Quasi-definites in Swedish: Elative superlatives and emphatic assertion


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.

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  1. 1.

    The suffix -a on stor-a is the so-called ‘weak’ ending, hence the gloss -w. Weak endings are found on singular attributive adjectives in definite noun phrases (as in (3)) and on plural adjectives in both predicative and attributive position, and they do not reflect the gender of the noun (hence the name ‘weak’; there is no relation to ‘weak’ as in ‘weak definites’). Singular attributive adjectives in definite noun phrases and singular predicative adjectives take a ‘strong’ ending, which reflects the gender of the (discourse) referent. For example, in Hus-et är gammalt-t ‘the house is old’, the predicative adjective gammal-t reflects the inherent neuter gender of the word hus ‘house’ (reflected by its co-occurrence with the articles ett ‘a’ and det ‘the’), and in Bil-en är stor ‘the car is big’, the predicative adjective stor reflects the inherent common gender of bil (reflected by its co-occurrence with the articles en ‘a’ and den ‘the’).

  2. 2.

    Faarlund (2009:630) points out that although the neuter definite determiner and the neuter demonstrative in Norwegian are both spelled det, they differ in vowel quality.

  3. 3.

    Thanks to a reviewer for this suggestion.

  4. 4.

    Other definite noun phrases in which the suffix is absent are noun phrases with demonstratives, as in detta hus ‘this house’ and possessives as in mitt hus ‘my house’. These are always interpreted as definite noun phrases; see Cooper (1986) and Börjars (1998) i.a.

  5. 5.

    Most of the examples in this paper come from the newspaper Göteborgs-Posten, part of the Swedish corpora available at Språkbanken spraakbanken.gu.se/korp.

  6. 6.

    See Teleman et al. (1999, Volume II, p. 206f.), Teleman et al. (1999, Volume III, p. 79f.).

  7. 7.

    250 million words from Göteborgs-Posten, using the search engine Korp (http://spraakbanken.gu.se/korp/).

  8. 8.

    A reviewer points out that the situation is slightly different in Norwegian, where a broader range of quasi-definites can be found, such as “Det må vera den rette tolking” ‘That must be the right interpretation’ (Nynorsk). This difference may be due to the strong influence of Danish on the development of the written standards for Norwegian; Danish marks definiteness only once per noun phrase.

  9. 9.

    The complete annotated data set is available at: https://svn.spraakbanken.gu.se/sb-arkiv/pub/coppock/superlatives.

  10. 10.

    The term ‘elative’ is used in some traditions including Latin and Arabic grammar. Other terms used for this concept include ‘absolute superlative’, as mentioned above, as well as ‘intensifying’, used by Claridge (2007) and Scheible (2009) in their discussions of elatives in English.

  11. 11.

    Thanks to Gunlög Josefsson for raising this point.

  12. 12.

    Thanks to Jason Merchant for suggesting this test.

  13. 13.

    Volume III , p. 79.

  14. 14.

    This description was chosen independently of our choice of label for the construction, coincidentally.

  15. 15.

    Fauconnier (1975b) made the same observation about so-called ‘quantificational superlatives’; e.g. There isn’t the faintest noise he can stand, which can be paraphrased, There isn’t any noise he can stand, and where the superlative phrase is in the pivot of a presentational construction.

  16. 16.

    Chierchia (1995, p. 129) also gives this example of anaphora licensing from the consequent, where the anaphor precedes it antecedent: If it is overcooked, a hamburger usually doesn’t taste good.

  17. 17.

    Coppock and Beaver (2015) use the term ‘indeterminate’ rather than ‘semantically indefinite’, in order to avoid associating any particular semantic content with the morphological category of definiteness. They argue in particular that definites in English can be interpreted either determinately (referring to an individual), or indeterminately (in which case existential import is not presupposed but rather part of the at-issue content). In these terms, what we have concluded here is that quasi-definites are indeterminate.

  18. 18.

    By ‘negative polarity item’, we mean expressions like ever, which cannot be used in simple positive sentences (e.g. *I ever go shopping) but can be used in negative environments (e.g. I don’t ever go shopping), among certain others including conditionals and questions (If I ever go shopping, I will buy it; Have you ever gone shopping?). How to define and characterize the distribution of negative polarity items is controversial and has been much discussed; see Giannakidou (2011) for a recent overview on this topic.

  19. 19.

    In a sample of 100 uses of den blekaste aning randomly drawn from Swedish written corpora (Göteborgs-Posten), every single one occurred in a negative environment.

  20. 20.

    These kinds of expressions do not have the same distribution as the English NPIs any and ever. There is a set of non-NPI-licensing environments where expressions like den blekaste aning are acceptable, such as the following variant on (61).

    1. (i)

      Justitieministern har bara den blekaste aning om hur det är att sitta i fängelse. ‘The Minister of Justice has only the faintest idea what it is like to be in prison.’

    Naturally-occurring examples of this type, where a quasi-definite that would normally be thought of as a negative polarity item occurs in the restrictor of only, can be found as well:

    1. (ii)

      Ingen kan förneka att ECT är en genomträngande chock för hjärnan, ett organ som är enormt komplicerat och som vi bara har den ringaste förståelse för. ‘Nobody can deny that ECT is a penetrating shock for the brain, an organ that is enormously complicated and which we only have the slightest understanding of.’

    As discussed by Wagner (2005), even though only licenses NPIs in its scope, the restrictor of only is not Strawson Downward-Entailing, and it does not license NPIs:

    1. (iii)

      *Only anyone’s parents showed up at the graduation.

    So these quasi-definites cannot be classified strictly as negative polarity items, even though their distribution is heavily weighted toward negative environments.

  21. 21.

    Israel (2011, 24) characterizes minimizers as follows: “The most well-known and widely attested sort of polarity item, however, is probably the minimal unit, or minimizer NPI. These forms consist minimally of a singular indefinite NP used to denote a minimal unit or degree of some sort (Bolinger 1972, 17). Typical examples in English include an iota, a jot, a thing, a red cent, a plugged nickel, a thin dime, a pin, a (living) soul, a stick (of furniture), a stitch (of clothing), an inkling, and a shred (of evidence), among many others. Usually such minimizing indefinites are limited to occurring as a direct object in just one or a few idiomatic VP constructions: e.g. drink a drop, sleep a wink, lift a finger, give a damn, spend a red cent, budge an inch, bat an eyelash, hold a candle to, miss a beat, show a spark of decency, and hurt a fly. In such constructions, the indefinite NP serves as an incremental theme of some sort, though often with a highly idiomatic sense: thus, for example, the fly in hurt a fly seems to denote a minimal unit of harm, while the candle in hold a candle to represents a minimal degree of comparative worth—the degree, that is, to which something shines.”

  22. 22.

    It is not clear why Fauconnier chooses to abstract over the bother-ee y as well as the botherer x but it is interesting to note that Malte Zimmermann recently carefully argued for a similar conclusion regarding the licensing conditions for even (Zimmermann 2015).

  23. 23.

    Note that an analysis that did not require alignment between the degree scale and the scale of pragmatic strength would lack the resources for explaining how implications about relative likelihood of alternative propositions come about.

  24. 24.

    A reviewer rightly asks in what sense this scale is ‘rhetorical’. One possible answer is as follows: The scale can be seen as ‘rhetorical’ insofar as it situates an assertion in the context of alternative assertions and can thereby serve as a tool to orient the listener in the larger rhetorical environment. This answer takes inspiration from Israel (2011, 9), who also sees the scale underlying emphasis and attenuation as rhetorical, although he takes the strength relation to be entailment rather than relative surprisal: “There are a variety of ways one might understand ‘strength’ as a property of propositions—as, for example, its likelihood of being true (Karttunen and Peters 1979), its noteworthiness (Herburger 2000), its relevance (Rooij 2003), or its force as an argument for some conclusion (Ducrot 1973, 1980; Anscombre and Ducrot 1983). I follow Kay (1990, 1997) in defining the strength of a proposition directly in terms of its entailments: a proposition p is stronger than a proposition n if and only if p unilaterally entails n. I take it that while emphasis and attenuation are fundamentally rhetorical aspects of meaning, they are in fact grounded in this simple propositional logic. Marking an expressed proposition as either emphatic or attenuating is basically just a way of calling attention to its logical status with respect to background assumptions. But the act of calling attention itself is always rhetorically loaded. An argumentative operator thus does not add to the logical content of what is said but expresses an attitude about that content and so situates it in a larger context.”

  25. 25.

    Here we are not appealing to a monotonicity assumption of the kind made by Heim (1999) where for example being tall to degree d entails being tall to degree \(d'\) if \(d'< d\). We mean that variants of the assertion involving strictly lower degrees, excluding higher degrees, are entailed in some cases.

  26. 26.

    Fauconnier (1975b) made the same observation about ‘quantifying superlatives’, writing that they “can be modified by even with no change in meaning” (p. 364), as illustrated by examples including ‘Even the faintest noise bothers him.’

  27. 27.

    Based on Giannakidou’s (2007) description, it appears that to a first approximation, till och med and även correspond to Greek akomi ke (positive ‘even’), and ens corresponds to Greek oute (NPI ‘even’).

  28. 28.

    Another difference is that elatives associate with degree alternatives, while even associates with focus alternatives.

  29. 29.

    The definite article may be used in the presence of a restrictive relative clause even in the absence of an intervening adjective. With non-restrictive relative clauses, the prenominal article cannot appear without an intervening modifier. Platzack (2000) gives a theory of non-restrictive relative clauses that aims to explain this. See also Hankamer and Mikkelsen (2002) for a discussion of the same phenomenon in Danish.

  30. 30.

    Note that (87c) is acceptable, so if finns ‘exist’ is taken to denote a contingent and time-dependent property (what Coppock and Beaver 2015 refer to as ‘narrow existence’, following terminology used by Kripke 2011) and the specificity in question involves existence in a weaker sense (what they refer to as ‘broad existence’), then the two kinds of existence are not coextensive and a contradiction is not inevitable is a sentence of this kind.

  31. 31.

    This in turn is an oversimplification, supressing complications related to the vagueness of perfect. Although perfect does not behave as an intersective adjective (e.g. a perfect camera may be an imperfect gift), the fact that perfect can be used predicatively, and the fact that the modified noun does not always provide the dimension of perfection (Siegel 1976), suggest that vague adjectives like perfect are parameterized by context rather than taking the noun they modify as an argument directly; see Coppock 2009, ch. 5 for discussion. In that case, an intersectional analysis is viable. But these issues are orthogonal to our purposes here.

  32. 32.

    A different approach to the Italian intensifier -issimo is taken by Beltrama (2014), and extended to Washo by Beltrama and Bochnak (2015). This approach involves quantification over contexts; for example, someone who is bellissimo ‘beautiful-issimo’ is beautiful in every context. See Bylinina and Sudo (2015) for critical commentary on the latter paper. We do not undertake a systematic comparison between these approaches here.

  33. 33.

    The -r(e) part of the comparative does not surface in the superlative in English or Swedish, but in Cimbrian German, the -r of the comparative is also found in the superlative; a comparative of the form X-ar corresponds to a superlative of the form X-ar-ste (Bobaljik 2012, p. 72). Bobaljik (2012) provides extensive further cross-linguistic evidence for this hypothesis using morphological suppletion patterns, showing that arguably without exception, if the comparative form is suppletive, then the superlative form is as well. This is supported by Swedish triples like bra-bättre-bäst ‘good-better-best’, where the comparative and superlative forms have a different root than the positive form, and more indirectly, stor-större-störst ‘big-bigger-biggest’ and tung-tyngre-tyngst ‘heavy-heavier-heaviest’ (Teleman et al. 1999, Vol. 2, 198ff.), where umlaut in the stem is found both in the comparative and the superlative form.

  34. 34.

    A structure like this forms the input to a linearization process that applies rules of exponence to produce the surface form; see Bobaljik (2012) for details.

  35. 35.

    Bold signals that the comparison class is expected to be given by context.

  36. 36.

    Another more complex meaning for the comparative is a “quantificational” meaning of type 〈dt,〈dt,t〉〉, namely \(\lambda S_{dt} \lambda T_{dt}\,.\,\max(T)>\max(S)\). This meaning has been used to explain scope ambiguities in comparatives, as well as some of the properties of modified numerals (Heim 2000; Kennedy 2014).

  37. 37.

    Note that the ι-expression characterizing the unique highest degree is what Rullmann’s (1995) max operator would produce, given a set of degrees as input. In the case of elative superlatives, the maximization is effected by a combination of the superlative and the comparative morphemes rather than one single operation.

  38. 38.

    For Cresswell, degrees are conceived of as ordered pairs whose first element is what might be called a ‘point’ and whose second element is a scale. Only degrees sharing a scale are commensurable. Under this view, the comparison class may be taken to constrain the set of relevant degrees according to their scale element.

  39. 39.

    Here is a selection: Hoeksema 1985, Cooper 1986, Hellan 1986, Holmberg 1987, Delsing 1988, Sadock 1991, Taraldsen 1991, Kester 1993, Delsing 1993, Santelmann 1993, Svenonius 1993, 1994, Payne and Börjars 1994, Börjars 1995, 1998, Vangsnes 1999, Börjars and Donohue 2000, Neville 2000, Embick and Noyer 2001, Hankamer and Mikkelsen 2002, 2005, Julien 2005, Heck et al. 2008, Gelderen and Lohndal 2008, Leu 2008, Roehrs 2009, Schoorlemmer 2009, Katzir 2011, Stroh-Wollin 2011, Alexiadou 2014.

  40. 40.

    For simplicity, we assume that the AP adjoins to NP rather than being located in the specifier of an αP projection. α-heads according to Julien (2005) are functional projections which host adjectival phrases in their specifiers, in the style of Cinque (2010). Also, we do not include an AgrP projection above AP; rather we assume that agreement features are added to already existing heads, as Julien (2002) argues.

  41. 41.

    Here, again, we have glossed over the context-sensitivity of perfect; see fn. 31.

  42. 42.

    Complex indefinite noun phrases are also mentioned in Volume II, p. 206f. as part of modern Swedish, with the example (en) den (allra) vackraste utsikt ‘an incredibly beautiful view’, and in Volume III, p. 80, in connection with absolute superlatives.

  43. 43.

    Teleman et al. (1999, Volume III, p. 59) also mention cases where the indefinite article is followed by a possessive phrase, as in en de djupa skogarnas djärve son ‘a bold son of the deep forests’.

  44. 44.

    With English a most, it sounds a bit better; compare …with an enormous and most powerful telescope. Here, most powerful has the same meaning as det starkaste under the assumption that the latter is a syntactic unit. So if (113) is ungrammatical, it is not likely to be for reasons of semantic or pragmatic anomaly.

  45. 45.

    The same reasoning applies to Krasikova’s (2012) analysis of superlatives on relative readings, with the following structure: [np [ap [degp the max C ] highest ] mountain ] where “the definite article restricted by a maximalised contextual degree property C fills the degree argument slot of highest, whose morphology is … not interpreted but rather indicates the presence of the maximality operator” and “The entire DP is realised as definite due to the definiteness of the DegP”. The predicted kind of coordination is not possible: *John climbed the highest and famous mountain.

  46. 46.

    This distinction can be thought of in terms of Wechsler and Zlatić’s (2003) distinction between index features and concord features. The former are thought to be borne by pronouns and govern verbal agreement, while the latter determine agreement between determiners, adjectives and nouns within a noun phrase. Phrase-level definiteness would be an index feature while definiteness concord would be a concord feature.

  47. 47.

    Using a theory on which -est does not decompose into a comparative part and a superlative part, Heim (1999) argues that -est in tallest man combines with tall man rather than just tall. This has the welcome consequence that predicating tallest man of someone does not imply anything about the heights of non-men. Under the set-up we have given, where -est is not a unit and therefore cannot move, we must assume, in order to get the same result, that the modified noun restricts the comparison class, as Siegel (1976) argues for e.g. good violinist. An alternative strategy is to let -st take the modified noun as an argument which conventionally constrains the comparison class. This issue should be explored further but as it is somewhat orthogonal to our concerns here, we will use a simpler lexical entry.

  48. 48.

    We assume following Wechsler and Zlatić (2003) that the features participating in nominal concord are gender, number, and definiteness (so they do not include person, unlike ‘index’ agreement).

  49. 49.

    It is interesting that the superlative adjective in (118) is in the ‘weak’ form (minsta) rather than the strong form (minst). As mentioned in fn. 1, the weak form of an adjective is normally used for definites and plurals, while the strong form is normally used for singular indefinites. Superlatives occur in the strong form in predicate position (e.g. Hon är minst ‘She is smallest’) but we do not know of any examples of attributive superlatives in the weak form. (This has not always been the case, however; see Stroh-Wollin and Simke (2014) for a recent discussion of how the weak/strong distinction evolved historically in Swedish.)

  50. 50.

    On bare singulars see also: Kallulli (1999) on Albanian, Asudeh and Mikkelsen (2000) on Danish, Kiefer (1994), Farkas and de Swart (2003) on Hungarian, Schmitt and Munn (1999) on Brazilian Portuguese, and Espinal and McNally (2011) on Spanish and Catalan, among others.

  51. 51.

    See Borik and Gehrke (2015) for a recent collection of works on pseudo-incorporation.

  52. 52.

    Borthen (2003, p. 199) points out that bare singular nouns in Norwegian can be subjects, as long as they are type-denoting and the type is topical.

  53. 53.

    Blue and white are the colors of an important soccer team in Gothenburg.

  54. 54.

    The plural of straff ‘punishment’ is also straff; it is the plural article de which shows in this case that the noun phrase is plural.

  55. 55.


  56. 56.

    Quasi-definites followed by prepositional phrases seem to be quite common in Norwegian, as pointed out by a reviewer.


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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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Correspondence to Elizabeth Coppock.

Appendix: Details of the judgment study

Appendix: Details of the judgment study

In Sect. 2.1, we mentioned a corpus study in which we searched for den or det, followed by an adjective, followed by a noun without a definite suffix, and filtered out cases that do not meet the definition of a quasi-definite. Categories that were excluded included:

  • cases involving relative clauses (e.g. den stora insjö den i verkligheten är ‘the big lake it in reality is’)

  • cases involving pronoun det instead of the article det (e.g. en stund var det nära slagsmål) ‘for a while it was near a fight’; other cases where the string was not an NP constituent for one reason or another (e.g. …vilket inte var [det lättaste] [mitt i semestertider] ‘which wasn’t the easiest in the middle of vacation times’)

  • cases involving genitive (e.g. [det förflutnas] fängelse ‘the past’s prison’)

  • examples in foreign languages (e.g. …via ett mycket aktivt deltagande iden nationale kompromis”, ‘via a very active participation in “the national compromise’’’ where the words in quotes are in Danish), examples involving mention rather than use (e.g. Back är ett lån av det engelska backBack is a loan from the English back’)

  • cases of syncretism between definite and indefinite on the head noun (e.g. den regionala samverkan, where the noun samverkan can be either definite or indefinite)

  • and dates (e.g. den sista augusti).

After filtering out cases that do not meet the definition of a quasi-definite, we were left with 138 examples. Of these 138, 90 contained a superlative adjective. Of those that did not, 19 were the fixed expression den milda grad ‘the small degree’ and two were archaic (den ljusnande framtid ‘the brightening future’, from an old song).

