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Superlative displacement in ‘sandwich’ scenarios

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Abstract

This article seeks to reconcile the ‘movement’ account of the interpretation of superlative and comparative degree quantifiers with a class of apparent counterexamples. Superlative and comparative degree quantifiers compare the extent to which a target term and alternatives to the target instantiate a gradable property. On the movement analysis, the target and the gradable property are determined by the scope of the degree quantifier in the syntactic structure. As a structural consequence, terms in the scope of the degree quantifier are indifferent to the presence of the degree quantifier. This leads to incorrect empirical predictions in some contexts, apparently undermining the movement account. I provide an analysis of these contexts in which the unexpected interaction of degree quantifiers with other terms in their scope is a side effect of quantification over situations inherent in the degree quantifier itself.

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Notes

  1. See Heim and Kratzer (1998), ch. 7, on the semantic correlates of syntactic quantifier movement.

  2. It is unclear whether this placement for est involves movement of est from a position local to the associated adjective. Abney (1987), Cinque (2010) and others claim that est is base generated in a high position in the DP and the adjective to which it is suffixed has moved to a position local to est. Still other analyses claim that est is interpreted not at the DP edge but within its adjectival host (Matushansky 2008; Coppock and Beaver 2014, 2015).

  3. Sharvit and Stateva discuss a parallel example with est on pp. 479-481; I have modified their example slightly to be directly pertinent to the sandwich scenario described above.

  4. Sharvit and Stateva ultimately expand this analysis to include extraction of the superlative DP from the clause it occurs in the surface structure, so that focus alternatives of that clause can be used to restrict the content of \(\mathscr{J}\). As a result, \(\mathscr{J}\) in (11b) includes only properties such that someone needs to climb an entity with that property (be a 1000 m mountain, be a 1500 m mountain, etc.). Focus movement also plays a role in preventing IDENT′-W* from occurring in extensional contexts. The superlative DP does not receive a wide scope reading because it is ultimately reconstructed by lambda reduction. See pp. 481-488 of their article for details.

  5. I mention here two analyses that do not fit neatly into the DP-internal/DP-external dichotomy, namely Krasikova (2012) and Bumford (2017). They both claim that est forms a constituent with the determiner the, and the est is interpreted in a wide scope position (by movement in Krasikova’s analysis and ‘delayed interpretation’ in Bumford’s). The fact that the est has wide scope gives these analyses a closer resemblance to DP-external analyses, but in neither case does est cross over the. In Krasikova’s analysis, the est picks out the largest degree set determined by its scope, and shares the sandwich problem with traditional DP-external analyses. Bumford’s analysis makes the est a restriction on assignments determined by its scope, and shares DP-internal analyses’ difficulty generating upstairs de dicto readings.

  6. If we dispense with maximality then the property extensionally equivalent to being the least high mountain in every world in W* is be an at least 800 m high mountain, which is still not what we are aiming for, since we want the height of the least high mountain climbed by someone, which is 1000 m in the context given.

  7. This analysis is still accountable to the ‘definiteness problem’. It requires the definite article to be interpreted as an existential quantifier in the context of relative readings. See Sharvit (2015) for a theory of the interpretation of the definite article in superlatives, which makes it a kind of scope marker for the superlative. Sharvit links the use of the in superlatives to its use in the only, which, she claims, also displays scope variation. That is, the unusual interpretation of the in superlatives is not an isolated phenomenon.

  8. Analogously, the meaning of much is as below, along the lines of what Rett (2006, 2008), Solt (2015), Wilson (2021) and others claim, but with a situation argument.

    1. (i)

      〚much〛 = \(\lambda d_{d} \lambda D_{\left \langle d,\left \langle s,t \right \rangle \right \rangle } \lambda s_{s}\) . max(\(\lambda d' . D(d')(s))\geq d\)

  9. I am grateful to an anonymous reviewer for bringing this point to my attention.

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This research was funded by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF), grant number P30409-G30.

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Hallman, P. Superlative displacement in ‘sandwich’ scenarios. Nat Lang Semantics 31, 1–23 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11050-023-09201-4

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