The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Ling-Lunch 9/25 - Edwin Howard

Speaker: Edwin Howard (MIT)
Title: Superlative Degree Clauses: evidence from NPI licensing
Date/Time:Thursday, September 25, 12:30-1:45pm
Location: 32-D461

This talk concerns the superlative morpheme -est and its ability to license Negative Polarity Items (NPIs) such as any and ever, and addresses the puzzle posed by utterances such as (1):

(1) a. John read the most books that anyone ever read.
b. Mary sang the loudest that anyone ever sang.

While the embedded clause in (1a) appears at first sight to be a relative clause modifier of the NP poems, an analogous role for its counterpart in (1b) would be surprising as RCs do not typically modify adverbs (*Mary sang loudly that I like). Furthermore I demonstrate that the embedded clauses in (1) are not predicted to be able to host NPIs under a RC modifier analysis, given otherwise well-supported proposals that appeal to the entailments that semantic operators such as -est give rise to (Ladusaw 1980; von Fintel 1999, Gajewski 2010).

I present my proposal to analyse these embedded clauses as arguments of -est, akin to than- or as-clauses familiar from other degree constructions. The Superlative Degree Clause analysis makes welcome predictions for the interpretation of such structures, and provides an elegant account of the otherwise puzzling contrasts between (1) and the odd degraded or infelicitous examples in (2):

(2) a. *John read the most books that anyone ever wrote.
b. #Mary sang the loudest that any baritone ever sang

If time permits I will sketch out an implementation of the SDC analysis and consider its consequences for our understanding of the syntax/semantics interface.