Just perfect, simply the best: an analysis of emphatic exclusion


When used next to a predicate at the extreme of a scale such as perfect, the exclusive modifiers just and simply convey a distinctive intensifying effect, presenting a puzzle for theories of exclusivity and alternative-based meanings more broadly. In this article, I develop an analysis of these modifiers as a special kind of alternative-targeting operator, whereby the speaker signals that more specific descriptions than the one they just asserted—modeled here as granularity-based alternatives—are not assertion-worthy in the context—i.e., they need not be asserted in order for a complete representation of the facts to be provided. On this analysis, the intensifying effect of these modifiers are derived from the interaction of exclusivity, granularity, and the distinctive semantic properties of predicates denoting the extreme of a scalar extreme. More broadly, the proposal affords a jumping-off point for further work exploring the interaction between scalarity and exclusive operators, highlighting a number of intriguing lines of future research across semantics and pragmatics.

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  1. 1.


  2. 2.


  3. 3.

    Alternatives, of course, can also be excluded in the absence of an overt exclusive operator—e.g., via inferences such as scalar implicatures. Whether this mechanism of exclusion is pragmatic or compositional remains an open issue, which goes beyond the scope of this article. See Chierchia (2017) for a review of the different arguments involved in the debate.

  4. 4.

    Specifically, Beaver and Clark (2008) suggest that there must be a congruence relationship between the alternative set denoted by the QUD and the alternatives given by the focal meaning of the sentence containing the exclusive, such that the QUD—whether implicit or explicit—denotes a subset of alternatives given by the focal meaning of the sentence. See Beaver and Clark (2008: 37) for further discussion on how such a congruence relationship can be modeled.

  5. 5.

    Alternative mechanisms for generating alternatives besides the two presented here have been proposed: among others, see von Stechow (1990) and Krifka (2001) on structured propositions.

  6. 6.

    Throughout the article I treat emphatic just and simply as semantically/pragmatically equivalent, based on the observation that they can both convey the emphatic effects discussed above. Yet, it is important to note that this doesn’t mean that the two modifiers should be seen as fully interchangeable. A distributional difference between them, in particular, can be observed with respect to simply’s ability to appear within a Noun Phrase, which just doesn’t seem to share; the two, however, can both occur outside the NP.


    In light of the fact that the two modifiers seem to be providing an equivalent contribution in (ii), I consider the contrast in (i) as being linked to a difference in the morpho-syntactic properties of these two modifiers, as opposed to their semantics. More broadly, the analysis I am going to develop in this paper is geared towards capturing the shared contribution of emphatic simply and just, and will be based on examples in which the contribution of the two modifiers appear to be similar enough to warrant a unified account. Again, this doesn’t mean that the two modifiers are predicted to have the very same distribution; insofar as their morpho-syntatcic properties might not be identical, it is in fact to be expected that, while largely overlapping, their distribution might also not be perfectly identical. I leave an account of these differences to further work.

  7. 7.

    Note that EEs seem to be formed via different morpho-syntactic strategies across languages. In German, for example, einfach can combine with nur ‘only’ and still convey an emphatic contribution, even though nur ‘only’ cannot convey emphasis per se; in French, simplement ‘simply’ can convey emphasis only in combination with universal quantifier tout ‘completely’.

  8. 8.

    Tomaszewicz (2012) discusses a use of Polish ‘only’ which is paraphrased as ‘no less than’ and resembles EEs in inducing an intensification effect with extreme predicates. However, this use does not show the other distinctive features of EEs discussed in Sects. 3.3 and 3.4; in particular, it appears to be targeteable by negation, and more broadly pattern with expressions that contribute to the at-issue content; as such, I take it to represent a distinct phenomenon from the emphatic exclusion as discussed in this paper.

  9. 9.

    This is necessary in that, when embedded under negation, very tends to give rise to an enriched interpretation known as negative strengthening: if a person is described as “not very tall”, for example, we tend to infer that they are “not tall” in the first place, rather than that they fail to largely exceed the standard for “tall” (see in particular Leffel et al. 2019 for recent discussion of this phenomenon). Focal stress serves the purpose of avoiding this particular reading, and forcing one in which negation specifically targets the intensifier.

  10. 10.

    Solt (2014) illustrates this with the metaphor of a ruler: a continuous extent on which a discrete structure is imposed on it via a hierarchical system of markings (inches, half inches, quarter inches, etc.). Such markings make it possible not only to perform measurement, but also, crucially, to report it by using the closest mark to the object at the chosen level of precision.

