Sarah Zobel


My research interests encompass different topics that fall into the areas of semantics and pragmatics proper, are located at the syntax-semantics interface, or are connected to the philosophy of language. I am especially drawn to the less well-studied uses/interpretations of linguistic expressions: they force us to re-evaluate previous analyses of the better studied/standard interpretations of these expressions, and they lead to a better understanding of the connection between semantics and pragmatics and their interfaces.

Methodologically, I am interested in corpus linguistic and experimental methods and how they can be applied fruitfully to semantic and pragmatic research. Most of my theoretical work is informed by corpus data and/or experimental studies.

Dedicated impersonal pronouns and impersonally used (singular) personal pronouns

Cross-linguistically, the dominant use of dedicated impersonal pronouns (e.g., English one and German man) is a 'generic use', in which they seem to contribute a meaning similar to 'people in general'. In some languages, e.g., in German, French, or Italian, impersonal pronouns allow for other uses, as well; for instance, German man has an existential use in which it is interpreted close to English someone. The aim of this project is to shed light on the semantics and pragmatics of the different uses of impersonal pronouns in German and other Germanic languages. My current investigations of the impersonal pronoun man in German, Norwegian, and Swedish is funded by the EC (project number: 842363) as part of a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Fellowship.

In the course of exploring the semantics of German existentially used man, it became clear early on from extant discussions in the literature and discussions with colleagues that existentially used man shows striking parallels to implicit agents of short eventive passives, which also receive an existential interpretation. Hence, my investigations into this use of German man has been extended to also cover the semantics of implicit agents of short eventive passives.

  • Köpping, Jan & Sarah Zobel. 2021. Two types of existential quantification. Talk at the research colloquium Philosophy of Language, Logic, and Information at RUB. (Slides)
  • Zobel, Sarah. to appear. Quantificational variability effects with German größtenteils and implicit agents. In: Proceedings of Sinn und Bedeutung 25. (Prefinal draft)
  • Zobel, Sarah. 2020. Exploring the existential semantics of the German impersonal pronoun man in episodic sentences. In: Mariam Asatryan, Yixiao Song und Ayana Whitmal (eds.), NELS 50, Vol.\ 3, GLSA Amherst. 269--278. (Prefinal draft)
  • Zobel, Sarah. 2017. On the (in)definiteness of impersonal pronouns. Linguistica 56: 363-374. (Linguistica)

In connection with the generic use of dedicated impersonal pronouns, I investigated a semantic restriction observable for English one and German man and linked it to results from the literature in habitual sentences. The main upshot of the paper is that English one and German man cannot license the presence of the generic operator by themselves. This result opens up new, exciting questions about the type of variables the generic operator can bind, and how this binding relation is induced.

  • Zobel, Sarah. to appear. Restrictions on the Generic Interpretation of Dedicated Impersonal Pronouns. In: Proceedings of WCCFL 39.

In order to investigate German man in comparison to Norwegian man and Swedish man, I compiled an annotation manual with properties of sentences containing man that allow us to infer the likely use of man in these sentences. The results of a first round of annotations and subsequent evaluation of the data support the conclusion that in written German, Norwegian, and Swedish, man has both a generic use and an existential use.

  • Zobel, Sarah. 2021. The uses of the impersonal pronoun ‘man’ in written German and Norwegian (Bokmål). Presented at 12th International Conference on Nordic and General Linguistics. (Slides)
  • Zobel, Sarah. 2019. Annotation manual: Annotating morphosyntactic and semantic properties of the linguistic context surrounding occurrences of dedicated impersonal pronouns. Developed as part of IPG_CORE. (Online publication).

Like impersonal pronouns, second person singular pronouns cross-linguistically also frequently allow for a 'generic use', e.g., English generic you and German generic du. In contrast, generic uses of first person singular pronouns are rare -- one example is German generic ich; and third person singular pronouns do not seem to allow for generic uses at all.

