Get to Know Your Instructors: Kristen Syrett

Kristen Syrett’s (Rutgers) LSA journey will come full circle when she teaches her own version of “Acquisition of Semantics”, a course she took as a graduate student during her very first Institute in 2003. The same may very well happen to anyone planning to register and join us at Davis. Not only does Kristen enjoy watching Nailed It! with her kids, she also enjoys baking (and would most likely teach it in a parallel universe). Continue reading about Professor Syrett here:

1. Can you please tell us about your linguistic background?

I’m an Associate Professor in the Department of Linguistics at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey – New Brunswick (better known as Rutgers). I also have an appointment in the Center for Cognitive Science, where my lab is located. I do research on acquisition and psycholinguistics with a focus on semantics, pragmatics, and the syntax-semantics interface. I received my PhD in Linguistics from Northwestern University in 2007. Between my PhD and joining the linguistics faculty at Rutgers, I had a postdoc in cognitive science and psychology.

I grew up in South Carolina, and have lived in all over the place since leaving the South for college. As a result, I’ve lost most of my Southern accent, but I do have remnants of it, including the lack of a full wine-whine merger (especially in the word white). I admit, I did kind of freak out a little when, after living in NJ for 10 years, the NY Times Dialect Survey ( finally placed me in NJ.

2. When did you first join the LSA?

I joined the LSA as a graduate student. To me, this was one of the first steps to becoming a professional in the field. When I first applied to the LSA Institute for a fellowship, I was floored when I received the letter informing me that I had been awarded the Bloch Fellowship. That experience was one of the most exciting and defining ones for me as a linguist. As a Bloch fellow, I served on the Executive Committee, and became involved in one initiative after another, meeting some amazing people along the way. I’ve served on at least one committee ever since.

3. Can you tell us about the course you are teaching at the Institute?

I’m teaching the Acquisition of Semantics, which will, of course, involve some Syntax and Pragmatics. I’m especially excited to teach this course, because it’s one of the first courses I took as a graduate student at my first LSA Institute back in 2003 at MSU. I love that I’ve come full circle. I also love teaching this topic, and getting students excited about language acquisition. I get to play with toys and fun objects and cartoon images, and work with children, as part of my job. How cool is that?

4. What research are you currently working on?

I always have a few different projects in the works, most in collaboration with other researchers or my students. You can read more about them and access papers on my website: I’m very excited about two collaborative projects on adjective meaning: one I’m doing on nominal gradability and category membership, which is connected to previous research I’ve done on gradable adjectives, and another on whether infants can learn the meaning of novel nouns from familiar adjectives and verbs. In my lab right now, we have a lot of diverse projects: one of my students is working with me as part of an ongoing investigation of how children interpret comparative constructions, another is working on experiments as part of her dissertation probing the non-syntactic factors that interact with Principle C to determine coconstrual relations, another is conducting experiments on what licenses mention-some answers to questions, and another has done some beautiful online and offline experiments probing anaphora with bare nouns in Mandarin. These projects collectively reveal a tight connection between language and cognition, the important role of the speaker in the discourse context, and the range of factors that give rise to interpretations.

5. What is your favorite hobby or pastime?

I love practicing yoga, working out, and bike riding. I also bake, a lot.

6. In a parallel universe in which you are not an academic/linguist, what would you be?

I would be a yoga instructor. I would love to teach yoga and baking to young children.

7. What are you most looking forward to about Davis?

Learning from the other instructors and students during classes, workshops, and our free time. And the weather.

8. Ice cream or Cake? Cats or Dogs? Quarter system or Semester system?

Ice cream, definitely. My kids and I have a favorite local ice cream place to go to in the summer, and we like making our own ice cream. But I love baking shows, and my kids and I love watching Nailed It! together. Man, it is a beautiful thing to watch a truly BAD cake being made.

Dogs, hands down. I have two beagles.

Semesters. I was on the quarter system as a grad student. I did not enjoy still being in classes when the rest of my friends were out of school in May and June.

9. What advice would you give to graduate students interested in pursuing a career in linguistics?

Your graduate program will give you much of the foundation and training you need. Go beyond this. Get a sense of what it means to be part of the larger Linguistics community. Meet people outside your subfield. Learn more about what issues matter to other linguists, and how you can contribute to the field. Broaden your horizons as a linguist.

Here is the link to Kristen’s website: