Absolute and Relative Adjectives
and their Comparison Classes∗
Galit W. Sassoon
ILLC, University of Amsterdam
This paper investigates core semantic properties that distinguish between
different types of gradable adjectives and the effect of context on their interpretation.
We contend that all gradable adjectives are interpreted relative to a comparison
class (van Rooij to appear), and that it is the nature of the comparison class that
constitutes the main semantic difference between the different subclasses of such
adjectives: some select a class comprised of counterparts of the individual of which
the adjective is predicated, while others - an extensional-category of this individual.
The role of the context is to determine the elements that comprise the comparison
class. It is proposed, following Kennedy (2007), that the standard of membership is
selected according to a principle of economy whereby an interpretation relative to a
maximum or a minimum endpoint within a comparison class takes precedence over
one relative to an arbitrary point. This proposal captures so-called “standard shift”
effects, that is, the inﬂuence of context on the interpretation of gradable adjectives
from all subclasses, in their positive form and when modiﬁed by degree adverbials.
Additionally, this proposal captures cases of apparent lack of context sensitivity
(e.g. intuitive inference patterns, unacceptability of for-phrases, etc.) Finally, we
show that the type of comparison class is aligned with the well known distinction
between stage-level and individual-level predicates.
Comparison class, Counterparts, Gradability, Context sensitivity, Absolute
adjectives, Relative adjectives, Scale structure
The work of Assaf Toledo was supported by a VICI grant number 277-80-002 by the Netherlands
Organization for Scientiﬁc Research (NWO). The work of Galit W. Sassoon was carried out in the
project ’On vagueness- and how to be precise enough’, founded by the Netherlands Organization for
Scientiﬁc Research (NWO 360-20-201). The theoretical proposal in this paper develops and extends
ideas that were originally presented in Toledo & Sassoon (2011). We thank Chris Kennedy, Louise
McNally, Angelika Kratzer, Robert Van Rooij, Jesse Snedeker, Fred Landman, Susan Rothstein,
Edit Doron, Malka Rappaport Hovav, Avigail Tsirkin-Sadan, Micha Y. Breakstone, Nina Luskin,
Danny Fox, Frank Veltman and Rick Nouwen, as well as the audiences at SALT 21, at the Hebrew
University departmental seminar , at the semantics group at Utrecht University, at Nijmegen semantic
and pragmatic colloquium, and at the Gottingen English Department seminar.
©2011 Sassoon and Toledo