LINGUIST List 10.572

Tue Apr 20 1999

Sum: Semantics of Adjectives

Editor for this issue: Jody Huellmantel <>


  1. Sanford Goldberg, Results on adj. such as 'big'

Message 1: Results on adj. such as 'big'

Date: Tue, 20 Apr 1999 09:24:59 -0500 (CDT)
From: Sanford Goldberg <goldbergAC.GRIN.EDU>
Subject: Results on adj. such as 'big'

I posted a query on the LINGUIST web page concerning the semantics and
mental representation of adjectives, such as 'big', whose semantic
contribution depends on the noun it is modifying. (As illustration, a
big mouse is smaller than a small car.) I want to report briefly on
the results of my query.

To begin, various linguists responded by producing no less than four
distinct descriptions of such adjectives: the adjectives were
described as "syncategorematic" (itself as sub-category of
"non-intersective"), "gradable," "scalar," or "relative-to-noun."

I found, too, that the literature on this topic is vast. There was
some agreement that the locus classsicus on the topic is J.A.W. Kamp,
"Two Theories of Adjectives," in Formal Semantics in Natural Language
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), pp. 123-55. More
recent work included Bierwisch, Manfred, "The Semantics of Gradation,"
in Bierwisch, Manfred and Lang, Ewald (eds.), Dimensional Adjectives:
Grammatical Structure and Conceptual Interpretation (Berlin:
Springer-Verlag, 1989), pp. 71-261; Kaplan, Jeffrey, English Grammar:
Principles and Facts (Prentice-Hall); Kamp, Hans and Partee, Barbara,
"Prototype Theory and Compositionality," in Cognition 57; and Tobin,
Yishai, "One Size does not Fit All: A Semantic Analysis of Small/Large
vs. Little/Big," originally presented as a plenary lecture at the
European Linguistic Society's annual meeting of 1998 (and presently

Finally, I was pointed in the direction of two people who do research
on this topic. Professor Julie Sedivy of Brown University is
interested in questions of representation as they pertain to language
processing, and she has written some papers on the mental
representation of such adjectives. And Professor Chris Kennedy of
Northwestern University recently published his dissertation on the
semantics of adjectives (Garland Press); the dissertation is also
available by contacting the Linguistics Research Center at UCSC, at

I want to thank the many people who responded to my query so quickly
and informatively.

Sanford Goldberg

Sanford (Sandy) Goldberg Department of Philosophy Box 805
(515) 269-3158 Grinnell College
fax: (515) 269-4414 Grinnell, IA 50112
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