The most, the fewest and the least: On the relative readings of quantity superlatives

E. Cameron Wilson


This paper makes the empirical observation that so-called ‘NP-internal relative readings’ are available for certain speakers of English (as well as Dutch) for quantity superlatives but never for superlatives of other gradable adjectives. Previous accounts of this phenomenon in other languages attribute the availability of this type of reading to the absence of a definite article or DP layer. Contra the predictions of such accounts, in English, it is when the nominal expression containing the quantity superlative appears to be definite that these readings are generated. I account for these readings by building on the theory that many/much and their antonyms are fundamentally degree-predicates of scalar intervals, not degree-predicates of individuals. This leads me to propose a novel syntactic configuration in which the definite article forms a measure phrase constituent with the quantity superlative to the exclusion of the focused element. The NP-internal relative reading is derived through focus-association, with the superlative morpheme remaining in situ inside the definite measure phrase. The proposal adds to an emerging consensus that the quantity expressions much, many, few and little and their crosslinguistic counterparts are of a distinct type and are syntactically more complex than other gradable adjectives. It also provides indirect support for an in situ approach to deriving the relative readings of superlatives in definite contexts.



superlatives; relative readings; quantity adjectives; definite article; DP structure

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ISSN: 1937-8912

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