Context, scale structure, and statistics in the interpretation of positive-form adjectives


  • Daniel Lassiter Stanford University
  • Noah D. Goodman Stanford University



Relative adjectives, absolute adjectives, vagueness, sorites, probability, coordination games, Bayesian pragmatics


Relative adjectives in the positive form exhibit vagueness and context-sensitivity. We suggest that these phenomena can be explained by the interaction of a free threshold variable in the meaning of the positive form with a probabilistic model of pragmatic inference. We describe a formal model of utterance interpretation as coordination, which jointly infers the value of the threshold variable and the intended meaning of the sentence. We report simulations exploring the effect of background statistical knowledge on adjective interpretation in this model. Motivated by these simulation results, we suggest that this approach can account for the correlation between scale structure and the relative/absolute distinction while also allowing for exceptions noted in previous work. Finally, we argue for a probabilistic explanation of why the sorites paradox is compelling with relative adjectives even though the second premise is false on a universal interpretation, and show that this account predicts Kennedy's (2007) observation that the sorites paradox is more compelling with relative than with absolute adjectives.

Author Biographies

  • Daniel Lassiter, Stanford University
    Assistant Professor of Linguistics
  • Noah D. Goodman, Stanford University
    Assistant Professor of Psychology, Computer Science (by courtesy), and Linguistics (by courtesy)