On the scalar antonymy of only and even

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An old observation about the focus sensitive particles only and even is that they are in some sense scalar antonyms. We examine three schematic proposals raised in the literature to capture this observation, namely that only vs. even presuppose that the proposition denoted by their prejacent, p, is lower vs. higher, respectively (A) than what is EXPECTED/the default STANDARD (the ‘mirative/evaluative antonymy’ view), (B) than SOME (salient) alternative in the set of contextually relevant focus alternatives, C, (the ‘existential antonymy’ view), or (C) than ALL alternatives in C (the ‘superlative antonymy’ view). To tease these views apart, we examine the behavior of only vs. even in a wide range of contexts and types of discourse, concentrating on the way the C set of contextually relevant alternatives with only(C)(p) and even(C)(p) is constrained by the interaction of (i) previously uttered sentences and (ii) the salient QUD. Based on these examinations we argue for the preferability of the ‘superlative antonymy’ view of only and even. In contrast, we argue that the ‘existential’ antonymy and the ‘mirative/evaluative’ antonymy between only and even are apparent. The former only holds in specific contexts where one alternative to p is made maximally salient. As to the latter, we show that while an evaluative (‘above the standard’ / ‘a lot’) inference is hardwired into the scalar presupposition of even, alongside the superlative inference, the mirror imaged one (‘below the standard’ / ‘a little’) is cancellable for only. We propose that this inference can be derived from the interaction of the superlative scalar presupposition of only and domain based constraints on alternatives in C.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)415-452
Number of pages38
JournalNatural Language Semantics
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 2022


  • Alternatives
  • Contextual effects
  • Evaluativity
  • Even
  • Focus
  • Mirativity
  • Only
  • QUD
  • Salience
  • Scales
  • Standards

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Philosophy
  • Linguistics and Language


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