To determine whether the remaining 27 were editing mistakes, we carried out a small grammaticality survey involving 10 native speakers of Swedish, who were asked to choose between definite and bare forms of nouns in their original sentence context. Along with the 27 potential editing errors, participants were presented with 18 cases involving superlatives, two cases involving the fixed expression den milda grad, two cases involving the fixed expression den ljusnande framtid, and 18 control cases where the original sentence contained a definite suffix, for example:

  1. (143)

    Med hjälp av data från de bägge mätpunkterna kan man i efterhand exakt räkna ut den nya position-en.

    ‘With the help av data from the two measurement points, one can afterwards exactly calculate the new position- def.’

The comlete set of stimuli can be accessed at Språkbanken.Footnote 55

The sentences were presented with a drop-down menu at the target noun, where the participants could choose the definite form, choose the bare form, say that both are acceptable or leave the question blank. A screenshot of the web interface is given in Fig. 1. Note that there is no indication as to what the original version was. The sentences were presented in a unique random order for each participant, and it was randomly chosen whether the definite or the indefinite (i.e. suffixless) form would come first in the list for each item and participant.

Fig. 1

Web interface for collecting grammaticality judgements

The results are shown in Fig. 2. For each example, the graph illustrates the number of participants who selected the indefinite version (‘indef), the definite version (‘def), said that both options were acceptable (‘both’), and left the question blank (‘none’). As the reader can see, the superlatives look very much like the fixed expressions, and the non-superlatives look very much like the control cases.

Fig. 2

Results of the judgment study

Statistical tests confirm these impressions. We carried out six Pearson’s χ-square tests (using simulated p-values with 2000 replicates as some cells had fewer than five observations), yielding pairwise comparisons between the four groups of examples. Because we are doing multiple comparisons, we must adjust our α-level. Whether we do a Bonferroni correction (where α is divided by the number of tests, a relatively extreme correction), or one of the two less extreme corrections Holm or Benjamini–Hochberg, the same set of pairwise comparisons turn out to be significant: The superlatives cluster with the fixed expressions (no significant difference between these two), and, crucially, the non-superlatives cluster with the controls (no significant difference between these two). All other pairwise comparisons are significant. These results, along with the specific \(\chi^{2}\) and p values, are summarized in Fig. 3.

Fig. 3

Results of \(\chi^{2}\)-tests testing pairwise comparisons between groups of examples. Dotted lines separate groups that are significantly different from each other; thick lines connect groups that are not significantly different

It is worth emphasizing that there was no significant difference between the control group, where the original example contained a suffix, and the non-superlative group, where it was hypothesized that the absence of a suffix was due to a typo. This supports the hypothesis that all quasi-definites contain a superlative, with the exception of fixed expressions including den milda grad and den ljusnande framtid.

So, overall, the results of the study accorded with our expectations. For the cases with superlatives, it was expected that participants should generally prefer the original version without the definite suffix, although a definite suffix should also be acceptable on a non-elative reading of the superlative. This prediction was supported. In 16/18 of the cases with superlatives, the original variant without the suffix was preferred by a majority. In two of the cases the original variant without the suffix was still preferred by some, but not a majority. We speculate that the context may not have clearly favored an elative interpretation of the superlative in these cases.

For the controls, it was expected that participants would choose the original (definite) version, and this occurred in all cases except the very few where a participant left the question blank.

For the non-superlative examples (excluding the fixed expressions), we reason as follows. If all quasi-definites contain a superlative adjective, then participants should not allow the head noun to be bare unless there is a superlative adjective present. This predicts that all of the 27 non-idiomatic cases without a superlative adjective should be considered ungrammatical without the definite suffix. Participants should always prefer the version with the definite suffix, and not even say that both variants are acceptable (as with the controls). This strong prediction was met for 24/27 cases, where 100% of the participants who did not leave the question blank said that they preferred the version with the definite article. (In five of these cases, one person left the question blank.) Here are three examples in this category:

  1. (144)

    Tidigare hade Microsoft, som är världens största programvarutillverkar, utlovat en lansering av den nya version*(-en) av Windows under första halvåret 1995.

