Elizabeth Ritter

Dr. Elizabeth Ritter

Pronouns: she/her

Contact information


Office: CHC218


Educational Background

Bach of Comm (Hons) Queen's University, 1978

Doctor of Philosophy Linguistics, Massachusetts Inst of Tech, 1988


Areas of Research

morphosyntax, syntax at the interfaces, Modern Hebrew, Blackfoot


Course number Course title Semester
LING 301 LEC 01 Syntax I Fall 2023
LING 201 Introduction to Linguistics I Winter 2024
LING 599.2 Advanced Topics in Linguistics - The syntax-pragmatics interface Fall 2023
LING 631.04 Topics in Linguistic Theory (Syntax) - the syntax-pragmatics interface Fall 2023
LING 407 Morphology I Winter 2024


SSHRC IG: How to do things with nominals: A linguistic investigation of referring speech acts

The way we talk about an individual depends on who we are talking to. For example, when I talk about my partner to our friends and colleagues, I call him Strang; when I talk about him to one of his students, I call him Dr. Burton; and when I talk to someone who doesn’t know him, I might describe him as my husband or the instructor of LING 100. In all three scenarios, I can use the pronoun he or him if I continue talking about him.

Proper names, descriptions, and pronouns are three different types of nominals. We use them to perform different acts of reference: i) naming, ii) describing, or iii) reference tracking. Since acts of reference are dependent on both the speaker’s and the addressee’s relation to the referent, researchers have concluded that reference is a collaborative act. And in fact, there are parts of speech and intonational tunes dedicated to managing this collaborative act. This project explores the universal and language-specific properties of different acts of reference.

Our project is informed by three different strands of research in linguistics and philosophy of language. First, beginning with Austin’s 1962 seminal work, speech act theory has established that when we utter different types of sentences, we perform different speech acts, including asserting, questioning, requesting, promising, etc. Second, since the 1970s syntacticians have explored different ways to incorporate speech act meaning into their formal representations of sentence structure. Currently, it is assumed that sentences contain an abstract layer of structure that is responsible for encoding information about the sentential speech act. Third, during the same period the discovery of structural and interpretive parallels between sentences and nominals has advanced our knowledge of nominal structure.

We bring together these three lines of research with a novel hypothesis: the nominal speech act hypothesis which asserts i) that naming, describing and tracking are nominal speech acts, and ii) that like sentences, nominals contain an abstract layer of structure that is responsible for encoding information about the nominal speech act. 

The goal of this project is to test this hypothesis in several unrelated languages (including Blackfoot, English, French, German, Hebrew, Ktunaxa, Mandarin, and Medumba) with the aim to explore whether there are aspects of nominal speech acts that are attested across these languages (and hence might be universal) and what the range of variation might be. Linguistic expressions dedicated to managing mutual understanding (e.g., interjections and intonational tunes) have never been explored systematically across unrelated languages. Hence, one of the contributions of this project will be to enrich the empirical base that any adequate theory of language will have to account for. From a theoretical point of view, the nominal speech act hypothesis invites a reconsideration of the existing classification of nominal types.

Since the nominal speech act hypothesis makes it possible to explore the relation between the grammar of an utterance and the context within which it is uttered, it constitutes an ideal framework within which to study problems of reference that arise in cases where nominal types available in a given language are not fully adequate. This is the case, for example, with pronoun systems that make use of a gender distinction such as English masculine he vs. feminine she. In light of the recent rise in awareness of non-binary individuals the question of pronoun choice arises. The nominal speech act hypothesis should enable us to develop a model to assess the efficacy of different solutions to this problem, and more broadly, to better understand the nature of negotiated interaction in effective conversation. 


  • Faculty of Arts Established Researcher, University of Calgary Faculty of Arts. 2019
  • Great Supervisor Award, University of Calgary Faculty of Graduate Studies. 2017


  • Nominal speech act structure: Evidence from the structural deficiency of impersonal pronouns. Elizabeth Ritter; Martina Wiltschko. Canadian Journal of Linguistics. 709-729. (2019)
  • Inverse systems and person hierarchy effects. . Elizabeth Ritter; Heather Bliss; Martina Wiltschko. Taylor & Francis/Routledge.. 193-209. (2019)
  • Sentience based Event structure: Evidence from Blackfoot. Elizabeth Ritter. Oxford University Press. 58-96. (2019)
  • Pronouns: structure, binding, and classification. In The Cambridge Handbook of Comparative Syntax. Elizabeth Ritter; Martina Wiltschko. Cambridge University Press. (2023)
  • Evaluative Morphology: Universals and Variation. In The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Morphology . Elizabeth Ritter; Martina Wiltschko. Wiley Blackwell. (2023)