Nominal Modification

The Graduate School on Nominal Modification at the University of Frankfurt

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Colloquium: Gregory Scontras

On Tuesday, October 30th at 4pm in SH 3.104, Gregory Scontras (University of California, Irvine) will be giving a talk in the GK colloquium.

Title: The role of subjectivity in adjective ordering preferences

From English to Hungarian to Mokilese, speakers exhibit strong ordering preferences in multi-adjective strings: “the small brown box” sounds far more natural than “the brown small box.” In this talk, I show that an adjective’s distance from the modified noun is predicted by the adjective’s meaning: less subjective adjectives occur closer to the nouns they modify. Subjectivity synthesizes—rather than supplants—many of the previous approaches to adjective ordering, incorporating notions like “inherentness” and “context dependence” into an intuitive psychological construct that readily operationalizes as a behavioral measure. After demonstrating the success of subjectivity in predicting adjective ordering preferences, I offer a proposal for understanding how adjective subjectivity interacts with the hierarchical structure of modification and communicative pressures to deliver the observed preferences. 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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