Contradictory (forward) lifetime effects and the non-future tense in Mandarin Chinese

Sherry Yong Chen, E. Matthew Husband


Lifetime effects refer to the inferences about the life/death of the individual in sentences with individual-level predicates like ‘Mary is/was blue-eyed’. In English, contradictory lifetime inferences arise when the subject denotes one living and one dead individual (e.g. Saussuredead and Chomskyliving #are/??were both linguists.), but no such inferences arises in Mandarin Chinese, a language that has been considered “tenseless” due to the lack of past tense morphemes. This paper investigates the online processing of contradictory lifetime effects and presents additional empirical observations about “forward lifetime effects”, which suggest that both covert past tense and tenseless accounts of Chinese are inadequate for capturing temporal interpretations in this language; instead, finite clauses in Chinese display a Future/Non-Future distinction and are likely to possess a tense node. We discuss our findings in relation to the typology of tense as well as implications for other superficially tenseless languages.


Tenselessness; lifetime effects; sentence processing; Mandarin Chinese

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