Linguistics and Philosophy

, 31:1 | Cite as

A universal scale of comparison

  • Alan Clinton BaleEmail author
Research Article


Comparative constructions form two classes, those that permit direct comparisons (comparisons of measurements as in Seymour is taller than he is wide) and those that only allow indirect comparisons (comparisons of relative positions on separate scales as in Esme is more beautiful than Einstein is intelligent). In contrast with other semantic theories, this paper proposes that the interpretation of the comparative morpheme remains the same whether it appears in sentences that compare individuals directly or indirectly. To develop a unified account, I suggest that all comparisons (whether in terms of height, intelligence or beauty) involve a scale of universal degrees that are isomorphic to the rational (fractional) numbers between 0 and 1. Crucial to a unified treatment, the connection between the individuals being compared and universal degrees involves two steps. First individuals are mapped to a value on a primary scale that ranks individuals with respect to the gradable property (whether it be height, beauty or intelligence). Second, the value on the primary scale is mapped to a universal degree that encodes the value’s relative position on the primary scale. Direct comparison results if measurements such as seven feet participate in the primary scale (as in Seven feet is tall). Otherwise the result is an indirect comparison.


Comparison Scales Degrees Linear orders Gradable Adjectives 


  1. Bach E. (1986). Natural language metaphysics. In: Barcan Marcus, R., Dor, G.J.W. and Weingartner, P. (eds) Logic, methodology and philosophy of science VII, pp 573–595. Elsevier Science Publishers, Amsterdam, New York Google Scholar
  2. Bale, A. C. (2006). The universal scale and the semantics of comparison. Ph.D. Thesis, McGill University (
  3. Bartsch R. and Vennemann T. (1972). Semantic structures: A study in the relation between semantics and syntax. Frankfurt am Main, Athenaum Google Scholar
  4. Bell J.L. and Alan B.S. (1969). Models and ultraproducts: An introduction. North-Holland Publishing Co., Amsterdam Google Scholar
  5. Bell J.L. and Machover M. (1977). A course in mathematical logic. North-Holland Publishing Co., Amsterdam Google Scholar
  6. Bierwisch M. (1987). Semantik der Graduierrung. In: Bierwisch, M. and Lang, E. (eds) Grammatische und Konseptuelle Aspekete von Dimensionsadjektiven, pp 91–286. Akademie Verlag, Berlin Google Scholar
  7. Bresnan J. (1973). Syntax of the comparative clause construction in English. Linguistic Inquiry 4(3): 275–344 Google Scholar
  8. Bresnan J. (1975). Comparative deletion and constraints on transformations. Linguistic Analysis 1(1): 25–75 Google Scholar
  9. Chomsky N. (1957). Syntactic structures. The Hague, Netherlands: Mouton Google Scholar
  10. Cresswell M.J. (1976). The semantics of degree. In: Partee, B. (eds) Montague grammar, pp 261–292. Academic Press, New York Google Scholar
  11. Embick D. (2007). Blocking effects and analytic/synthetic alternations. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 25(1): 1–37 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Fox D. and Hackl M. (2006). The universal density of measurement. Linguistics and Philosophy 29(5): 537–586 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Hellan L. (1981). Towards an integrated theory of comparatives. Narr, Tubingen Google Scholar
  14. Kennedy C. (1999). Projecting the adjective: The syntax and semantics of gradability and comparison. Garland, New York Google Scholar
  15. Kennedy C. and McNally L. (2005). Scale structure and the semantic typology of gradable predicates. Language 81: 345–381 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Klein, E. (1980). A semantics for positive and comparative deletion. Linguistics and Philosophy, 4(1), 1–46, 1980.Google Scholar
  17. Klein E. (1982). The interpretation of adjectival comparatives. Journal of Linguistics 18: 113–136 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Klein E. (1991). Comparatives. In: von Stechow A., Wunderlich, D. (eds) Semantik/semantics: An international handbook of contemporary research, pp 673–691. Walter de Gruyter, Berlin Google Scholar
  19. Krantz D.H., Luce R.D. and Tversky A. (1971). Foundations of measurement. Academic Press, New York, London Google Scholar
  20. Landman F. (1991). Structures for semantics. Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht, Boston Google Scholar
  21. Landman F. (2004). Indefinites and the type of sets. Blackwell, Oxford Google Scholar
  22. Ludlow P. (1989). Implicit comparison classes. Journal of Linguistics 12: 519–533 Google Scholar
  23. McCawley, J. D. (1976). Quantitative and qualitative comparison in English. In Grammar and meaning (pp. 1–14). New York: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  24. Nakanishi, K. (2003). Semantics of measure phrases. In M. Kadowaki & S. Kawahara (Eds.), The Proceedings of the 33rd Conference of the North East Linguistic Society (pp. 225–244).Google Scholar
  25. Schwarzschild R. (2002). The grammar of measurement. In: Jackson, B. (eds) Proceedings of SALT XII. CLC Publications, Ithaca Google Scholar
  26. Seuren P.A.M. (1973). The comparative. In: Kiefer, F. and Ruwet, N. (eds) Generative grammar in Europe, pp 528–564. D. Reidel Publishing Company, Dordrecht Google Scholar
  27. von Stechow A. (1984). Comparing semantic theories of comparison. Journal of Semantics 3: 1–77 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Wheeler III, S.C. (1972). Attributives and their modifiers. Nous 6(4): 310–334 Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Classics, Modern Languages and LinguisticsConcordia UniversityMontrealCanada

Personalised recommendations