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The parsing and interpretation of comparatives: More than meets the eye

Margaret Ann Grant, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This dissertation examines comparative constructions, both in terms of their representation in syntax and semantics and in terms of the way these representations are built and interpreted incrementally during sentence processing. While there has been extensive investigation of comparatives in the syntax and semantics literature (see Bresnan, 1973; von Stechow, 1984; Heim, 1985; Kennedy, 1999, among others), there has been little work on how comparatives are processed (although see Fults and Phillips, 2004; Wellwood et al., 2009 for work on so-called comparative illusions). In the first half of the dissertation, I address issues that are primarily syntactic in nature; in the second half, I address issues that are primarily at the semantic and pragmatic levels. In Chapter 2, I examine the basic syntax of English comparatives and readers' expectations for the structure of comparatives during parsing. I present evidence from eye movements during reading to argue that a curious pattern of acceptability in comparatives (observed by Osborne, 2009) arises from processing factors rather than the grammar. Chapter 3 provides evidence from self-paced reading that, in contrast to what has been shown for other more widely studied structures, in comparative clauses subject gaps are more difficult to process than object gaps. Some potential accounts for this asymmetry between comparatives and other structures are discussed, and in Chapter 4, I argue for a grammar-based account of the subject gap penalty. Chapters 5 and 6 investigate questions in the semantics/pragmatics and semantic processing of comparatives. In Chapter 5, I introduce a previously unstudied type of comparative, which I call subset comparatives, and investigate their appropriate formal representation. In addition to their theoretical interest, subset comparatives can provide insight into comprehenders' expectations regarding the relationship between the two sets of entities involved in comparatives. Evidence from eye movement studies suggests that readers have an initial preference for contrast, or disjointness, between sets in comparatives. Chapter 6 investigates issues in the comparison of pluralities during on-line sentence processing, again as studied through eye movements during reading. This chapter provides evidence that, when comparing sets, comparisons that involve degrees along an adjectival scale involve complexity beyond that involved in comparing sets in terms of their cardinalities. The results of my experimental studies on comparatives are related to broader issues in linguistics and psycholinguistics, such as the sources of well-formedness (or ill-formedness) in language, the representation of linguistically described sets in language processing, and the interaction between levels of information (syntactic, semantic, and conceptual/world knowledge) in comprehension.

Subject Area

Linguistics|Cognitive psychology

Recommended Citation

Grant, Margaret Ann, "The parsing and interpretation of comparatives: More than meets the eye" (2013). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3556253.