Why it’s hard to construct ad hoc number concepts

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Lexical meanings are routinely adjusted in order to evoke ad hoc concepts. But number words pose a unique challenge. Carston (2002) discusses two relevant interpretative processes in this connection. Broadening (as in metaphorical uses) introduces an ad hoc concept by incorporating interpretations that fall outside the lexeme’s linguistic meaning, and narrowing (e.g., interpreting finger as ‘index finger’) restricts the lexical meaning to a subset of its senses. I here argue that number words impose restrictions on the construction of such ad hoc concepts: (i) (nonround) number words cannot undergo narrowing, and (ii) when broadened (interpreted as ‘approximately N’), number words typically require explicit marking (e.g., about N). Both restrictions stem from a single fact: Number words lack a prototype category structure (Lakoff 1972; Rosch & Mervis 1975). I support these claims with corpus analyses (The Santa Barbara Corpus of Spoken American English, The Longman Corpus of Spoken American English and the British National Corpus).

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationBuilding Categories in Interaction. Linguistic resources at work
EditorsCaterina Mauri, Ilaria Fiorentini, Eugenio Goria
PublisherJohn Benjamins Publishing Company
Number of pages23
ISBN (Electronic)9789027258991
StatePublished - 2021

Publication series

NameStudies in Language Companion Series
ISSN (Print)0165-7763


  • Ad hoc categories
  • Adaptors
  • Broadening
  • Narrowing
  • Number words
  • Prototype category structure
  • Rounders


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