Determiners are "conservative" because their meanings are not relations: evidence from verification


  • Tyler Zarus Knowlton University of Maryland
  • Paul Pietroski Rutgers University
  • Alexander Williams University of Maryland
  • Justin Halberda Johns Hopkins University
  • Jeffrey Lidz University of Maryland



Quantificational determiners have meanings that are "conservative" in the following sense: in sentences, repeating a determiner's internal argument within its external argument is logically insignificant. Using a verification task to probe which sets (or properties) of entities are represented when participants evaluate sentences, we test the predictions of three potential explanations for the cross-linguistic yet substantive conservativity constraint. According to "lexical restriction" views, words like every express relations that are exhibited by pairs of sets, but only some of these relations can be expressed with determiners. An "interface filtering" view retains the relational conception of determiner meanings, while replacing appeal to lexical filters (on relations of the relevant type) with special rules for interpreting the combination of a quantificational expression (Det NP) with its syntactic context and a ban on meanings that lead to triviality. The contrasting idea of "ordered predication" is that determiners don't express genuine relations. Instead, the second argument provides the scope of a monadic quantifier, while the first argument selects the domain for that quantifier: the sequences with respect to which it is evaluated. On this view, a determiner's two arguments each have a different logical status, suggesting that they might have a different psychological status as well. We find evidence that this is the case: When evaluating sentences like every big circle is blue, participants mentally group the things specified by the determiner's first argument (e.g., the big circles) but not the things specified by the second argument (e.g., the blue things) or the intersection of both (e.g., the big blue circles). These results suggest that the phenomenon of conservativity is due to ordered predication.