Granularity in the Semantics of Comparison

Helena Aparicio, Curtis Chen, Roger Levy, Elizabeth Coppock


This paper makes the novel observation that definite comparatives, such as the bigger circle, impose restrictions on the cardinality of the comparison class (CC) against which their truth conditions are evaluated. We show that the corpus frequency counts of definite comparatives sharply drop when the comparison class used for their interpretation is formed by more than two individuals. Two alternative theories of these distributional facts are considered and tested experimentally through an acceptability judgment task. According to the first theory, the 2-Individuals Theory, definite comparatives presuppose that the CC is of cardinality 2; under the second theory, the 2-Degrees Theory, the meaning of the comparative is evaluated against a granularity γ that maps the individuals in the CC to degrees in the relevant adjectival scale, and definite comparatives presuppose that the set of the degrees resulting from this mapping is of cardinality 2. Our experimental results show that definite comparative descriptions are most frequent and felicitous when evaluated against comparison classes with two individuals, but also that acceptability drops off with higher cardinalities in a gradient manner that is sensitive to granularity. Taken together, these findings argue against the 2-Individuals theory of definite comparatives and lend support to the 2-Degrees theory.

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