Skip to main content
    • Aa
    • Aa

Evaluativity across adjective and construction types: An experimental study 1


An adjectival construction is evaluative if and only if it conveys that the property associated with the adjective exceeds a relevant threshold. The questions of which adjectival constructions are evaluative and why have formed the foundation for semantic theories of these constructions and of adjectives themselves (Klein 1980, von Stechow 1984), although it has been alleged that these theories are based on an incomplete picture of the phenomenon of evaluativity (Bierwisch 1989, Rett 2008a). We present the first experimental tests of the scope and nature of evaluativity across adjectival constructions and adjective types. These studies confirm that evaluativity is conditioned by adjective type (relative or absolute, Kennedy & McNally 2005) and is not restricted to the positive construction. However, they also show several new and surprising aspects of evaluativity: that it is perhaps better characterized as a gradable property than a binary one; that the ways in which relative and absolute adjectives differ in their evaluativity vary across construction; and that, contrary to standard intuitions, subjects are willing to attribute evaluativity to the subject position of comparative constructions like Sue is taller than Bill. We show that this last particularly surprising result reveals a lot about how subjects interpret contextually sensitive constructions, and we discuss its consequences for experimental studies and semantic theories of adjectival evaluativity as well as context-sensitive phenomena more generally.

Corresponding author
Author’s address: University of California, Santa Cruz, 1156 High Street, Santa Cruz, CA 95064, USA,
Author’s address: University of California, 3103L Campbell Hall, Los Angeles, CA 90095, USA
Hide All

We thank three anonymous Journal of Linguistics reviewers for their comments, as well as Sam Cumming, Donka Farkas, Chris Kennedy, Megan Moodie, Floris Van Vugt, Kaeli Ward, and Lauren Winans for discussion and advice. The usual disclaimers apply.

Linked references
Hide All

This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

S. Armstrong , L. R. Gleitman  & H. Gleitman . 1983. What some concepts might not be. Cognition 13, 263308.

Alan Bale . 2008. A universal scale of comparison. Linguistics and Philosophy 31, 155.

Chris Barker . 2002. The dynamics of vagueness. Linguistics and Philosophy 25, 136.

David Barner  & Jesse Snedeker . 2008. Compositionality and statistics in adjective acquisition: 4-year-olds interpret tall and short based on the size distributions of novel noun referents. Child Development 79, 594608.

Manfred Bierwisch . 1989. The semantics of gradation. In M. Bierwisch  & E. Lang (eds.), Dimensional adjectives: Grammatical structure and conceptual interpretation, 71237. Springer.

Elizabeth Bogal-Allbritten . 2013. Decomposing notions of adjectival transitivity in Navajo. Natural Language & Semantics 21, 277314.

Herman Cappelen  & Ernest Lepore . 2005. Insensitive semantics. Wiley-Blackwell.

Herbert Clark . 1969a. Influence of language on solving three-term series problems. Journal of Experimental Psychology 82, 205215.

Herbert Clark . 1969b. Linguistic processes in deductive reasoning. Psychological Review 76, 387404.

Herbert Clark . 1972. Difficulties people have answering the question, ‘Where is it?’ Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior 11, 265277.

Pablo Cobreros , Paul Égré , David Ripley  & Robert van Rooij . 2012. Tolerant, classical, strict. Journal of Logic 41, 347385.

Max Cresswell . 1976. The semantics of degree. In B. Partee (ed.), Montague grammar. Academic Press.

D. Alan Cruse . 1976. Three classes of antonyms in English. Lingua 38, 281292.

Chris Cummins  & Napoleon Katsos . 2010. Comparative and superlative quantifiers: Pragmatic effects of comparison type. Journal of Semantics 27, 271305.

Jenny Doetjes , Camelia Constantinescu  & Kateřina Součková . 2009. A neo-Kleinian approach to comparatives. In Ed Cormany Satoshi Ito  & David Lutz (eds.), Proceedings of SALT XIX, 124141. CLC Publications.

R. Doran , R. Baker , Y. McNabb , M. Larson  & G. Ward . 2009. On the non-unified nature of scalar implicature: An empirical investigation. International Review of Pragmatics 1, 211248.

Thomas Grano . 2012. Mandarin henand universal markedness in gradable adjectives. Natural Language & Linguistic Theory 30, 513565.

Nat Hansen  & Emmanuel Chemla . 2013. Experimenting on contextualism. Mind and Language 28, 286321.

