The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Ling Lunch 9/24 - Mia Nussbaum

Speaker: Mia Nussbaum (MIT)
Title: Tense and Scope in Superlatives
Time: Thurs 5/14, 12:30-1:45
Place: 32-D461

This paper provides new evidence that relative superlatives are indefinites, as proposed by Szabolcsi (1986) and Heim (1985, 1999), and contra Farkas and É. Kiss (2000) and Sharvit and Stateva (2002). Szabolcsi (1986) discovered several ways that absolute superlatives pattern with definites, and relative superlatives with indefinites. In this paper, I discuss the puzzle presented by the novel data in (1) and (2), and show that its solution depends on the same contrast between the definite and the indefinite article in superlatives that Szabolcsi argues for.

(1) Context: On a certain game show, the game ends up with each contestant receiving a box with money in it. There are 20 boxes available, each with a different amount of money inside, and 10 contestants. The top prize is a million dollars. At the end of the show, the contestants all open their boxes at the same time.

a. Which contestant opened the box that has the most money inside?

b. Which contestant opened the box that had the most money inside?

(2) Who married the tallest first-grader?

(1b) obeys Sequence of Tense, and is ambiguous between a relative reading (asking who won the game) and an absolute reading (asking who got the million dollars); (1a) only has the absolute reading. In (2), a relative reading is incompatible with an interpretation where the time-sensitive predicate first-grader held at an earlier time than the matrix verb married.

Tense mismatch and independent temporal interpretation are incompatible with relative superlatives (which, according to the theories of Heim and Szabolcsi, are indefinites), and require an absolute (definite) interpretation. I argue that this contrast is an instance of Musan’s Generalization (Musan 1997): a noun phrase can have a temporally independent interpretation if and only if it is strong. I adopt Schwarz (2009)’s analysis of determiners, whereby strong determiners come with their own situation pronoun arguments, and show how it can explain the contrast between strong absolute superlatives and weak relative superlatives.