Nominal Modification

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Home » Virtual Colloquium May 19: Marcin Morzycki

Virtual Colloquium May 19: Marcin Morzycki

On Tuesday, May 19th GK Colloquium will be hosting a talk by Marcin Morzycki entitled ‘Interpreting Multiple Superlatives: Covert Modality and Semantic Viruses’. See below for the abstract. 

When: 4:15 pm-6:00 pm
Where: Online via Zoom
(please send an e-mail to to get access link)

Interpreting Multiple Superlatives: Covert Modality and Semantic Viruses

Multiple occurrences of superlative morphology in the same clause systematically give rise to an unexpected and unexpectedly complicated reading:

(1) Floyd bought the nicest computer at the lowest price.
(2) Floyd bought the nicest, cheapest computer.

The most natural reading of (1-2) involves having found the best balance of quality and price. It’s not clear that standard accounts of superlatives (such as Szabolsci 1986, Heim 1999, Sharvit & Stateva 2002) suffice to deliver this quite reading in a way that distinguishes it from those of similar sentences perceived as distinct. 
Also interesting is the sense that the full complexity of this reading systematically eludes us. In (3), for example, it’s not immediately obvious that a sufficient general criterion for identifying a winner has not been given:

(3) The winner is the person who builds the tallest snowman in the least time.

I’ll offer a tentative analysis of this construction that treats these readings as covertly modalized. I’ll also seek an understanding of the particular elusive complexity of these readings as an instance of a broader phenomenon, akin to what Sobin (1994, 1997) and Lasnik & Sobin (2000) called ‘grammatical viruses’. These are phenomena outside the core grammar that are generally complicated, consciously acquired, and awkwardly half-internalized. They argued that viruses are a feature of the syntax, but it stands to reason that the semantics might be similarly infected. The other potential viruses I’ll briefly consider are the word respectively, factor/ratio phrases, and certain mathematical expressions such as zero (Bylinina & Nouwen 2018). 

Heim, Irena. 1999. Notes on Superlatives. Ms, MIT.
Bylinina, Lisa & Rick Nouwen. 2018. On ‘zero’ and semantic plurality. Glossa 3 (1).
Lasnik, Howard & Nicholas Sobin. 2000. The who/whom puzzle: On the preservation of an archaic feature. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 18(2).343–371.
Sobin, Nicholas. 1994. An acceptable ungrammatical construction. In Susan D.Lima, Roberta L. Corrigan & Gregory K. Iverson (eds.), The reality of linguistic rules, 51–65. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing.
Sobin, Nicholas. 1997. Agreement, default rules, and grammatical viruses. Linguistic Inquiry 28(2). 318–343.
Szabolcsi, Annna. 1986, Comparative superlatives. In N. Fukui et al, eds., MIT Working Papers in Linguistics, Vol. 8. MIT Press, Cambridge.

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