Journal of Linguistics

Research Article

Attributive adjectives, infinitival relatives, and the semantics of inappropriateness1


a1 Department of English, Wayne State University


I investigate the syntax and semantics of a previously unexamined English adjective construction, exemplified by sentences like Middlemarch is a long book to assign. The construction, which I call the nominal attributive-with-infinitive construction (nominal AIC), is of interest for the semantics of gradability and modality. I argue that the major interpretive characteristic of the nominal AIC – the interpretation of inappropriateness associated with it – arises from the interaction between the positive degree operator associated with the gradable adjective and the modality of the infinitival relative clause, which contributes to the computation of the standard of comparison. Nominal AICs are compared and contrasted with a surface-identical construction I call the clausal AIC, with attributive too, and with attributive comparatives; they are shown to exhibit major syntactic and semantic differences from all of these. The paper serves both as a contribution to the semantic literature on gradability and as a contribution to the descriptive grammar of English, as it is, to the best of my knowledge, the first systematic description and analysis of the nominal AIC.

(Received January 07 2009)

(Revised April 25 2010)

(Online publication January 28 2011)


c1 Author's address: Linguistics Program, Department of English, Wayne State University, 5057 Woodward, Detroit, MI 48202, USA


[1] My thanks to the editor and to two anonymous JL referees, whose comments have led to major improvements to the paper. I likewise thank Chris Barker, Andrew Garrett, Irene Heim, Chris Kennedy, Line Mikkelsen, and Alan Timberlake for valuable discussion and comments on earlier drafts, as well as audiences at UC Berkeley, Wayne State University, NELS 38 (Ottawa), and the LSA annual meetings in 2007 (Anaheim) and 2008 (Chicago) for helpful feedback. The usual disclaimers apply.