Ambiguous than-clauses and the mention-some reading

Linmin Zhang, Jia Ling


This paper addresses the ambiguity of comparatives that contain a permission-related existential modal in their than-clause. For example, given the context that the interval of permitted speed is between 35 and 50 mph, the sentence Lucinda is driving less fast than allowed is ambiguous between two readings: (i) her speed is below the minimum (i.e., 35 mph); (ii) her speed is below the maximum (i.e., 50 mph). Previously, this ambiguity has been attributed to either the scopal interaction between a negation element and a modal (Heim 2006a) or the optional application of a silent operator (Crnic 2017). Here we show that these two lines of accounts under- or over-generate. Instead, we propose that the source of this ambiguity is located in the ambiguous answerhood for wh-questions corresponding to this kind of than-clauses (e.g., how fast is Lucinda allowed to drive). The current proposal consists of three parts. First, based on Zhang & Ling (2015, 2017a,b), we adopt a generalized interval-arithmetic-based recipe for computing the semantics of comparatives. Second, the semantics of than-clauses is considered equal to that of short answers to corresponding wh-questions. Third, since the use of existential priority modals in wh-questions leads to the ‘mention-some/mention-all’ ambiguity for answerhood, we propose that this ambiguity projects in further derivation and leads to the two readings for comparatives like the Lucinda sentence. 

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