Natural Language Semantics

, Volume 18, Issue 2, pp 141–181 | Cite as

The degree functions of negative adjectives

Open Access


This paper provides a new account of positive versus negative antonyms. The data includes well-known linguistic generalizations regarding negative adjectives, such as their incompatibility with measure phrases (cf. two meters tall/ *short) and ratio phrases (twice as tall/ #short) as well as the impossibility of truly crosspolar comparisons (*Dan is taller than Sam is short). These generalizations admit a variety of exceptions, e.g., positive adjectives that do not license measure phrases (cf. #two degrees warm/cold) and rarely also negative adjectives that do (cf. two hours late/early). Furthermore, new corpus data is presented regarding the use of twice with positive and negative adjectives. The analysis the paper presents supposes that grammar associates gradable adjectives with measure functions—mapping of entities to a set of degrees isomorphic to the real numbers (Kennedy, Projecting the adjective: The syntax and semantics of gradability and comparison, 1999). On this analysis, negative adjectives map entities to values that are linearly reversed and linearly transformed in comparison with their values in the positive antonyms. As shown, the generalizations, as well as their exceptions, directly follow. Negative polarity is explained in terms of function reversal, and non-licensing of measure phrases is explained in terms of transformation by an unspecified value.


Negative adjective Transformation Degree Measure Comparison Ratio modifiers 


Open Access

This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial License which permits any noncommercial use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited.


