Colloquium: Attributive Adjectives and the Semantics of Inappropriateness

May 14, 3:30-5pm, Cobb 201
Nick Fleisher, Wayne State University

In this talk I discuss the syntax and semantics of a previously unexamined English attributive adjective construction and its implications for the study of gradable adjectives in the positive degree. The construction, which I call the nominal attributive-with-infinitive construction (nominal AIC), is exemplified by sentences likeMiddlemarch is a long book to assign. I argue that the major semantic characteristic of the nominal AIC—the interpretation of inappropriateness associated with it—arises compositionally from the interaction between the positive degree comparison operator and the modality of the infinitival relative clause, which contributes to the computation of the standard of comparison. Nominal AICs are compared and contrasted with a surface-identical construction I call the clausal AIC (Middlemarch is a bad book to assign), with attributive too (Middlemarch is too long (of) a book to assign), and with attributive comparatives (Middlemarch is a longer book than that); they are shown to exhibit major syntactic and semantic differences from all of these. Finally, I consider what light nominal AICs can shed on recent approaches to the determination of standards of comparison for positives. The standard provided by the infinitival relative can override the default for minimum standard absolute adjectives, but typically not for maximum standard absolutes, suggesting that there may be a difference in the linguistic status of these two types of default standard.