circle exactly twice, every five minutes etc., but rather a

time interval that may or may not be one in which John draws a circle

exactly twice, every five minutes, etc. In other words, (14) does not express

a self-contained proposition but rather something which yields a proposition only when applied to a time interval, as in 'Yesterday is a day in

which John draws a circle exactly twice' (which is j u s t an unidiomatic

paraphrase of (13)). It is thus natural to say that (in each world) a

frequency adverb transforms a proposition into a class of intervals, not

into a proposition. T h e adverb 'at least once', for example, takes the

proposition John draws a circle to the class, say Ca, of intervals in which

John draws a circle at least once, while 'exactly twice' takes the same

proposition to the class, say C2, of intervals in which John draws a circle

exactly twice. (Clearly C2 c Ca, but not vice versa.)

T h e past-tense relation Past itself works in the following way: Let C be

a class of intervals and J a particular interval. If the whole of J is in future,

then Past(C, J) is undefined (i.e., truth-valueless); otherwise Past(C, J) is

true or false according as the non-future part of J is or is not a member of

C. Assuming, as above, that yesterday was a day on which John drew a

circle thrice, yesterday is a m e m b e r of C1, but not of (72; thus it is that (12)

is true and (13) is false. T h e sentences 'John drew a circle (at least once)

tomorrow' and 'John drew a circle exactly twice tomorrow' are both

truth-valueless because the whole of tomorrow is in the future. 5

5. THE

PRESENT

PERFECT

error which is closely analogous to the error we detected in their treatment

of the simple past.

As we have seen, the fact that in past-tense sentences the frequency

adverb 'at least once' is often syntactically null misled Dowty and Richards

DO

WE NEED

INTERVAL

SEMANTICS?

279

Now in present-perfect sentences it is the frequency adverb 'throughout'

or 'continuously' that is often syntactically null. Dowty is misled by this

fact into the parallel assumption that the import of this adverb is invariably

present, or at any rate whenever the present perfect tense occurs in

combination with 'since' or 'for'.

The theory proposed in Dowry (1979, Sec. 7.5) yields the following

truth-condition for a statement of the form

(*)

(*) is true in W at I iff for every interval J, if J is later than K and

I is a final subinterval of J, then X q~s in W at J.

contains all instants of J which are later than T.) Thus, according to

Dowty, the sentence

(15)

is true at 1 a.m. just in case John sleeps 'at' every (uninterrupted) interval

which starts some time between midnight and 1 a.m. and ends at the latter

time.

This seems intuitively acceptable, but the acceptability is due to the fact

that in (15) the operative frequency adverb (whether syntactically

represented or just tacitly understood) is 'continuously'. The inadequacy

of Dowty's truth-condition comes to light as soon as 'continuously' is

replaced by some other frequency adverb, as in

(16)

For it may well be true at 1 a.m. that John has slept intermittently since

midnight, even if he has slept solidly for the last 5 minutes. In fact, if

Dowty's truth-condition were correct, (16) would be false at 1 a.m. come

what may, for many an interval which starts after midnight and ends at

1 a.m. is obviously too short for John to sleep, wake up, and fall asleep

again, all within the space of it.

Dowty's truth-condition can, incidentally, be shown inadequate even

without resort to frequency adverbs other than 'continuously'. Suppose

that I say, at 1 a.m., that

(17)

waltzing, Dowty tells us that 'any interval at which x takes less than three

steps is not an interval at which x waltzes is true' (Dowty, 1979, p. 171).

280

P A V E L TICH~"

But if so, then even if John actually gave the hour between midnight and

1 a.m. over to relentless waltzing, the short interval in which he took the

last two steps just before 1 a.m. is not one 'at' which he waltzes. Thus on

Dowty's definition, (17) is false at 1 a.m.

Richards's truth-condition for statements of the form (*) combines the

mistake that he and Dowty make in connection with the simple past with

the mistake we have just detected in Dowty's definition of the present

perfect. On Richards's theory,

(*) is true in W at I iff I contains a subinterval J such that K is

the initial bound of J and X q~s in W at every subinterval of J.

As a result, Richards gets the worst of both worlds. For imagine that as a

matter of fact, John spent the time between 1 t p.m and 1 a.m. dropping off

and waking up again, say once every five minutes, and that midnight is one

of the times at which he happened to be asleep. Then on Richards's theory

the interval I = [11 p.m., 1 a.m.] is one at which (15) is true (since John

was asleep throughout a short subinterval of I starting at midnight) and at

which (16) is false (since any subinterval of I contains intervals, for

example, one-instant intervals, in which John is not intermittently asleep).

This, of course, is the exact reverse of what one would expect. (It is easy to

check, incidentally, that Richards's definition makes (16) false come what

may.)

The inadequacies of both definitions come from a common source.

Instead of granting frequency adverbs their rightful place in presentperfect statements, Dowty and Richards try to incorporate the meaning of

particular frequency adverbs either in the definition of the tense itself or in

the definitions of reference-time operators like since or [or. It is thus easy

to manufacture counter-examples by picking adverbs indicative of some

other frequencies.

Just like the simple past or future, the present-perfect tense enables us to

say something about a reference-time interval. It enables us to say that the

base proposition comes true in the interval with a certain frequency. But

since there is a wide range of frequencies, many of them incompatible with

others, the tense itself, as well as reference-time operators like since, for

etc., must be frequency-neutral. A particular frequency adverb must be

assumed to be present in the logical structure of each present-perfect

sentence. The structure of such a sentence is thus isomorphic with that of a

simple-past sentence:

Perf(F(A), J),

where A is the base proposition, F a frequency adverb and J the reference

DO WE NEED

INTERVAL

SEMANTICS?

