Rhetorical comparatives: Polarity items, expletive negation, and subjunctive mood

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While the semantic approaches differ on whether there is a negative operator (¬: Jespersen, 1917; Ross, 1969; McConnell-Ginet, 1973; Seuren, 1973; Klein, 1980; Stassen, 1984; Larson, 1988) or a non-negative inequality operator (>: Von Stechow, 1984; Rullmann, 1995; Kennedy, 1997a; Beck et al., 2004) in the comparative, various issues remain unresolved surrounding the " negativity" of comparatives. This paper proposes a novel dichotomy of comparatives between 'rhetorical' comparatives (RCs) and regular 'degree' comparatives (DCs), and shows that only RCs convey " negativity" in a way parallel to negativity in rhetorical questions; while regular DCs merely establish an ordering between two objects. The variation concerning negativity in turn squares neatly with the presupposition toward the content of the standard (negative presupposition in RCs and no presupposition in DCs). In exploring the semanticopragmatic properties of RCs, it is shown that rhetorical effects can be triggered by negative polarity items, expletive negation, and the subjunctive mood. This result supports an important insight that negative polarity items and the subjunctive are of similar nature (Giannakidou, 1994, 1995, 2009; Quer, 1998; Borschev et al., 2007), and goes one step further to suggest another important link between expletive negation and the subjunctive mood. This analysis implicates that the three components are closely connected under the principle of non-veridicality. The notion of RCs in the sense that we suggest here can give us a plausible foundation for the analysis of rhetorical effects in other environments, for instance, rhetorical questions.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2012-2033
Number of pages22
JournalJournal of Pragmatics
Issue number7
StatePublished - May 2011


  • Expletive negation
  • NPIs
  • Non-referentiality
  • Non-veridicality
  • Rhetorical comparatives
  • Subjunctive mood


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