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Linguist James Matisoff, quoted by Kate Burridge in Gift of the Gob: Morsels of English Language History (HarperCollins Australia, 2011)


The quality of indeterminacy (or blurred boundaries) on a graduated scale connecting two linguistic elements.

Gradient phenomena can be observed in all areas of language studies, including phonology, morphology, vocabulary, syntax, and semantics. See Examples and Observations, below.

The term gradience was introduced by Dwight Bolinger in Generality, Gradience, and the All-or-None (1961).

See also:

Examples and Observations:

  • "[Dwight] Bolinger argued that . . . linguistic categories have blurred edges more often than not, and that apparently clear-cut categories often have to be replaced by non-discrete scales. Bolinger identified gradient phenomena in various domains of grammar, such as semantic ambiguities, syntactic blends, and in phonological entities, including intensity and length, among others."
    (Gisbert Fanselow et al., "Gradience in Grammar," Gradience in Grammar: Generative Perspectives, Oxford Univ. Press, 2006)

  • Gradience in Phonetics and Phonology
    "gradience A series of instances intermediate between two categories, constructions, etc. E.g. blackboard is, by all relevant criteria, a compound: it has stress on its first element . . ., its precise meaning does not follow from those of black and board individually, and so on. Fine weather is equally, by all criteria, not a compound. But many other cases are less clear. Bond Street is in meaning as regular as Trafalgar Square, but stress is again on the first element. Able seaman has stress on its second element, but does not simply mean 'seaman who is able.' White lie is likewise not in meaning 'lie which is white'; but it too has stress on its second element and, in addition, white might be separately modified (a very white lie). So, by such criteria, these form parts of a gradience between compounds and non-compounds."
    (P.H. Matthews, Oxford Concise Dictionary of Linguistics, Oxford Univ. Press, 1997)

  • Two Kinds of Lexical Gradience
    "[David] Denison (2001) distinguishes two kinds of gradience and discusses changes in English during the narrow time span from 1800 on, distinguishing some that are gradual from some that are not. . . . The two types of gradience are 'subsective' and 'intersective' (terms Denison attributes to Bas Aarts . . .):
    (a) Subsective gradience is found when X and Y are in a gradient relationship within the same form class. This is a question of prototype vs. marginal members of a category (eg., house is a more prototypical N than home with respect to determiners and quantifiers; house is also less subject to idiomatic use).
    (b) Intersective gradience is found when X and Y are in a gradient relationship between classes; see the notion of 'category squish."
    (Laurel J. Brinton and Elizabeth Closs Traugott, Lexicalization and Language Change. Cambridge University Press, 2005)
Also Known As: categorial indeterminacy
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