Processing gradable adjectives in context: A Visual World study

Helena Aparicio, Ming Xiang, Christopher Kennedy


Both relative adjectives (RAs) like ‘big’ and absolute adjectives (AAs) like ‘empty’ are sensitive to the context: in the former case, the context determines how much size is required to count as big; in the latter, the context determines how much deviation from total emptiness is allowed to count as empty. Whereas it is generally agreed that the role of context with RAs is to fix the value of a threshold variable, the status of absolute adjective thresholds, and therefore the role of context in their interpretation, remains an object of debate. Some researchers have argued that all gradable adjectives have context-sensitive threshold variables that are assigned values by the same mechanisms (Lassiter & Goodman 2013). Others have claimed that AAs have fixed, endpoint-oriented meanings and that sensitivity to context arises from pragmatic reasoning about imprecision (Kennedy 2007; Syrett, Kennedy & Lidz 2009; van Rooij 2011; Burnett 2014; Qing & Franke 2014). In an eye-tracking Visual World experiment, we investigate RAs and AAs used as restrictive modifiers. We find that target identification is significantly faster for both types of adjectives when the visual context supports a restrictive interpretation of the predicate, although this effect is considerably delayed in the case of AAs. We conclude that for RAs, the target facilitation effect is driven by the lexical semantics of the predicate itself. However, it is argued that the extra processing cost observed with AAs results from pragmatic reasoning about imprecision. 

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