Title: Precious few and practically all : the modification of absolute and relative quantifiers
Authors: Njende, Ngum Meyuhnsi
Davidse, Kristin
Ghesquière, Lobke
Issue Date: 29-May-2015
Conference: International Computer Archive for Modern and Medieval English edition:36 location:Trier, Germany date:27-31 May 2015
Abstract: Precious few and practically all: the modification of absolute and relative quantifiers

There is a long tradition of research into the modification of adjectives, as in very pretty and almost full (e.g. Paradis 2001). By contrast, little focused attention has gone to the modification of quantifiers, as in very few and almost all. As part of a larger project aimed at filling this gap, we present a corpus-based study of the modification of (a) few and all.
Quantification can be described in terms of two basic types: absolute and relative quantification (Milsark 1977, Langacker 1991). Absolute quantifiers measure the size of some set or mass with reference to an implied scale with(schematic) measure units, e.g. (a) few, many/much, etc. Relative quantifiers compare the size of the actually designated mass or set to a reference mass/set, indicating whether or not the two coincide, and if not, to what extent they don’t, e.g. NO, SOME, most, all.
We hypothesize that the semantic distinction between absolute and relative quantifiers determines the different types of modification found with them. With absolute quantifiers, modifiers operate on the ‘range’ indicated on the scale, which they ‘upscale’ (boost), e.g. very many, or ‘downscale’ (compromise or minimize), e.g. rather a lot. This upscaling or downscaling effect interacts with the positive or negative scalar direction inherent in the quantifier. Thus, with positive a few, we predict that boosters will enlarge the quantity (1a) and downscaling modifiers reduce it (1b). Conversely, with negative few, boosters will further reduce the quantity (2a) while minimizers will soften the paucity meaning of the quantifier (2b).

(1) a. I got offered quite a few bad guys in American movies (WB)
b. Whenever swaths of women are congregated in just a few types of job (WB)
(2) a. Then look at the precious few victories (WB)
b. When they look at senior women in their organisations they cannot help but notice that rather few of them have rich family lives. (WB)

With relative quantifiers, modifiers operate on the (non-)coincidence with the reference mass indicated. With all they indicate that the quantity designated does indeed coincide with the reference mass/set (maximizer), e.g. absolutely all (3a), or differs somewhat from it (approximator), e.g. practically all (3b), thus mitigating the universal quantification that all designates on its own.

(3) a. if absolutely all other options fail. (WB)
b. disabled secretaries can do practically all office jobs. (WB)

We also investigate the hitherto largely neglected possibility of a marked relative reading being imposed on absolute quantifiers so that the quantity they indicate is construed in relation to a reference mass (Milsark 1977), as in (4), where (stressed) a FEW is equivalent to relative SOME, indicating that the actual set differs considerably from the reference set of all ten candidate countries. We will investigate the restrictions on these marked uses of (a)few, hypothesizing that they exclude certain purely scalar modifiers such as very.

(4) If only a few, but not all ten candidate countries, are ready by December (WB)

We will verify the above hypotheses by qualitative and quantitative analysis of large datasets extracted from the Times subcorpus of WordbanksOnline. For (a) few an exhaustive extraction of 19,965 was made, of which 1968, i.e. roughly 10%, had quantity modification. For all a random sample of 20,000 was taken, of which only 208, about 1%, was modified. We will also relate our findings to the analogy proposed by Author 3 and 2 (2011) between the degree modification of unbounded and bounded adjectives and the quantity modification of absolute and relative quantifiers. In this context, we will investigate to what extent Quirk et al.’s (1985) subclasses of ‘amplifiers’ and ‘downtoners’ correspond to our ‘upscalers’ and ‘downscalers’ of quantity modification.

Langacker, Ronald W. 1991. Foundations of cognitive grammar, vol. II: Descriptive application. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Milsark, Gary. 1977. Toward an explanation of certain peculiarities of the existential construction in English. Linguistic Analysis 3, 1–30.
Paradis, Carita. 2001. Adjectives and boundedness. Cognitive Linguistics 12, 47–65.
Quirk, Randolph, Sidney Greenbaum, Geoffrey Leech & Jan Svartvik. 1985. A comprehensive grammar of the English language. London: Longman.
Publication status: published
KU Leuven publication type: IMa
Appears in Collections:Functional and Cognitive Linguistics: Grammar and Typology (FunC), Leuven

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