LINGUIST List 24.5004|
Mon Dec 09 2013
Review: Pragmatics; Psycholinguistics; Semantics: Sassoon (2013)
Editor for this issue: Joseph Salmons
From: Luca Sbordone <ls593cam.ac.uk>
Subject: Vagueness, Gradability and Typicality
E-mail this message to a friend
Discuss this message
Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/24/24-1522.html
AUTHOR: Galit W. Sassoon
TITLE: Vagueness, Gradability and Typicality
SUBTITLE: The Interpretation of Adjectives and Nouns
SERIES TITLE: Current Research in the Semantics / Pragmatics Interface
REVIEWER: Luca Sbordone, Cambridge University
Sassoon's book offers the results of a comprehensive analysis of linguistic
gradability in the interpretation of adjectival and nominal predicates. The
book is primarily aimed at scholars in formal semantics, but because
psychological literature is discussed thoroughly and a fruitful conciliation
between psychological and linguistic approaches is explicitly attempted, it
will also be of great interest for researchers in cognitive psychology and
Part I is intended as an introduction to the topics of vagueness, gradability
and typicality, both from a linguistic and a psychological perspective and
with an eye on highlighting the divergences between the two approaches. The
discussion of the various theories is mainly critical: extant accounts are
presented and then criticized in detail. The sum of the objections is intended
to open a theoretical space for Sassoon's own proposal which is presented in
the second part of the book. Part II is a gradual introduction to the author’s
complex and complete model. The theory hinges on the proposed distinction
between nominal and adjectival predicates. While both are shown to be
associated with sets of dimensions, the processing of such dimensions is
demonstrated to depend on completely different strategies: a version of
prototype theory is integrated for processing nominal dimensions, while
logical rules are invoked in the case of adjectives. With such a dichotomy,
claimed to be reflected in grammar, Sassoon shows how problematic linguistic
data laid out in the first part can be accounted for. In the same way,
psychological findings thought to contradict standard semantic analyses are
shown to be straightforwardly predicted by the proposed model.
Chapter 1 introduces basic notions and summarizes the individual chapters.
Chapter 2 defines and explores the notions of vagueness, gradability and
typicality, including an extensive overview of the linguistic and
psychological literature, aimed at highlighting both commonalities and
especially points of contrast between the two fields. The linguistic
phenomenon of vagueness is defined classically and understood as a ‘pervasive
feature of adjectives’ (21) while it is noted that usually most nominal
predicates are regarded as sharp. Gradability is a property of most adjectival
predicates, enabling entities to possess the properties denoted by the
predicate by different degrees. Empirical tests for gradability are listed,
the most prominent being compatibility with degree morphology. A crucial
distinction is made between dimensional and multidimensional gradable
The correlation between polarity and gradability is introduced (concerning
e.g. different patterns of combination with degree modifiers in positive and
negative predicates). It is shown that adjectives are typically more
felicitous than nouns in within-predicate comparison ('the table is longer
than the sofa') while conversely nouns license between-predicate comparison
('the table is longer than the sofa is wide') more freely.
In line with the findings of many psychological studies, nominal predicates
are also shown to be vague, conceptually gradable (i.e. they show typicality
effects) and associated with sets of dimensions. Sasson thus argues that the
similarity between nouns and adjectives is stronger than the linguistic
literature usually acknowledges.
Prototype theory is supported as a better theoretical alternative to explain
the existence of nominal dimensions as compared with classic (definitional)
theory of concepts.
Chapter 3 is a survey of the dominant extant accounts of gradability and
typicality and their interconnections from a linguistic perspective. This
chapter presents the popular view in formal semantics of gradability as
vagueness-dependent, and shows how the semantic analysis of gradable
predicates is approached in simplified vagueness models making use of
supervaluations. A number of problems arising from vagueness-based approaches
to gradability are discusses: importantly, the morphological complexity of the
comparative form with respect to the positive form of gradable adjectives is
left unexplained. Also, the very idea that gradability is vagueness-dependent
is questioned following the distinction between absolute (and presumably
non-vague) and relative (vague) gradable predicates (Kennedy (2007) Kennedy
and MacNally (2005)).
Concerning the nature of the degrees associated with gradable predicates, two
main families of approaches are discusses: the ‘ordinal scale’ analysis and
the ‘interval scale’ analysis. Several problems concerning the adequacy of
both these alternatives are raised.