  1. Alan Clinton. Bale (2008) A universal scale of comparison. Linguistics and Philosophy 31(1): 1–55CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Bierwisch, Manfred. 1989. The semantics of gradation. In Dimensional adjectives: Grammatical structure and conceptual interpretation, ed. Manfred Bierwisch and Ewald Lang, 71–261. Berlin: Springer-Verlag.Google Scholar
  3. Brasoveanu, Adrian. 2009. Measure noun polisemy and monotonicity: Evidence from Romanian pseudopartitives. In Proceedings of the 38th meeting of the North East linguistic Society, 139–150. Amherst, MA.: GLSA.Google Scholar
  4. Breakstone, Micha. 2009. Inherently evaluative predicates. Manuscript, MIT.Google Scholar
  5. Bresnan Joan. (1973) Syntax of the comparatives construction in English. Linguistic Inquiry 4: 275–345Google Scholar
  6. Büring, Daniel. 2007. Cross-polar nomalies. In Proceedings of Semantics and Linguistic Theory 17. Ithaca, NY: CLC Publications.Google Scholar
  7. Chierchia, Gennaro. 1998. Plurality of mass nouns and the notion of semantic parameter. In Events and Grammar, ed. Susan Rothstein, 53–103. Dordrecht: Kluwer.Google Scholar
  8. Cresswell, Max. 1976. The Semantics of degree. In Montague Grammar, ed. Barbara H. Partee, 261–292. New York: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  9. Featherston S. (to appear) Why linguistics needs boiling and freezing points. To appear In Fruits: The productive application of evidence to linguistic problems. Berlin: de Gruyter.Google Scholar
  10. Fine, Kit. 1975. Vagueness, truth and logic. Synthese 54: 235–259. Reprinted in Vagueness: a reader, ed. Rosanna Keefe and Peter Smith, 119–150. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996.Google Scholar
  11. Fox, Danny. 2007. Too many alternatives: density, symmetry and other predicaments. In Proceedings of SALT 16, ed. M. Gibson and T. Friedman. Ithaca, NY: CLC Publications.Google Scholar
  12. Fox Danny, Martin Hackl. (2006) The universal density of measurement. Linguistics and Philosophy 29(5): 537–586CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Giora Rachel. (2006) Is negation unique? On the processes and products of phrasal negation. Journal of Pragmatics 38: 979–980CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Gobbo Camilla, Franca Agnoli. (1985) Comprehension of two types of negative comparisons in children. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research 14(3): 301–316CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Heim, Irene. 2000. Degree operators and scope. In Proceedings of SALT 10. Ithaca, NY: CLC Publications.Google Scholar
  16. Heim Irene, 2001. Degree operators and scope. In Audiatur Vox apientiae. A Festschrift for Arnim von Stechow, ed. Caroline Féry and Wolfgang Sternefeld, 214–239. Berlin: Akademie-Verlag.Google Scholar
  17. Heim, Irene. 2006a. Remarks on comparative clauses as generalized quantifiers. Manuscript, MIT.Google Scholar
  18. Heim, Irene. 2006b. Little. In Proceedings of SALT 16, ed. M. Gibson and J. Howell, Cornell University, Ithaca: CLC Publications.Google Scholar
  19. Heim, Irene. 2008. Decomposing Antonyms? Proceedings of Sinn und Bedeutung 12: 212–225. OSLO.Google Scholar
  20. Heim Irene, Angelika Kratzer. (1998) Semantics in generative grammar. Blackwell, MaldenGoogle Scholar
  21. Horn, Laurence R. 1972. On the semantic properties of logical operators in English. PhD diss., University of California, Los Angeles.Google Scholar
  22. Horn Laurence R. (1989) A natural history of negation. The University of Chicago Press, ChicagoGoogle Scholar
  23. Israel, Michael. 2004.The pragmatics of polarity. In The handbook of pragmatics, ed. L. Horn and G. Ward, pp. 701–723. Malden: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  24. Kamp, Hans. 1975. Two theories about adjectives. In Formal semantics for natural language, ed. Edward Keenan 123–155. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  25. Kennedy, Christopher. 1999. Projecting the adjective: The syntax and semantics of gradability and comparison. New York: Garland. (1997 UCSC PhD dissertation)Google Scholar
  26. Kennedy Christopher. (2001) Polar opposition and the ontology of degrees. Linguistics and Philosophy 24(1): 33–70CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Kennedy Christopher. (2007) Vagueness and grammar: The semantics of relative and absolute gradable adjectives. Linguistics and Philosophy 30: 1–45CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Kennedy, Christopher, and Beth Levin. 2008. Measure of change: The adjectival core of degree achievements. In Adjectives and adverbs: Syntax, semantics, and discourse, ed. Louise McNally and C. Kennedy, 156–182. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  29. Kennedy Christopher, Louise McNally. (2005) Scale structure and the semantic typology of gradable predicates. Language 81: 345–381CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Klein, Ewan. 1991. Comparatives. In Semantik/semantics, An international handbook of contemporary research, ed. Arnim von Stechow and Dieter Wunderlich, 673–691. Berlin: de Gruyter.Google Scholar
  31. Krantz, David H., R. Duncan, Luce, Patrick, Suppes, and Amos, Tversky. 1971. Foundations of measurement: additive and polynomial representations: San Diego: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  32. Krasikova, Sveta. 2008. Norm-relatedness in degree constructions. In Proceedings of Sinn und Bedeutung 13, ed. Arndt Riester and Torgrim Solstad, 293–308. Stuttgart: University of Stuttgart.Google Scholar
  33. Landman, Fr (eds) (1991) Structures for semantics. Kluwer, DordrechtGoogle Scholar
  34. Landman, Fred. 2005. An almost (but not quite) naive theory of measures. Manuscript and class notes, Tel Aviv University.Google Scholar
  35. Lapata Mirella, Frank Keller. (2005) Web-based models for natural language processing. ACM Transactions on Speech and Language Processing 2(1): 1–31CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Lehrer Adrienne, Keith Lehrer. (1982) Antonymy. Linguistics and Philosophy 5: 483–501CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. McConnell-Ginet, Sally. 1973. Comparative constructions in English: A syntactic and semantic analysis. PhD diss., University of Rochester.Google Scholar
  38. Molfese Dennis. (1985) Electrophysiological correlates of semantic features. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research 14(3): 289–299CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Murphy, M. Lynne. 2006. Semantic, pragmatic, and lexical aspects of the measure phrase + adjective construction. In Acta lingvistica hafniensia 38, Explorations in the semantics/pragmatics interface, ed. Maj-Britt Mosegaard Hansen and Ken Turner, Copenhagen: CA Reitzels.Google Scholar
  40. Nouwen Rick. (2008) Upper-bounded no more: The exhaustive interpretation of non-strict comparison. Natural Language Semantics 16: 271–295CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Rett, Jessica. 2007. Antonymy and evaluativity. In Proceedings of semantics and linguistic theory 17. Ithaca, NY: CLC Publications.Google Scholar
  42. Rullmann, Hotze. 1995. Maximality in the semantics of WH-constructions. PhD diss., University of Massachusetts, Amherst.Google Scholar
  43. Sassoon, W. Galit. 2007. Vagueness, gradability and typicality, a comprehensive semantic analysis. PhD diss., Tel Aviv University.Google Scholar
  44. Sassoon, W. Galit, 2009. Negative adjectives and transformation values. In Proceedings of SALT 18, ed. Tova Friedman and Satoshi Ito, 637–654. Ithaca, NY: CLC Publications.Google Scholar
  45. Sassoon W. Galit. (2010) Measurement theory in linguistics. Synthese 174(1): 151–180CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Schwarzschild Roger. (2005) Measure phrases as modifiers of adjectives. Recherches Linguistiques de Vincennes 35: 207–228Google Scholar
  47. Schwarzschild Roger, Karina Wilkinson. (2002) Quantifiers in comparatives: A semantics of degree based on intervals. Natural Language Semantics 10: 1–41CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Seuren, Pieter. 1978. The structure and selection of positive and negative gradable adjectives. In CLS 14: Papers from the parasession on the lexicon, ed. D. Farkas, W. Jacobson and K Todrys, 336–346. Chicago: Chicago Linguistic Society.Google Scholar
  49. Seuren Pieter. (1984) The comparative revisited. Journal of Semantics 3: 109–141CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Stalnaker, Robert. 1978. Assertion. In Syntax and Semantics 9: Pragmatics, ed. Peter Cole, 315–332. San Diego: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  51. Svenonious, Peter, and Christopher Kennedy. 2006. Northern Norwegian degree questions and the syntax of measurement. In Phases of interpretation, ed. M. Frascarelli, 133–161. The Hague: Mouton de Gruyter.Google Scholar
  52. van Fraassen, Bas, C. 1969. Presuppositions, supervaluations and free logic. In The logical way of doing things, ed. K. Lambert, 67–91. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  53. Veltman, Frank. 1984. Data semantics. In Truth, interpretation and information proceedings of the 3rd Amsterdam Colloquium, ed. Jeroen Groenendijk, Theo Janssen, and Martin Stokhof, 43–64. Dordrecht: Foris.Google Scholar
  54. von Stechow Arnim. (1984a) My reaction to Cresswell’s, Hellan’s, Hoeksema’s and Seuren’s comments. Journal of Semantics 3: 183–199CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. von Stechow Arnim. (1984) Comparing semantic theories of comparison. Journal of Semantics 3: 1–77CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Winter Yoad. (2005) Cross categorial restrictions on measure phrase modification. Linguistics and Philosophy 28: 233–267CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.ILLC, University of AmsterdamAmsterdamThe Netherlands
  2. 2.DiemenThe Netherlands

Personalised recommendations