Relative Readings of Many, Often, and Generics
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In addition to the familiar cardinal and proportional readings of many and few, there is yet another interpretation, the relative proportional reading. This reading, unlike the ordinary absolute proportional reading, is not conservative. Under the relative reading, 'Many ψs are φs' is true just in case the proportion of φs among ψs is greater than the proportion of φs among members of contextually given alternatives to ψ. I provide a definition of proportional readings that reduces the differences between absolute and relative interpretations to the value of a single parameter.
I argue that relative readings are not restricted to many and few, but are also exhibited by the adverbs often and seldom, and by generics. Interpretations of determiners that have been treated as "focus-affected readings," interpretations of adverbs of quantification that have been treated as "pure frequency readings," and interpretations of generics which have been claimed to be cases of "reverse interpretation" or "direct kind predication" are, in fact, instances of relative readings.
A: Army reserve service is especially hard on people who own a small business.
Q: Do many small-business owners serve in your regiment?
A: I don't know what it's like in other regiments –
Q: I am not asking you about other regiments.
A: I know, but relatively speaking . . .
(Interview on Israel Army Radio, June 8th, 2001)
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