    ‘Earlier, Microsoft, as the world’s biggest software producer, had promised a release of the new version*(- def ) of Windows during the first half of 1995.’

  1. (145)

    Den ekonomiska integrationen av det fd kommunistiska Östeuropa med den västeuropeiska ekonomi*(-n) har således gått snabbt.

    ‘The economic integration of the previously communist Eastern Europe with the western European economy*(- def ) has thus gone quickly.’

  1. (146)

    Heja den unga kvinna*(-n) på linje 1 mot Östra sjukhuset den 3 december kl 12.40. Och skäms övriga passagerare.

    ‘Yay for the young girl*(- def ) on line 1 towards Östra hospital on the third of December at 12:40. And shame on other passengers.’

Indeed, we have already seen that the non-superlative group is not significantly different from the control group.

However, there were three cases for which at least one participant allowed the bare form, and these data points deviate from our expectations. The least interesting of these is the following, where it is the definite article which seems to have been the typo:

  1. (147)

    Får vi ett stopp i en fabriksanläggning av detta slag är det det omfattande arbete [alt: arbetet] att få igång den igen i den rådande kylan.

    ‘If we get a stop in the manufacturing plant of this kind, it is the enormous job to get it going again i the current cold.’

In this case, 5/10 participants preferred the definite form, 2/10 preferred the bare form, and 3/10 left the question blank (more than with any other question). In fact, neither version is fully acceptable; it seems that the intention was to have an indefinite article rather than a definite article (thus ett omfattande arbete ‘an enormous job’); this makes the sentence acceptable (as in English).

The most interesting of the exceptions is the following, for which 4/10 participants preferred the head noun in the bare form, and 2/10 said that both were acceptable. (4/10 said preferred the version with the definite suffix as expected.)

  1. (148)

    Folkpartiombudsmannen Göran Lidgren i Skaraborg säger till GP apropå folkpartistyrda Tibros läge som den västsvenska kommun [alt: kommunen] med minst kvinnor i politiken att det kan ha att göra med svårigheterna att rekrytera politiker: …

    ‘The Folk Party ombudsman Göran Lidgren in Skaraborg says to [Göteborgs Posten] apropos the Folk Party-controlled Tibro’s status as the west-Swedish municipality [alt: municipality- def] with the fewest women in politics that it can have to do with weaknesses in recruiting politicians: …’

Here we have a prepositional phrase following the head noun (‘with the fewest women in politics’). Normally a prepositional phrase is not sufficient to license drop of the suffix, even when it plays the role that a relative clause would. But this may nevertheless be a case where a prepositional phrase can, like a relative clause, license drop of the suffix. In any case, the prepositional phrase in this example is crucial; dropping it would make the sentence clearly ungrammatical.Footnote 56

Another case for which the indefinite variant was not unanimously rejected also contained a prepositional phrase:

  1. (149)

    Mest drastisk blir effekten för den stora grupp [alt: gruppen] med inkomster mellan 14600 och 22000 kronor.

    ‘Most dramatic is the effect for the large group [alt: group- def] with incomes between 14600 and 22000.’

For this case, 8/10 preferred the definite form as expected, but 2/10 participants said that both the definite and the indefinite variants were acceptable. The prepositional phrase following the head noun (‘with incomes between 14600 and 22000’) may be why.

These two interesting exceptions and the fixed expressions aside, the generalization that quasi-definites always contain a superlative adjective was strongly supported. The corpus examples that matched the quasi-definite pattern (DET-ADJ-NOUN, with bare NOUN) in which the modifying adjective was not a superlative were consistently corrected to a version containing a definite article by native speakers, and there was no statistically significant difference between this group and the controls that originally contained a definite suffix.

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Coppock, E., Engdahl, E. Quasi-definites in Swedish: Elative superlatives and emphatic assertion. Nat Lang Linguist Theory 34, 1181–1243 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11049-015-9327-3

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