The ingredients of comparison: The semantics of the excessive construction in Japanese

Xiao Li


Excessives (e.g., this pair of pants is too long) are often considered as a ‘degree construction’ in the literature, presumably because it is assumed that their semantics involves a comparison of degrees. This paper takes a cross-linguistic look at the excessive construction in Japanese and raises the question of whether degrees are a necessary ingredient in the semantics of comparison. Unlike any degree morpheme in English, -sugi ‘to exceed’ can combine with either a gradable adjective (e.g., naga ‘long’) or a non-gradable verb (e.g., yomi ‘to read’) to form an excessive construction. In each case, a semantically different type of phrase can be used as a differential: when -sugi combines with an adjective, a measure phrase can be used as a differential; when -sugi combines with a verb, a floating numeral quantifier can be used as a differential. Based on this observation, I put forward a non-degree based analysis in which -sugi is not a degree quantifier. Specifically, I argue that a V-sugi sentence describes a comparison of two sets of objects or events, whereas an Adj-sugi sentence describes a comparison of two sets of degrees. This analysis draws an interesting parallel to the A-not-A analysis of the comparative in the literature, and implies that the semantics of a ‘degree construction’ does not necessarily involve a comparison of degrees.

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excessives, comparison, degrees, the A-not-A analysis, Japanese

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ISSN: 1937-8912

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