Furthermore, the chapter presents treatments of polarity effects in gradable
predicates. The so-called 'extent theory' is presented and criticized and
Landman's (2010) 'Supremum theory' is introduced as a more convincing (if not
Moreover, it is contended that standard formal semantics approaches assume
that nouns are non-gradable and that this assumption must be abandoned in
light of 'robust and pervasive' (114) evidence to the contrary. Then, the
author turns to the critical discussion of one remarkable but still inadequate
exception to this consensus view, i.e. Kamp and Partee's (1995) 'Supermodel
Chapter 4 is a comprehensive overview of the family of psychological prototype
theories of concepts. The chapter introduces and criticizes various extant
views concerning the appropriate representation and computation of relevant
conceptual dimensions in the prototype structure. In relation to classic
prototype theory, competing categorization criteria are introduced.
Standard-based categorization predicts the link between likelihood of
categorization of an entity and its similarity to the prototype.
Categorization based on a contrast-set accounts for the facts that sometimes
membership likelihood may be not monotonically related to similarity.
On the other hand, an exemplar theory of concepts gives importance to the
separate dimension sets of entities or subcategories. The section discusses
advantages of exemplar theory (e.g. prediction of the exemplar effects and
concept variability) and its disadvantages (e.g. failure to predict
summary-representation effects). Finally, inconsistent predictions stemming
from the two theories are argued to be accommodated in a more comprehensive
The problem of the compatibility of psychological theories and formal semantic
theories is discussed. Many psychological theories reject the idea of
truth-conditional semantics (Murphy 2002, Lakoff 1987), regarding phenomena
such as conjunction fallacies, subtype effects, overextension effects as
counterexamples to truth-conditional compositional semantic theories. However,
experimental findings suggest that incorporating logical rules makes a theory
Finally, 'knowledge theory' is presented whereby typicality is not based on
statistical regularities (in contrast with the so called 'probabilistic view')
but on prior knowledge. However, there are several problems related to the
representation of knowledge structures.
The author criticizes experimental data, questioning the idea that
categorization is based on typicality: she maintains that there is a 'tight
coupling' between typicality and membership, apparent dissociations
Chapter 5 introduces Sassoon's proposed model. In contrast to extant
vagueness-based models, this approach assumes a full vagueness model
explicitly representing partiality of information and the relation between
learning and gradability. Degree functions are incorporated into the model on
a par with denotations.
The ontology of the model is a dimension space consisting of a set of entities
and a function mapping these entities to real numbers (degrees). Objects are
identified with 'real' not conceptual/linguistic properties (whose extension
varies across contexts). In such a framework, proper names are not rigid
designators, but are identified with positive or negative denotations.
The crux of the model is the characterization of the degree functions: these
are general and not predicate-specific; constrains over the scales follows
from the characterization of the functions and need not be stipulated. In
turn, predicate dimensions are regarded as normal predicates.
For nominal concepts, prototype theory is integrated into the system. Nominal
concepts map entities to their weighted means in a set of dimensions. For
adjectives a rule-based analysis is incorporated. The distinction between
similarity-based and rule-based categories is well supported by
neuropsychological data. It is hypothesized that such a distinction is
grammaticalized as two separate categories: nouns and adjectives. As a
corollary, the theory correctly predicts that the meaning of the positive
predicate is more basic than that of the comparative.
Chapter 6 presents a vagueness model incorporating dimensions and degrees.
First, recursive syntactic and semantics definitions are given. One important
characteristic is that the ontology of the language includes a set of mappings
from n-tuples of entities to degrees understood as real numbers. In such a
view, 'each possible individual-tuple can be described as a unique maximal,
consistent assignment of degrees, the degrees assigned to it by all of the
possible degree functions' (200).
The complete vagueness model formalizes the idea that every intermediate
context in the model represents a possible 'real' context, representing e.g.
the knowledge shared by the participants in a certain discourse. Importantly,
in the model the interpretation of proper names is not rigid, by contrast
partial information about proper names is represented, making identity
statement informative. Additional notions required for the interpretation of a
predicate in a total context (and discussed in the remainder of the book)
include functions assigning to the predicate the relevant degree function,
transformation value, standard of membership, local domain, dimension set,
weight and ideal value of membership.
Chapter 7's main thesis is that the noun-adjective distinction functions as a
cue to how to process dimensions. Nominal predicates are associated with a
dimension set which is by default processed as a prototype (i.e. by
averaging). In contrast, adjectival predicates are associated with a dimension
set processed by default as a set of rules (by means of Boolean operations of
union and intersection). It follows that, unlike nominal dimensions,
dimensions of adjectives can be accessed by grammatical operators.
