On the grammatical source of adjective ordering preferences

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Gregory Scontras
Judith Degen
Noah D. Goodman


Scontras et al. (2017) present experimental evidence demonstrating that the best predictor of adjective ordering preferences in the English noun phrase is the subjectivity of the property named by any given adjective: less subjective adjectives are preferred linearly closer to the nouns they modify. The current work builds on this empirical finding by proposing that the reason subjectivity predicts adjective ordering preferences has to do with the hierarchical structure of nominal modification. Adjectives that are linearly closer to the modified noun are often structurally closer, composing with the noun before adjectives that are farther away. Pressures from successful reference resolution dictate that less subjective, more useful adjectives contribute their meaning to the resulting nominal earlier, in an attempt to more effectively limit the reference search space.

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