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Online Processing of “Real” and “Fake”: The Cost of Being Too Strong

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The Semantics of Gradability, Vagueness, and Scale Structure

Part of the book series: Language, Cognition, and Mind ((LCAM,volume 4))


Strengthening literal meanings of linguistic expressions appears central to communicative success. Weakening on the other hand would appear not to be viable given that literal meaning already grossly underdetermines reality, let alone possibility. We discuss productive weakening in fake-type adjectival modification and present evidence from event-related brain potentials that such weakening has neurophysiological consequences and is qualitatively different from other mechanisms of modification. Specifically, the processing of fake-type constructions (e.g., “a fake diamond”) evokes a Late Positivity as characteristic of certain types of referential shift or reconceptualization. We argue that fake-type composition involves an intermediate representation that is semantically contradictory and that the Late Positivity reflects an interface repair mechanism that redresses the contradiction. In contrast, composition involving reputedly over-informative real-type adjectives evokes no comparable processing costs.

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  1. 1.

    In the literature, the term privative is often used for what we call fake-type adjectives here. As we believe the case to be more general (viz., “constructional” in the case of e.g. animal-for-statue alternations, cf. below) and as we do not intend to engage in the discussion of adjective classification (cf. Kamp and Partee 1995; Morzycki 2015), we stick to the neutral term in what follows. Lakoff and Johnson (1980:120f) propose that privative adjectives like fake do negate purposive and functional properties (as opposed to perceptual and motor activity properties) as making up the multidimensional Gestalt associated with fake-modified nominals. Partee (2010) on the other hand gives an argument based on Polish NP split phenomena that fake-type adjectives that can occur in predicative position should be regarded as subsective adjectives additionally entailing coercion to the effect of loosening the overall interpretation.

  2. 2.

    Peirce (MS 678:34, 1910) states: “…that which characterizes and defines an assertion of possibility is its emancipation from the Principle of Contradiction”.

  3. 3.

    Contradictions are the strongest possible meanings as they exclude everything. Brandt (2016) argues that the hidden aspectual-temporal, modal or comparative meaning of inchoative, middle, excessive and directional complement constructions should be regarded as the result of the same interface repair mechanism that circumvents a violation of the law of contradiction by introducing an extra quantification (or rather by semantically dislocating a problematic meaning component).

  4. 4.

    Note that nothing excludes that weakening and strengthening apply with respect to one and the same construction. For the cases at hand at least, weakening should apply first (as it makes no sense to strengthen contradictory statements).

  5. 5.

    Question-answer sequences were adopted in this study which was conducted in German verb-final constructions to assure that the mismatch between the predicate and the noun was measurable at the noun. Accordingly, the question introduced the predicate and generated a high expectation for a content-denoting expression, thereby creating a semantic type conflict as early as at the point of encountering the noun in the answer.

  6. 6.

    Note that for reasons of space, we did not include the separate analysis for the midline electrodes, which registered comparable results.


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We would like to thank Claudia Kilter, Fabienne Bartsch, Filiz Özden and Johanna Kasper for their assistance during data collection. This research was supported by the DFG-funded project of the first author (SCHU 2517/6-1).

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Correspondence to Petra B. Schumacher .

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Schumacher, P.B., Brandt, P., Weiland-Breckle, H. (2018). Online Processing of “Real” and “Fake”: The Cost of Being Too Strong. In: Castroviejo, E., McNally, L., Weidman Sassoon, G. (eds) The Semantics of Gradability, Vagueness, and Scale Structure. Language, Cognition, and Mind, vol 4. Springer, Cham.

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