The proposed analysis of adjectives correlates positivity in the adjectival
domain with universal quantification over dimensions (i.e. dimensions are
integrated conjunctively) and negativity with existential quantification (i.e.
disjunctively, signaling the existence of a counterexample).
Sassoon presents results of both corpus studies and judgment experiments. It
is argued that the results generally support the proposal. The proposal is
economic in that dimensions need to be lexically specified only for positive
adjectives, thereby explaining their cognitive prominence. The negated
character of dimensions in negative adjectives explains their intuitive
negative connotation and relative complexity.
A corollary hypothesis is that, provided that nouns are less cognitively
demanding in terms of dimension processing, across languages nouns will occur
more frequently than adjectives.
Sassoon sees the present proposal as a cluster theory without the limits
classically imputed to cluster theories: in Sassoon's model, clusters are
implemented within an intensional and entirely compositional theory.
Chapter 8 introduces and formalizes the learning principle, the idea that
properties of earlier acquired entities are selected for the dimension set.
The choice for a full vagueness model allows to associate predicate
gradability with the order in which vagueness is resolved, i.e. with the order
in which entities are learnt to be part of the predicate denotation.
Psychological data is provided to support the idea that typicality of entities
is coupled with such a learning order. Additional data shows that the learning
principle functions as a cue to specify the relevant degree function of a
predicate, especially in nominal concepts. She contends that the learning
principle is more psychologically realistic as a default strategy of
categorization than the probabilistic criterion advocated in classic prototype
theory. Also, the learning constraint provides us with means to account for
familiarity effects and typicality effects in individual concepts (e.g. proper
Finally, the learning principle makes an intuitive prediction about negated
predicates and negative antonyms: it accounts for the fact that the denotation
of the negated concept can be contextually restricted and not correspond to
the complement of the positive predicate while retaining the intuition that
ordering of entities in positive and negative categories is reversed.
Interaction between the learning constraint and standard logical rules of
formal semantic theories helps making correct predictions with respect to
phenomena taken to contradict these rules, e.g. conjunction fallacies and
emergent features. This shows that a theory which incorporates logical rules
is more explanatory than one which refutes them.
Chapter 9 presents a fully compositional analysis for predicate constructions
with different gradability morphemes. The section thus represents a formal
specification of the proposal aimed at showing that the model is able to
predict correct truth-conditions for a number of constructions involving
With respect to polarity effects, the chapter retains the intuition that the
entity ordering of a negative predicate is reversed with respect to that of
its positive counterpart. However, it is also shown that the information we
have about the kind of reversing function responsible for producing the
degrees of negative adjectives is very poor. The chapter pursues the
hypothesis that the value of such a transformational constant is undetermined.
Crucially, indeterminacy of the degree function of negative predicates
explains linguistic data related to polarity, such as unacceptability of
measure phrase modification in negative antonyms as compared with their
acceptability in positive adjectives and in negative adjectives in the
comparative form, and the infelicity of modification with multipliers in
Chapter 10 presents general conclusions, summing up the main points of the
proposed model and highlighting the importance of the analysis of nominal
concepts as incorporating a version of prototype theory in the semantic
representation of nominal dimensions. Furthermore, it explores some of the
main themes for future research in light of the results of contemporary
linguistic studies on gradability.
Overall, the book undoubtedly represents a major contribution to the
understanding of linguistic gradability. The author has mastery of the
relevant literature, both linguistic and psychological. Importantly, the
reciprocal acknowledgment of the relevant findings in the two fields drives
the author towards an extremely balanced and cognitively realistic theory of
predicate interpretation. Psychological and linguistic data are always
counterbalanced: the fact that the predictions of the proposed model converge
towards the findings of the two fields represents a crucial point of strength
of the theory. Not only does Sassoon manage to fruitfully integrate linguistic
and psychological theories of gradability and typicality, but she also
convincingly bridges the gap between vagueness-based and degree-based
approaches to gradability, by showing that degrees and degree-functions can be
assumed in the ontology of a vagueness-based formal system without however
reducing vagueness to the grammar (as e.g. in Kennedy 2007).
The first part of the book is an extremely comprehensive overview of extant
theories of gradability. Sassoon has gone to great lengths to collect, explain
and critically discuss an impressive number of contending accounts. The author
explicitly states that the aim of this first part is to 'serve as a handbook
introduction to the relevant topics' (6). However, the vocabulary is often
rather technical even in this introductory section: a number of basic notions
are presupposed, for formal semantics and other areas. Moreover, various
extant theories are mostly only sketched, with more space dedicated to
critical discussion and elaboration of relevant objections. While this is
surely a helpful strategy for highlighting the advantages of the proposed
model compared to other accounts, it in places interferes with the clarity of
exposition. All in all, this section is an excellent sketch of a map of the
territory in which Sassoon's own theory inscribes itself and which it helps to
fruitfully expand. However, as an introduction to the relevant topics, it is
surely best suited for a reader with solid prior knowledge of the subject
matter; it is hardly intended for undergraduates or beginning graduate
students in linguistics or cognitive psychology.