  11. 11.

    Note, moreover, that the modifiers used in this example are largely arbitrary—both in terms of the choice of using these particular modifiers and the choice of positing two modifiers as partitioning each subinterval. The same idea could have been implemented with a different set of modifiers, and with a higher number of modifiers within each subinterval.

  12. 12.

    The idea of defining different granularity levels in terms of sequences takes inspiration from Sauerland and Stateva (2011) and Solt (2014).

  13. 13.

    From a logical standpoint, instead, the truth-conditions of these expressions are normally modeled in terms of exceeding a standard on the scale (Kennedy and McNally 2005; Kennedy 2007 i.a.); as such, from the perspective of their denotations, these adjectives do cover overlapping segments of the ordering.

  14. 14.

    I choose to characterize the relation between scalar terms and individuals in terms of permissibility, as opposed to truth, to reflect the idea that scalar intervals are related to the pragmatic norm of use of these terms, as opposed to their logical truth conditions. Throughout the rest of the paper, I take the notion of pragmatic permissibility as essentially corresponding to compliance with Grice’s Quality Maxim: uttering a description that is pragmatically permissible amounts to uttering a description that is an adequate linguistic representation of the facts—one that is consistent with the assumption that the speaker is behaving truthfully and cooperatively. What makes permissibility different from truth is the fact that, in the case of permissibility, descriptive adequacy is computed in terms of the relevant scalar interval associated with the expression, as opposed to its truth conditions. As will become clear in the next section, maintaining the notion of truth and permissibility distinct is especially important in light of the fact that these two dimensions diverge when it comes to the behavior of extreme predicates, licensing the use of EEs.

  15. 15.

    This model, in turn, largely builds on insights from Stalnaker (1978).

  16. 16.

    While I will be working through the bulk of the analysis by relying on examples such as (54), it is important to note that, more broadly, I assume that propositions containing scalar predicates associate with a question with structure “[Obj] is X” regardless of the form in which this proposition is instantiated in discourse, and regardless of whether this question coincides with the main issue that the assertion is addressing. Consider the following example, in which two scalar terms are used: perfect and impeccable.


    I treat an assertion of this sort as containing, among others, two distinct propositions—one for each scalar term, and each associating with a dedicated QUD: (i) “The essay is perfect”, associated with “How is the essay?”; (ii) “The handwriting is impeccable”, associated with “How is the handwriting”. Note that the fact that these questions are available doesn’t mean that they coincide with the main question that the assertion is addressing—i.e. the main point of the utterance (e.g., “What did John do?”; see Tonhauser et al. 2013). However, they can be pursued as inquisitive substrategies to advance towards solving this question, and they can be elaborated on in subsequent moves.

  17. 17.

    Because the notion of assertion-worthiness is defined with respect to the discourse state, it is not the case that expressions associated with an interval including the extreme of the scale—e.g., absolutely perfect or absolutely absolutely perfect—will always turn out to be non-assertion-worthy. For instance, if a speaker utters right away in a context such as Scenario 1—e.g., without first uttering “The essay is perfect”—the uttered proposition will indeed qualify as assertion-worthy, since it is not entailed by any previously asserted proposition.

  18. 18.

    This does not mean that they are unassertable tout court, nor that they are conversationally useless in an absolute sense: as discussed in Sect. 4.3, both absolutely perfect and absolutely absolutely perfect are indeed more informative than perfect from a pragmatic standpoint, in that they are permissible only in a subset of the contexts in which the latter is. As a result, their assertion would still allow the interlocutors to advance in the conversational games and eliminate competing possibilities from the QUD. However, because such alternatives are not logically independent from what has been asserted before, they are not worth the effort of being proffered with a dedicated discourse move: they can also be computed from the proposition that has been proffered already by the speaker, thus affording the possibility of solving the QUD without further discourse moves.

  19. 19.

    Building on the idea that each proposition containing an object [Obj] and scalar term X associates with the question “[Obj] is X?” (see footnote 16), this denotation can also be used to capture the use of exclusives in assertions containing multiple scalar terms, such as .


    Since each proposition containing a scalar term is associated with its own question, it is predicted that an EE can associate with each of these questions—and possibly with both.


    The interpretive differences between these three assertions are that granularity-based alternatives remain open about the essay and the handwriting respectively in the first two respectively—the handwriting could be basically or absolutely impeccable in (ii); and the essay could be basically or absolutely perfect in (iii). No granularity-based alternatives remain open in (iv). I thank an anonymous reviewer for inviting me to clarify this issue.

