Exceptions to generics: Where vagueness, context dependence and modality interact

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This paper deals with the exceptions-tolerance property of generic sentences with indefinite singular and bare plural subjects (IS and BP generics, respectively) and with the way this property is connected to some well-known observations about felicity differences between the two types of generics (e.g. Lawler's 1973, Madrigals are popular vs. #A madrigal is popular). I show that whereas both IS and BP generics tolerate exceptional and contextually irrelevant individuals and situations in a strikingly similar way, which indicates the existence of a basically equivalent tolerance mechanism, there is also a difference between them, unnoticed so far, which concerns the degree to which the properties of the legitimate exceptions can be characterized in advance. Following claims in Greenberg (2003), I argue that both this newly observed difference as well as the traditional felicity differences result from an underlying contrast in the type of 'non-accidentalness' expressed by the two types of generic sentences, and more formally, in the accessibility relations that their generic quantifier (Gen) is compatible with. To capture the new difference in tolerance of exceptions, I develop an improved version of the exceptions-tolerance mechanism for generic sentences suggested in Kadmon & Landman (1993), namely, a restriction on the set of individuals and situations quantified by Gen, which is partially vague to two different degrees using supervaluationist methods. The different degrees of vagueness in this restriction are shown to be systematically dependent on the two types of accessibility relations that IS and BP generics are compatible with, which are redefined as precise and vague restrictions on the generic quantification over worlds.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)131-167
Number of pages37
JournalJournal of Semantics
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2007


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