We are happy to announce a talk by Rick Nouwen (Utrecht University) at the Semantics Colloquium.

Please register beforehand (s.walter@em.uni-frankfurt.de) to receive the access data to zoom on Thursday shortly before the talk starts.

Title: Intensified vagueness: semantics and pragmatics

Date: May 20

Time: 4 pm – 6 pm ct


What, if anything, is the semantic content of intensifiers like ‘very’, ‘extremely’, ‘pretty’, etc.? In this talk, I’ll explore this question from the perspective of recent probabilistic approaches to degree semantics (Lassiter and Goodman, 2017). According to such approaches, vague predicates involve lexical uncertainty that is partially resolved through pragmatic reasoning. A sentence like “Scarlett is tall” is interpreted as `height(s)>=t`, where the value of t is inferred.

How can a framework like this be extended to deal with sentences like “Scarlett is very / extremely / surprisingly tall”? Starting point is the model of Bennett and Goodman (2018). In this model, the intensifier is semantically vacuous, but its presence in the utterance triggers a manner implicature, which constitutes the boosting effect associated with the intensifier. Not all intensifiers are semantically vacuous, though. In particular, a distinction should be made between bleached intensifiers –where the original lexical content plays no role– and unbleached intensifiers –where the lexical content is still entailed. Compare: “Scarlett is terribly nice” which assert nothing terrible of Scarlett, versus “Scarlett is disgustingly nice” which (roughly) asserts that the high degree of niceness is disgusting.

I show that there is a hitherto unexplored link between the boosting function of bleached and unbleached intensifiers and their lexical content and suggest extensions of Bennett and Goodman’s proposal that can deal with this. In passing this extension comes close to solving a long-standing semantic puzzle about evaluative intensifiers (Wheeler 1972, Morzycki 2008, Nouwen 2011).

Bennett, E. D., & Goodman, N. D. (2018). Extremely costly intensifiers are
stronger than quite costly ones. Cognition, 178, 147–161.

Lassiter, D., & Goodman, N. (2017). Adjectival vagueness in a bayesian
model of interpretation. Synthese, 194(10), 1–36.

Morzycki, M. (2008). Adverbial modification of adjectives: Evaluatives
and a little beyond. In J. Dölliing & T. Heyde-Zybatow (Eds.), Event
structures in linguistic form and interpretation. Berlin: Mouton de

Nouwen, Rick. “Degree modifiers and monotonicity.” Vagueness and language use. Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2011. 146-164.

Wheeler, S. (1972). Attributives and their modifiers. Nous, 6, 310-334.