  20. 20.

    The denotation of EEs proposed in this section is fully compatible with a Rooth-style account that treats exclusives as associating with focus, as opposed to the QUD. On this view, the contextual constraints on the alternative set would be fixed by the value of C. A possible denotation along these lines in the spirit of Wiegand (2018) is proposed below.


    See Coppock and Beaver (2014: 26) for further discussion on the relationship between QUD-based and focus-based approaches to exclusivity, and in particular on the idea that the two approaches are by-and-large based on similar premises.

  21. 21.

    On Morzycki’s analysis, this property is captured by the requirement that the standard of the adjective be located in the range of degrees that exceeds Max(C), the maximal salient degree in C.

    (i)      a.   \(\llbracket \) \(\textsc {big}_{C}\) \(\rrbracket _{<e,dt>}\) =\(\lambda \)x \(\lambda \)d. d\(\in \) C \(\wedge \) Big(x)(d)

             b.   \(\llbracket \) \(\textsc {gigantic}_{C}\) \(\rrbracket _{<e,dt>}\)=\(\lambda \)x \(\lambda \)d. \(\underline{\mathrm{d} >{\mathrm{Max(C)}}}\) \(\wedge \) Big(x)(d)

  22. 22.

    An anonymous reviewer also suggests in every respect as a possible candidate for a granularity-based alternative that provide a more granular description while shifting towards the extreme of the scale. Yet, this doesn’t appear to provide a counterexample to the idea that adjectives like amazing conform to the EPG. To begin with, this modifier doesn’t appear to be qualify as a granularity-based alternative, in the sense that it doesn’t pick out a subinterval or a super-interval of the bare adjective; in fact, it appears to be quantifying on dimensions according to which the predicate applies (see, among others, Sassoon 2012). In this respect, it is important to note that the bare form of amazing, based on Sassoon’s discussion, appears to behave similarly to expressions whose bare form requires that the property already applies to all contextually relevant dimensions—i.e. adjectives such as healthy. This is shown by the fact that they can be modified by exceptive phrases, which are normally taken to combine only with predicates encoding universal quantification (von Fintel 1993; Moltmann 1995). This yields a contrast with adjectives such as sick, which instead only require that the property apply along at least one relevant dimension.


    This suggests that, in its bare form, the denotation of amazing implicitly requires that the property hold for all (contextually relevant) dimensions. It is indeed possible to think of scenarios in which the predicate is used without this requirement being satisfied; but these scenarios can be seen as similar to scenarios in which perfect is used without the property reaching the endpoint of the scale. Accordingly, adding in every respect forces an interpretation of awesome that adheres to its denotation, rather than one in which the standard for awesomeness is shifted upwards.

  23. 23.

    More broadly, the lack of truth-conditional effects of EDMs correlates with a series of other properties that are not expected for degree words, and which question the idea that EDMs should be treated as degree words in the first place. For instance, EDMs don’t seem to interact with logical operators in general and are not naturally challenged by denials—two properties that crucially distinguish them from well-established degree words such as very and extremely (see Beltrama 2016 for further discussion, as well as for further diagnostics).


    Moreover, EDMs are widely attested in combination with predicates that are not gradable, and thus should make no degree slot available for degree modification. Again, degree words such as very and extremely are ungrammatical in such environments.


    While it is in principle possible that the uses of downright and flat-out in encode a different meaning than the uses next to huge and amazing, the cross-categorial versatility of these modifiers, combined with the observation that they have an intuitively similar effect across all these environments, is much easier to be accounted for under a view that doesn’t treat them as degree words in the first place.

  24. 24.

    Further evidence that the zone of indifference associated with non-logically extreme predicates can be made salient by previous discourse moves, and the discourse salience of this portion of the scale in turn affects the alternative set available in the context, comes from the behavior of these expressions with respect to the calculation of scalar implicatures. In particular, it’s been shown that, when a mid-scale adjective like good is used, stronger adjectives like amazing tend to be ruled out by scalar inferences to a considerably lesser extent than other implicature triggers (e.g., some \(\rightarrow \) not all) (Doran et al. 2012; Beltrama and Xiang 2013; Van Tiel et al. 2014; Gotzner et al. 2018 i.a); however, the rate of implicature calculation has been shown to be higher if the QUD explicitly mentions the extreme part of the scale—i.e., if the zone of indifference is made explicitly salient in discourse (Ronai and Xiang 2021).

