Natural Language Semantics

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

The degree functions of negative adjectives

  • Galit Weidman SassoonEmail author
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.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2010

Authors and Affiliations

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

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