Informational goals, sentence structure, and comparison class inference

AbstractUnderstanding a gradable adjective (e.g., "big") requires making reference to a comparison class, a set of objects or entities against which the referent is implicitly compared (e.g., big for a Great Dane), but how do listeners decide upon a comparison class? Simple models of semantic composition stipulate that the adjective combines with a noun, which necessarily becomes the comparison class (e.g., "That Great Dane is big" means big for a Great Dane). We investigate an alternative hypothesis built on the idea that the utility of a noun in an adjectival utterance can be either for reference (getting the listener to attend to the right object) or predication (describing a property of the referent). Therefore, we hypothesize that when the presence of a noun N can be explained away by its utility in reference (e.g., being in the subject position: "That N is big"), it is less likely to set the comparison class. Across three pre-registered experiments, we find evidence that listeners use the noun as a cue to infer comparison classes consistent with a trade-off between reference and predication. This work highlights the complexity of the relation between the form of an utterance and its meaning.

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