Given the grammatical structure and syntax, we can easily reduce the possible meanings of love (of which there are 28, according to Dictionary.com) down to a subset that have slightly different meanings, but all basically translate as, have a strong liking for. According to Wikipedia , there are over 30 potential meanings for the word Jaguar. We look at how words are formed (morphology), how phrases and sentences are structured (syntax) and determining the meaning of the word based on how it sounds (phonology). If there is no ambiguity with the words involved, that should be sufficient to interpret the meaning.
This thesis deals with gradience in grammar, i.e., with the fact that some linguistic structures are not fully acceptable or unacceptable, but receive gradient linguistic judgments. The importance of gradient data for linguistic theory has been recognized at least since Chomsky's Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory. However, systematic empirical studies of gradience are largely absent, and none of the major theoretical frameworks is designed to account for gradient data. The present thesis addresses both questions. In the experimental part of the thesis (Chapters 3-5), we present a set of magnitude estimation experiments investigating gradience in grammar. The experiments deal with unaccusativity/unergativity, extraction, binding, word order, and gapping. They cover all major modules of syntactic theory, and draw on data from three languages (English, German, and Greek). In the theoretical part of thesis (Chapters 6 and 7), we use these experimental results to motivate a model of gradience in grammar. This model is a variant of Optimality Theory, and explains gradience in terms of the competition of ranked, violable linguistic constraints. The experimental studies in this thesis deliver two main results. First, they demonstrate that an experimental investigation of gradient phenomena can advance linguistic theory by uncovering acceptability distinctions that have gone unnoticed in the theoretical literature. An experimental approach can also settle data disputes that result from the informal data collection techniques typically employed in theoretical linguistics, which are not well-suited to investigate the behavior of gradient linguistic data. Second, we identify a set of general properties of gradient data that seem to be valid for a wide range of syntactic phenomena and across languages. (a) Linguistic constraints are ranked, in the sense that some constraint violations lead to a greater degree of unacceptability than others. (b) Constraint violations are cumulative, i.e., the degree of unacceptability of a structure increases with the number of constraints it violates. (c) Two constraint types can be distinguished experimentally: soft constraints lead to mild unacceptability when violated, while hard constraint violations trigger serious unacceptability. (d) The hard/soft distinction can be diagnosed by testing for effects from the linguistic context; context effects only occur for soft constraints; hard constraints are immune to contextual variation. (e) The soft/hard distinction is crosslinguistically stable. In the theoretical part of the thesis, we develop a model of gradient grammaticality that borrows central concepts from Optimality Theory, a competition-based grammatical framework. We propose an extension, Linear Optimality Theory, motivated by our experimental results on constraint ranking and the cumulativity of violations.