Natural Language & Linguistic Theory

, Volume 34, Issue 4, pp 1181–1243 | Cite as

Quasi-definites in Swedish: Elative superlatives and emphatic assertion

  • Elizabeth CoppockEmail author
  • Elisabet Engdahl


This paper analyzes nominal phrases in Swedish with a definite article but no definite suffix on the head noun, which we call quasi-definites (e.g. det största intresse ‘the greatest interest’). These diverge from the usual ‘double definiteness’ pattern where the article and the suffix co-occur (e.g. det största intresse-t ‘the greatest interest-def’). We give several diagnostics showing that this pattern arises only with superlatives on an elative (‘to a very high degree’) interpretation, and that quasi-definites behave semantically as indefinites, although they have limited scope options and are resistant to polarity reversals. Rather than treating the article and the suffix as marking different aspects of definiteness, we propose that both are markers of uniqueness and that the definite article signals definiteness that is confined to the adjectival phrase and combines with a predicate of degrees rather than individuals in this construction. The reason that quasi-definites do not behave precisely as ordinary indefinites has to do with their pragmatics: Like emphatic negative polarity items, elative superlatives require that the assertion be stronger (≈ more surprising) than alternatives formed by replacing the highest degree with lower degrees, and have a preference for entailment scales.


Definiteness Superlatives Degree semantics Elatives Polarity sensitivity Strength of assertion Scandinavian Swedish 



This paper has benefited from discussions with many people, including Ulla Stroh-Wollin, Jason Merchant, Benjamin Lyngfelt, Filippa Lindahl, Gunlög Josefsson, and Robin Cooper, as well as members of the audience at LSA 2014, the Uppsala Grammar Colloquium, and Grammatik i Fokus 2015. The first author’s work was made possible by Riksbankens Jubileumsfond’s Pro Futura Scientia program, run by the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Philosophy, Linguistics, and Theory of ScienceUniversity of GothenburgGothenburgSweden
  2. 2.Swedish Collegium for Advanced StudyUppsalaSweden
  3. 3.Department of SwedishUniversity of GothenburgGothenburgSweden

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