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Respondents are more likely to disagree with negative survey questions (This text is boring. Yes/No) than to agree with positive ones (This text is interesting. Yes/No). The size of this effect, however, varies largely between word pairs. A semantic classification of adjectives in closed scale/absolute and open scale/relative types was predicted to explain this variation. To classify survey adjectives, a judgment experiment was conducted. Language users (N = 173) rated sentences in which an adjective was modified by the maximizer completely or the approximator almost: it should be possible to combine closed scale/absolute adjectives with these modifiers, in contrast to open scale/relative adjectives for which this is not the case.

Results show that language users agree on which adjective and degree modifier combinations are acceptable and which combinations are unacceptable. Moreover, the two methods, almost and fully, show convergent validity. However, the rating of the same combination of a specific adjective and a specific degree modifier varies across contexts. This suggests that neither of the two methods allows for an unambiguous classification of adjectives. Hence, the distinction between closed scale/absolute and open scale/relative adjectives cannot explain variation in survey response effects. For semantics and pragmatics results indicate that context plays a crucial role in the linguistic behavior of adjectives and degree modifiers.


► We examine linguistic behavior of maximizers and approximators. ► These modifiers should combine with absolute adjectives, but not with relative ones. ► Also, an adjective modifier combination should show a stable rating across contexts. ► However, the same combination is judged differently in different contexts. ► Therefore, linguistic behavior does not allow for a classification of adjectives.


Gradable adjectives
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Wording effects

Naomi KamoenTable Of Table Contents Of is a PhD-student at the Utrecht Institute of Linguistics OTS at Utrecht University. Her research focuses on language use and cognitive processes of text interpretation, specifically targeted at processing contrast relations in a survey situation and the semantics of contrast relations.

Bregje Holleman is an assistant professor at the Department of Dutch and the Utrecht Institute of Linguistics OTS at Utrecht University. The focus of her research and teaching is on language use and cognitive processes of text interpretation. Her main interests are framing effects of positive versus negative wordings as they occur in survey questions and persuasive texts.

Rick Nouwen is a senior research fellow at the Utrecht Institute for Linguistics OTS. His research focuses on the semantics-pragmatics interface. In the past, he worked on quantification and scalarity. Currently, he is leading the research project Degrees under discussion, funded by the Dutch organization for scientific research (NWO).

Ted Sanders is a professor of Discourse Studies and Dutch language use at Utrecht University. His research focuses on discourse structure and cognitive processes of text interpretation. Currently, he heads the research project Causality and Subjectivity in Discourse and Cognition, funded by the Dutch organization for scientific research (NWO).

Huub van den Bergh is a professor of teaching and testing of language proficiency at Utrecht University. His research is on cognitive mechanisms of text interpretation and text production. The focus of his research is on writing research and methodological features of measuring processes of text interpretation and production.

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