  25. 25.

    The idea that exclusives can target alternatives related to granularity has been also recently, and independently, suggested by Thomas and Deo (2020) to capture the occurrence of exclusives in equative and comparative constructions:


    The authors argue that this use, which they call “approximative”, is characterized by two distinctive effects: it conveys that its prejacent is true at a high level of precision; and it conveys that its prejacent is not true at any lower level of precision that would make a stronger claim. They model this contribution by implementing precision via a notion of granularity similar in spirit to the one adopted in the analysis developed in this article, and likewise grounded in Sauerland and Stateva’s (2011) system. I leave an exploration of the connection between emphatic and approximative uses of just to future work.

  26. 26.

    Minimal sufficiency readings of exclusives are also available for only in the scope of goal-oriented necessity modals, as in the following example (from von Fintel and Iatridou 2007):

  27. 27.

    On this view, a paraphrase for (74-a) is that “there is an x such that s is ranked as low as—and no higher than—the thought of you and x sends shivers down my spine”, where the semantic composition at the propositional level is made possible via a series of type shifting operations (see Coppock and Beaver 2014: 39 for details).

  28. 28.

    See Coppock and Lindahl (2015) for a different take.

  29. 29.

    Warstadt (2020) reframes this split in terms of one between strong exclusives such as only, which rule out alternatives qua false; and weak exclusives such as just, which rule them out qua unassertable. While this distinction might serve as a promising starting point, it is important to note that it cannot be applied straightforwardly to the analysis of EEs proposed in the current article, according to which the alternatives excluded by just and simply, though non-assertion-worthy, are nevertheless assertable.

  30. 30.

    It is important to note that social factors likely condition the space variation in which exclusives are embedded as well. Muffy Siegel (p.c.), in particular, brings to my attention that the Irish mystery novels of Tana French showcase a remarkable number of seemingly emphatic uses of only, with the novel The Secret Place alone (French 2014) containing up to a dozen. reports an example. The speaker is Antoinette Conway, a rough young murder detective in Dublin, raised in the inner city there and generally disliked by her co-workers and, especially, bosses, like Costello. Importantly, Costello and others frequently mention Conway’s underclass “accent”.


    Given the fictional nature of this example, the question remains open as to how closely the use of only in this character’s idiolect reflects an actual variety spoken in Dublin, and how widespread this variety is. Examples of this sort, however, suggest that the the range of meanings that only (and an exclusive more broadly) can express is additionally—and interestingly—embedded in a space of sociolinguistic variation, whose exploration I leave to future work. I’m grateful to Muffy Siegel for sharing this observation.


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I’m grateful to Rajesh Bhatt, Ryan Bochnak, Heather Burnett, Ivano Caponigro, Cleo Condoravdi, Eva Csipak, Emily Hanink, Gwendolyn Hildebrandt, Julian Grove, Magdalena Kaufmann, Alexandros Kalomoiros, Erlinde Meertens, Lisa Miracchi, Anna Papafragou, Sarah Payne, Paul Portner, Stefano Quaglia, Kyle Rawlins, Jacopo Romoli, Eszter Ronai, Florian Schwarz, Muffy Siegel, Meredith Tamminga, and Mia Wiegand for providing insightful comments on different versions of this work. I am especially grateful to Emily Hanink and Gwendolyn Hildebrandt for their help with the English data reported in this article. I am also grateful to audiences at SALT 28, WCCFL 33, NELS 47, Georgetown University, the University of Chicago, the University of Konstanz, the University of Massachusetts, the University of Paris 7–LLF, the University of Pennsylvania, and Yale University for questions and feedback. Finally, I would like to thank editors Regine Eckardt and Patrick Grosz and three anonymous reviewers for offering thorough and constructive criticism. This research received support from: the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) within project P1, RO 4247/3-1 (1st round) of the FOR 2111 “Questions at the Interfaces”; the French National Research Agency (ANR) as part of the program “Investissements d’Avenir” (reference: ANR-10-LABX-0083); and the MindCORE initiative at the University of Pennsylvania. All errors are my own.

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Beltrama, A. Just perfect, simply the best: an analysis of emphatic exclusion. Linguist and Philos (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10988-021-09326-x

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  • Exclusives
  • Scalar extremeness
  • Granularity
  • Question Under Discussion
  • Assertion-worthiness