E. Tory Higgins . 1977. The varying presuppositional nature of comparatives. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research 6, 203222.

Hans Kamp . 1975. Two theories of adjectives. In E. Keenan (ed.), Formal semantics of natural language, 123155. Cambridge University Press.

Hans Kamp . 1981. The paradox of the heap. In U. Mönnich (ed.), Aspects of philosophical logic. Reidel.

Hans Kamp  & Antje Rossdeutscher . 1994. Drs-construction and lexically driven inferences. Theoretical linguistics 20, 165235.

Chris Kennedy  & Louise McNally . 2005. Scale structure, degree modification and the semantic typology of gradable predicates. Language 81.2, 345381.

Christopher Kennedy . 2007. Vagueness and grammar: The semantics of relative and absolute gradable predicates. Linguistics and Philosophy 30, 145.

Ewan Klein . 1980. A semantics for positive and comparative adjectives. Linguistics and Philosophy 4, 145.

Ewan Klein . 1982. The interpretation of adjectival comparatives. The Journal of Linguistics 18, 113136.

Yusuke Kubota  & Ai Matsui . 2010. Modes of comparison and Question under Discussion: Evidence from ‘contrastive comparison’ in Japanese. In Nan Li  & David Lutz (eds.), Proceedings of SALT 20, 5775. CLC Publications.

Adrienne Lehrer . 1985. Markedness and antonymy. Journal of Linguistics 21, 397429.

Marcin Morzycki . 2009. Degree modification of gradable nouns: Size adjectives and adnominal degree morphemes. Natural Language & Semantics 17, 175207.

Marcin Morzycki . 2012. Adjectival extremeness: Degree modification and contextually restricted scales. Natural Language & Linguistic Theory 30, 567609.

Ad Neeleman , Hans van de Koot  & Jenny Doetjes . 2004. Degree expressions. The Linguistic Review 21, 166.

Carita Paradis . 2001. Adjectives and boundedness. Cognitive Linguistics 12.1, 4765.

Carita Paradis  & Caroline Willners . 2006. Antonymy and negation – the boundedness hypothesis. Journal of Pragmatics 38, 10511080.

J. Piaget 1928. Judgment and reasoning in the child. Paul Kegan.

Jessica Rett . 2015. The semantics of evaluativity. Oxford University Press.

Robert van Rooij . 2011. Implicit versus explicit comparatives. In Paul Egré  & Nathan Klinedinst (eds.), Vagueness and language use,  vol. 7, 5172. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

Carmen Rotstein  & Yoad Winter . 2004. Total adjectives vs. partial adjectives: Scale structure and higher-order modifiers. Natural Language & Semantics 12, 259288.

Galit W. Sassoon  & Natalia Zevakhina . 2012. Granularity shifting: Experimental evidence from degree modifiers. Proceedings of SALT 22. University of Chicago.

Osamu Sawada . 2009. Pragmatic aspects of implicit comparison: An economy-based approach. Journal of Pragmatics 41, 10791103.

Roger Schwarzschild . 2012. Directed scale segments. In A. Chereches (ed.), Proceedings of SALT XXII, 6582. CLC Publications.

P. A. M. Seuren 1984. The comparative revisited. Journal of Semantics 3, 109141.

Stephanie Solt  & Nicole Gotzner . 2012. Experimenting with degree. In Anca Chereches (ed.), Proceedings of SALT 22. Cornell University.

Jason Stanley  & Zoltan Szabo . 2002. On quantifier domain restriction. Mind and Language 15, 219261.

Kristin Syrett , Chris Kennedy  & Jeffrey Lidz . 2010. Meaning and context in children’s understanding of gradable adjectives. Journal of Semantics 27, 135.

Judith Tonhauser , David Beaver , Craige Roberts  & Mandy Simons . 2013. Toward a taxonomy of projective content. Language 89, 66109.

E. Tribushinina  & S. Gillis . 2012. The acquisition of scalar structures: Production of adjectives and degree markers by Dutch-speaking children and their caregivers. Linguistics 50.2, 241268.

Youngeun Yoon . 1996. Total and partial predicates and the weak and strong interpretations. Natural Language Semantics 4, 217236.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Journal of Linguistics
  • ISSN: 0022-2267
  • EISSN: 1469-7742
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-linguistics
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *



Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 4
Total number of PDF views: 45 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 258 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between 21st June 2017 - 21st September 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.