  • Zobel, Sarah. 2021. The Impersonal Use of German 1st Person Singular Ich. Linguistic Inquiry (Online first).(Linguistic Inquiry)
  • Zobel, Sarah. 2016. A pragmatic analysis of German impersonally used first person singular 'ich'. In Barbara De Cock & Bettina Kluge (eds.) Pragmatics 26: 379-416. (Pragmatics 26)
  • Zobel, Sarah. 2015. Voldemort phrases in generic sentences. Grazer Linguistische Studien 83: 107-123. (PDF)
  • Zobel, Sarah. 2014. Impersonally Interpreted Personal Pronouns. PhD Dissertation. Published online at Niedersächsische Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Göttingen. (SUB download page)
  • Zobel, Sarah. 2010. Non-Standard Uses of German 1st Person Singular Pronouns. In Kumiyo Nakakoji, Yohei Murakami & Eric McCready (eds.), JSAI-isAI, LNAI 6284. 292-311. (Prefinal draft)
German als-phrases and English as-phrases

German als-phrases and English as-phrases (e.g. als Kind / as a child) occur in various different uses, which correlate with the syntactic position of the als/as-phrase and the choice of main predicate in the containing clause. Hence, they shed light on the connection between the syntactic position of a constituent and its potential semantic interpretation -- a connection that also influences the interpretation of adverbials. In addition, als/as-phrases always associate with arguments of the main predicate. In that sense, they parallel secondary predicates.

The aim of this project is to provide analyses of the different usage classes of als/as-phrases.

  • Zobel, Sarah. under revision. A role-based account of the role-specifying use of English predicative as-phrases. Ms.
  • Zobel, Sarah. under revision. The landscape of German predicative als-phrases and English predicative as-phrases. Ms.
  • Zobel, Sarah. 2019. Accounting for the "causal link" between free adjuncts and their host clauses. In M. Teresa Espinal et al. (eds.), Proceedings of Sinn und Bedeutung 23, vol. 2, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Bellaterra (Cerdanyola del Vallès). 489-506. (PDF Proceedings)
  • Zobel, Sarah. 2018. An analysis of the semantic variability of weak adjuncts and its problems. In Uli Sauerland and Stephanie Solt (eds.), Proceedings of Sinn und Bedeutung 22, vol. 2, ZASPiL 61, ZAS Berlin. 499-516. (PDF Proceedings)
  • Zobel, Sarah. 2017. The restrictive potential of weak adjuncts: nominal 'as'-phrases and individual quantifiers. Proceedings of the 21st Amsterdam Colloquium. (PDF)
  • Zobel, Sarah. 2017. The sensitivity of natural language to the distinction between class nouns and role nouns. In Dan Burgdorf, Jacob Collard, Sireemas Maspong, and Brynhildur Stefánsdóttir (eds.), Proceedings of SALT 27. 438-458. (SALT proceedings)
  • Zobel, Sarah. 2017. The notion of roles and the role use of English nominal 'as'-phrases. Poster presented at SALT 27, May 13, 2017. (Poster PDF)
  • Zobel, Sarah. 2016. Adjectival 'as'-phrases as intensional secondary predicates. In Mary Moroney, Carol-Rose Little, Jacob Collard & Dan Burgdorf (eds.), Proceedings of SALT 26. 284-303. (SALT proceedings)

In a related line of inquiry, I investigate the determinerless predicative use of bare singular nouns in German, which is used in copular clauses and in als-phrases to different extents.

  • Zobel, Sarah. to appear. Zur Determiniererlosigkeit bei prädikativ verwendeten zählbaren Nomen im Deutschen: Korpusdaten und ihre Konsequenzen. Accepted for publication in Linguistische Berichte. (Prefinal draft)
  • Zobel, Sarah. 2020. "Replication Data for: Zur Determiniererlosigkeit bei prädikativ verwendeten zählbaren Nomen im Deutschen",, DataverseNO, V1, UNF:6:W+wFGxK3VC2LJ/oYe/TMJg== [fileUNF]

I discuss the interplay of weak adjunct als-phrases with impersonally used personal pronouns in more depth here:

  • Zobel, Sarah. to appear. The impersonal use of German first person singular 'ich'. Accepted for publication in Linguistic Inquiry.
German discourse particles

1) Particles in questions and conditional antecedents (joint work with Eva Csipak)

Discourse particles are usually assumed to fit the content of an utterance to its discourse context, i.e., they are taken to be "discourse navigating devices". Most current research focuses on discourse particles in declarative sentences/assertions. Discourse particles that (sometimes exclusively) occur in interrogative sentences/questions and embedded clauses, e.g., conditional antecedents, have received less attention so far.

The aim of this project is to describe and formally analyze these less well-studied particles.

  • Zobel, Sarah and Eva Csipak. 2017. Conditional antecedents containing the German discourse particle 'denn': a corpus study. Linguistica 56: 345-361. (Linguistica)
  • Csipak, Eva and Sarah Zobel. 2016. Discourse Particle 'denn' in the Antecedent of Conditionals. In Christopher Pinon (ed.), Empirical Issues in Syntax and Semantics 11. 31-60. (PDF at EISS 11)
  • Csipak, Eva and Sarah Zobel. 2014. A condition on the distribution of discourse particles across types of questions. In Jyoti Iyer & Leland Kusmer (eds.), NELS 44, Vol. 1. 83--94. GLSA Amherst. (PDF)

2) Differences between Federal German and Austrian German particles

In the pragmatic literature, German is (among others) famous for its many, diverse discourse particles. For different varieties of German, however, the particles that are available to speakers and potentially their contribution(!) may differ -- a fact that should be taken into account in particle research.

The aim of this project is to shed light on the differences between particles in Federal German varieties in contrast to Austrian German varieties.

  • Zobel, Sarah. 2018. On the difference between the Federal German and the Austrian German discourse particle eh: An experimental investigation. Presented at Linguistic Evidence 2018, February 2018. (Slides)
  • Zobel, Sarah. 2017. "'Eh' is eh anders" - 'eh' and 'sowieso' in Federal German and Austrian German. In Clemens Mayr & Edwin Williams (eds.) Themenheft 11-11-17. Festschrift für Martin Prinzhorn. Wiener Linguistische Gazette 82: 323-330. (Article in WLG 82)
  • Zobel, Sarah. 2017. Microvariation at the not at-issue level: Federal German vs. Austrian German 'eh'. Presented at "Microvariation in Semantics", September 2017.
The Bavarian verbal prefix der-

(includes joint work with Jakob Majdic)

Bavarian varieties of German have a verbal prefix der- that is not part of the morphological inventory of other German varieties. In some of its uses der- corresponds to the verbal prefixes er-, zer-, and ver-, which are also part of Standard German. However, for some uses of der-, there is no Standard German equivalent. In one such use, der- expresses successful completion of an action in the same way as, for instance, English manage to.

The aim of this project is to analyze the semantics and pragmatics of Bavarian verbs formed with der- in this use and to identify the meaning contribution of the prefix.

  • Zobel, Sarah and Jakob Majdič. 2022. How to manage something in Bavarian German: the verbal prefix der-. To appear in Proceedings of Sinn und Bedeutung 26. (PDF)
  • How to manage something in Bavarian German: the Bavarian verbal prefix der- (joint talk with Jakob Majdič). Online presentation at RUESHeL Lab Meeting, HU Berlin, December 14, 2020, Berlin, Germany. (Slides)
  • Bavarian complex der-verbs and temporal adverbials (joint talk with Jakob Majdič). Presented at Event Semantics 2020, University of Tübingen, November 7, 2020, Tübingen, Germany. (Slides)
  • Der Ausdruck von Fähigkeit und Erfolg mit dem bairischen Präfix der-. Presented as a required part of the Habilitation (Habilitationskolloquium), University of Tübingen, November 6, Tübingen, Germany.
Existence and bare plural noun phrases

(joint work with Dolf Rami)

The verb to exist poses questions both from the point of view of the philosophy of language as well as from the point of view of formal semantics. On especially interesting question is how the verb interacts with bare plural noun phrases, as in Horses exist. What does this sentence make an existential statement about? Is the claim comparable semantically to Horses are extinct and Horses are numerous? Are we dealing with an extensional or an intensional/modal claim?

The aim of this project is to shed light on these questions.

Last modified: 2022-04-06 14:00:00+02:00
Latest article

The Impersonal Use of German 1st Person Singular Ich.
Zobel, Sarah. 2021. The Impersonal Use of German 1st Person Singular Ich. Linguistic Inquiry (Online first).

Recent presentations
  • @ HU Berlin: Determinerless predicative nouns in German
  • @ UBC: Roles and the motivation behind role nouns
  • @ RUB: Two types of existential quantification
Recent teaching
  • Sommer 22: SE Text & Discourse
  • Sommer 22: SE Textual coherence
  • Sommer 22: HS/OS Generizität