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Workshop on Scalar Meaning

Scale Structure: Processing Minimum Standard and Maximum Standard Scalar Adjectives
Lyn Frazier, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

May 20, 2006
University of Chicago

Gradable adjectives denote a function that takes an object and returns a measure of the degree to which the object possesses some gradable property (Kennedy, 1999). Scales, ordered sets of degrees, have begun to be studied systematically in semantics (Kennedy, ms., Kennedy and McNally, 2005, Rotstein and Winter, 2004). In this talk, I will investigate the processing of Absolute adjectives with a Maximum standard (clean) and their Minimum standard antonyms (dirty). The central hypothesis is that the scale introduced by the denotation of an Absolute adjective is processed automatically as part of the comprehension of a sentence containing the adjective (the "Obligatory Scale" hypothesis).

In line with the predictions of Kennedy and McNally (2005) and Rotstein and Winter (2004), Maximum standard adjectives and Minimum standard adjectives systematically differ from each other when they are combined with minimizing modifiers like slightly, as indicated by speeded acceptability judgments. Results from an eye movement recording study show that, as predicted by the Obligatory Scale hypothesis, the penalty due to combining slightly with a Maximum standard adjective can be observed during the processing of the sentence; the penalty is not the result of some after-the-fact inferencing mechanism. Further, a type of Quantificational Variability Effect may be observed when a quanticational adverb (mostly) is combined with a Minimum standard adjective in sentences like The dishes are mostly clean/dirty. The quantificational variability results will be argued to further support the Obligatory Scale hypothesis