Modification in the noun phrase: The syntax, semantics, and pragmatics of adjectives and superlatives
The grammar of modification is highly complex and raises numerous questions about the relation between meaning and form. This dissertation provides a study of how modified noun phrases are interpreted and examines the consequences of these results for the syntax of the nominal domain. The discussion centers on two types of modification: superlatives and stacked modification. The data comes primarily from English, but other languages are also discussed. There is initial evidence that the main claims hold across a wide range of languages.
The common view on superlatives is that they have two types of interpretations which are the result of a scope ambiguity and that the contrast between them needs to be captured by means of syntactic devices. Contra this standard approach I propose a saliency theory of superlatives which claims that there is no categorial difference between these two interpretations and where the variation in the meaning of superlatives is purely pragmatic in nature. Under this view the meaning of superlatives is a function of the properties of the surrounding discourse and the context-sensitivity of superlatives is subsumed to the more general phenomenon of context-dependency in the interpretation of natural language quantifiers. The saliency theory differs from other analyses that have adopted a discourse approach in that the so-called comparative reading does not depend on the presence or interpretation of focus.
Previous approaches to multiple adjectives analyzed their order in terms of the semantics of individual adjectives. I present a new set of data which shows that this is insufficient and propose an explanation that takes into account the meaning of the whole nominal phrase. This result has consequences for how the architecture of grammar should be conceived. In particular, it shows that principles of syntactic well-formedness can sometimes be sensitive to compositional semantic interpretation, as well as pragmatic information. This is in contradiction to many contemporary approaches to grammar where the semantic component has no influence on the syntactic one.