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Friday, July 28, 2006

'Few' and 'Many'

'Few' and 'many' are fun determiners. Sentences containing them have multiple readings. Take, for instance:

(1) Few German linguists applied

As Ariel Cohen has argued, if 'German' is stressed, (1) may be interpreted as meaning that the number of German linguists who applied is small (relative to the average number of non-German linguists who applied). If 'linguist' is stressed, (1) may be interpreted as meaning that the number of German linguists who applied is small (relative to the average number of German non-linguists who applied). If 'German linguist' is stressed, we get a reading equivalent to 'the number of German linguists who applied is small (relative to the average number of non-German non-linguists who applied)'. If 'applied' is stressed, we get a reading equivalent to 'the number of German linguists who applied is small (relative to the number of German linguists who did not apply)'.

However, I think the interpretation of (1) depends not only on focus but also on topic. If, for example, the topic of the discourse is the applicant pool in this year's search compared to past searches, (1) may be interpreted as meaning that the number of German linguists who applied is small (relative to the number of linguists who applied in a typical search in the past)

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