281

time. The present-perfect relation Peff itself works in the following way.

Let C be a class of intervals and J any particular interval. If J does not

include the present moment, then Peff(C, J) is undefined; otherwise Perf

(C, J) is true or false according as the non-future part of J does or does

not belong to C.

Since is like after: it transforms an interval I into the interval which

consists of I and all moments later than I. Thus in both (15) and (16), the

reference time is the interval which starts at midnight and never ends. The

frequency adverb 'continuously' transforms the proposition John is asleep

into the class, say D1, of intervals throughout which that proposition is

true. The adverb 'intermittently' transforms the same proposition into the

class, say/)2, of intervals where instants at which the proposition is true

alternate with instants at which it is false. 6

If John slept solidly between midnight and 1 a.m., (15) was true and (16)

false at 1 a.m., because the interval [midnight, 1 a.m.] (i.e., the non-future

part of [midnight, eternity]) is a member of D1, but not a member of D2. If,

on the other hand, John spent between midnight and 1 a.m. falling asleep

and waking up again then (15) was false and (16) true at 1 a.m. because the

interval [midnight, 1 a.m] is not a member of D 1 and is a member of D2.

The sentence 'John has slept (continuously) yesterday' and 'John has slept

intermittenly tomorrow' are both truth-valueless because neither yesterday nor tomorrow contain the present moment.

Although intervals play a crucial role in this explanation, neither the

present-perfect statements themselves, nor the base propositions embedded in them, need be assumed to evaluate at intervals rather than moments

of time.

NOTES

i I do not wish to imply that every proposition m u s t be expressible by a sentence. This is not

the case on the punctualist approach either. But if the class of world/intervals couples whose

second c o m p o n e n t s are half-an-hour long should c o u n t as a proposition, (2) would s u g g e s t

itself as a natural way to express it. Syntactically, 'It is half-an-hour' c o m e s from, say, 'Fred

sleeps for half-an-hour' the way 'It rains' c o m e s from 'Fred sleeps while it rains'. O n the

intervalist account, the analogy is not only syntactic, but semantic as well. In order for 'Fred

sleeps while it rains' to be true at an interval, the interval m u s t satisfy two conditions: Fred

m u s t sleep at it, and it m u s t rain at it. While in order for 'It rains' to be true at an interval, only

the second condition m u s t be satisfied. Quite analogously, in order for 'Fred sleeps for

half-an-hour' to be true at an interval, the interval m u s t satisfy two conditions: Fred must

sleep at it a n d it m u s t be half-an-hour long. While in order for 'It is half-an-hour' to be true at

an interval, only the second condition m u s t be satisfied.

2 K a m p suggests that

in order to arrive at a correct recursive characterization of the conditions u n d e r which

assertoric utterances of certain complex sentences are true at the times at which they are

282

PAVEL TICHY

made we must allow the recursion to pass through intermediate stages at Which subexpressions of those sentences are evaluated with respect to intervals rather than to instants.

(1979, p. 392) Eventually however there is a return to notions involving instants, such as in

particular that of the truth of a complete sentence at the instant it is used. (p. 384)

Thus according to Kamp, whenever a sentence is used it is to be evaluated with respect to the

instant of use.

Now it is not clear whether some of the subexpressions which according to Kamp occasion

the resort to intervals qualify as sentences in their own right. If not, then what Kamp says

amounts to a fiat repudiation of the basic idea of interval semantics, namely that sentences

take truth-values relative to intervals rather than instants. If, on the other hand, some of

those subexpressions do qualify as sentences, they will be false whenever used in their own

right (rather than as subexpressions of larger sentences). So their negations will be true.

3 For a formal treatment of the notion of episode see Tich~ (1980b), Section 3.

4 For a formal definition of the progressive tense, see Tich~ (1980b), Section 11.

5 The past-tense relation is defined in a more formal manner in Tich~ (1980a), Section 5.

6 The present-perfect relation is defined in a more formal manner in Tich~) (1980a), Section

6.

REFERENCES

Cresswell, M. J.: 1977, 'Interval Semantics and Logical Words', in Christian Rohrer (ed.), On

the Logical Analysis of Tense and Aspect (Tuebingen).

Dowty, D. R.: 1979, Word Meaning and Montague Grammar (Reidel, Dordrecht).

Dowty, D. R., Wall, R. E., and Peters, S.: 1981, Introduction to Montague Semantics

(Reidel, Dordrecht).

Hintikka, Jaakko: 1982, 'Temporal Discourse and Semantical Games', Linguistics and

Philosophy 5, 1-22.

Kamp, Hans: 1979, 'Events, Instants and Temporal Reference', in R. B~iuerle et al. (eds.),

Semantics From Different Points of View (Berlin).

Richards, Barry, 1982, 'Tense, Aspect, and Time Adverbials', Linguistics and Philosophy 5,

59-107.

Taylor, Barry: 1977, 'Tense and Continuity', Linguistics and Philosophy 1, 199-220.

Tich~, Pavel: 1980a, 'The Logic of Temporal Discourse', Linguistics and Philosophy 3,

343-369.

Tich~,, Pavel: 1980b, 'The Semantics of Episodic Verbs', Theoretical Linguistics 7, 263-296

Dept. of Philosophy,

University of O t a g o ,

Box 56, Dunedin,

New Zealand

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