Department of Linguistics
University of Chicago
Vagueness and Grammar: The Semantics of Relative and Absolute Gradable Adjectives
This paper investigates the way that lexical semantic properties of linguistic expressions influence vagueness, focusing on the interpretation of the positive (unmarked) form of gradable adjectives. I begin by developing a semantic analysis of the positive form of 'relative' gradable adjectives, expanding on previous proposals by further motivating a semantic basis for vagueness and by precisely identifying and characterizing the division of labor between the compositional and contextual aspects of its interpretation. I then introduce a challenge to the analysis from the class of 'absolute' gradable adjectives: adjectives that are demonstrably gradable, but which have positive forms that relate objects to maximal or minimal degrees, and do not give rise to vagueness. I argue that the truth conditional difference between relative and absolute adjectives in the positive form stems from the interaction of lexical semantic properties of gradable adjectives --- the structure of the scales they use --- and a general constraint on interpretive economy that requires truth conditions to be computed on the basis of conventional meaning to the extent possible, allowing for context dependent truth conditions only as a last resort.