How big is big? Relative and absolute properties in memory

Lance J. Rips*, William Turnbull

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

37 Scopus citations


Previous studies of semantic memory have overlooked an important distinction among so-called "property statements". Statements with relative adjectives (e.g., Flamingos are big) imply a comparison to a standard or reference point associated with an immediate superordinate category (a flamingo is big for a bird), while the truth of statements with absolute adjectives (e.g., Flamingos are pink) is generally independent of such a standard. To examine the psychological consequences of this distinction, we asked subjects in Experiment 1 to verify sentences containing either relative or absolute adjectives embedded in either predicate-adjective (PA) constructions (e.g., A flamingo is big (pink)) or predicate-noun (PN) constructions (e.g. A flamingo is a big (pink) bird), where the predicate noun was the immediate superordinate. Reaction times (RTs) and errors for relative sentences decreased when the superordinate was specified, but remained constant for absolute sentences. These data also suggest that the truth value of relative sentences depends, not just on the superordinate, but also on a more global standard for everyday, human-oriented objects. Experiment 2 extends these results in showing that ratings of the truth of relative sentences are a function of the difference in size between an instance and its superordinate standard (e.g., between the size of a flamingo and that of an average bird) and the difference between the instance and the standard for everyday objects. Experiment 3 replicated these findings using reaction time as the dependent measure.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)145-174
Number of pages30
Issue number2
StatePublished - 1980

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language


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