Moreover, the book’s central focus is on the notion of gradability
(typicality, in the nominal domain). In turn, the assumed notion of
gradability appears to encompass two distinct but related phenomena: the
conceptual gradability of predicates (i.e. the potential for a predicate to
permit different degrees of its application) and their grammatical gradability
(i.e. the compatibility with degree morphology and modification). While the
former is entailed by the latter, and is a property of both vague nouns and
adjectives (and, presumably, of arguably vague verbs, e.g. run, Morzycki
forthcoming), the latter is specific of adjectives. Gradability, on such a
comprehensive understanding, is regarded as vagueness-dependent and so modeled
in a full vagueness model (i.e. a complex context structure based on
supervaluationism which allows for the representation of partiality and
gradual learning of information). However, the book's title notwithstanding,
the problem of vagueness itself is not specifically addressed. Undoubtedly, a
discussion of the philosophical problem of vagueness and the Sorites paradox
would have been beyond the scope of the book. Nonetheless, in line with
supervaluationism, vagueness here is reflected in the semantics and the
paradoxical conclusion of Sorites reasoning is avoided by means of adjustments
in the logical meta-theory. Because such a theoretical position is assumed
and not justified, the book would have surely benefitted from a proper defense
of supervaluationism and from a critical discussions of competing theories
concerning the source of vagueness and its proper linguistic representation.
The second part is a significant contribution to the semantic analysis of
gradable predicates. Sassoon's main thesis is at once extremely simple and
extraordinarily explanatory. Moreover, as is frequently noted in the book, the
theory has the advantage of being more economical compared to other analogous
theories, as it hinges on a simple dichotomy between the processing of
dimensions in nominal and adjectival concepts and derives from this hypothesis
a straightforward explanation of a large set of linguistic data (e.g. polarity
effects, compatibility with degree morphemes, etc.). The most interesting
sections of the second part are Chapter 7 ('A Degree-Function Based Typology
of Predicates') and Chapter 8 ('The Learning Principle and Complex Concepts'),
where most of the theoretical hypotheses are introduced and convincingly
argued for. In particular, the introduction of the learning constraint,
supported with robust empirical data, allows for an elegant explanation of how
logical rules can be implemented in a similarity-based account of nominal
In conclusion, Sassoon's book is a cornerstone for future work on predicate
gradability and typicality, and more generally for all future researches
aiming to bridge the gap between semantics and psychology.
Kamp, H. and Partee, B. 1995. Prototype Theory and Compositionality. Cognition
Kennedy, C. 2007. Vagueness and Grammar: The semantics of relative and
absolute gradable predicates. Linguistics and Philosophy 30: 1-45.
Kennedy, C. and McNally, L. 2005. Scale Structure and the Semantic Typology of
Gradable Predicates. Language 81: 345-381.
Lakoff, G. 1987. Women, Fire and Dangerous Things: What categories reveal
about the mind. Chicago University Press. Chicago.
Landman, F. 2010. Internal and Interval Semantics for CP-comparatives. In M.
Aloni, H. Bastiaanse, T. de Jager, and K. Schulz (Eds.) Proceedings of the
Seventeenth Amsterdam Colloquium Conference on Logic, Language and Meaning,
Springer Lecture Notes in Computer Science. Springer. Berlin, Heidelberg, pp.
Morzycki, M. Forthcoming. Modification. Book manuscript.
Murphy, G. 2002.The Big Book of Concepts. The MIT Press. Cambridge,
Williamson, T. 1994. Vagueness. Routledge. London.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Luca Sbordone is a Ph.D candidate in Linguistics at the University of
Cambridge. He holds an MA in Philosophy at the Scuola Normale Superiore of
Pisa (Italy). His research focuses on lexical semantics and pragmatics, with
particular attention to the problems of vagueness and imprecision. His
research interests include Philosophy of Language and Mind, Cognitive
Psychology and Pragmatics.
Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue
Page Updated: 09-Dec-2013
While the LINGUIST List makes every effort to ensure the linguistic relevance of sites listed
on its pages, it cannot vouch for their contents.