A closer look at definiteness – the uniqueness approach

In languages with the grammatical category of definiteness, the prototypical definite noun phrase is one marked with the definite article. This is usually contrasted with an indefinite article or bare noun phrase such as in example 1:

(1a) I bought the car today.

(1b) I bought a car today.

Explanations for the various uses of the definite article are complex, and the subject has attracted the attention of philosophers and logicians besides linguists and grammarians. The two most common explanations are the uniqueness and familiarity theories.

The uniqueness theory has its roots in the logical tradition and is usually traced to Bertrand Russell, who argued that the definite article requires existence and uniqueness as in example 2:

(2) The King of France is bald.

According to Russell this sentence implies three things:

(i) There is a King of France.

(ii) There is only one King of France.

(iii) This individual is bald.

Thus the use of the indefinite article, as in (i), merely asserts the existence of an individual meeting the description King of France, but the definite article also asserts his uniqueness.

Hawkins extended the uniqueness theory by arguing that the definite article actually expresses inclusiveness. His argument is that the referent of a definite description must be part of a shared set. In the case of an individual entity, it can be considered a singleton which is realized as uniqueness, but for plurals and mass nouns it includes everything that meets the description. For instance, consider the sentences in example 3:

(3a) We put the beer in the cooler.

(3b) We put beer in the cooler.

(3c) We put a beer in the cooler.

What is implied by sentence 3a is that all of the beer is now in the cooler. Here the difference between the definite, bare, and indefinite clearly has to do with quantification. Sentence 3b can be read as some beer was put in the cooler, while 3c implies that a certain unit of beer is meant.

In this approach, definite descriptions are not semantically referring, but only quantificational. This contrasts with proper nouns which have no “sense” but are merely pointers to the referent which they name. This follows Frege/Quine, and see also Saul Kripke on naming.

However, David McCawley pointed out exceptions such as example 4 that don’t seem to be explained by uniqueness or quantification:

(4) The dog got into a fight with another dog.

In this example there are two fighting dogs involved, but nothing particularly unique is expressed about the first dog. Therefore, David Lewis has argued that definiteness must relate to salience here rather than uniqueness, that is the first dog must be somehow more prominent in the discourse than the second.

One weakness of the uniqueness approach is that its logical roots were only concerned with the truth or falsehood of a statement, which should remain the same regardless of where or when it is expressed. Thus the approach only treats the noun phrase at the sentence level, rather than considering the larger discourse context. In contrast, discourse approaches tend to focus on the anaphoric use of definiteness, largely relying on the familiarity theory which I will summarize in the next post.


Hawkins, John A. Definiteness and Indefiniteness : A Study in Reference and Grammaticality Prediction. Atlantic Highlands, N.J: Croom Helm Humanities Press, 1978.

Kripke, Saul A. Naming and Necessity. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1980.

Lewis, David. “Scorekeeping in a Language Game.” Journal of Philosophical Logic 8 (1979): 339-59.

Lyons, Christopher. Definiteness. Cambridge textbooks in linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

McCawley, David. “Presupposition and Discourse Structure.” Pages 371-88 in Syntax and Semantics 11: Presupposition. Edited by David Dinneen, and Choon-kyu Oh. New York: Academic Press, 1979.

Russell, Bertrand. “On Denoting.” Mind 14 (1905): 479-93.

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6 Comments on “A closer look at definiteness – the uniqueness approach”

  1. Chip Says:

    Interestingly, “beer” in (3b) could be read as a generalization instead of a partitive, that is, the entity “beer”, if we possess it, is located in the cooler.

    • Peter Bekins Says:

      Yes, maybe it would be better to state that “the beer” implies all the beer within the relevant context, while “a beer” implies a specific unit of beer, while the bare phrase “beer” is non-specific as to amount. However, if it was all the beer you possess, I think that conversational implicature would compel you to use the more informative “the beer”, thus “beer” implies that you are dealing with an amount less than “all”.

      • Chip Says:

        I like the nonspecific, or perhaps better the “unspecified up to this point” amount idea. As a generalized statement, it can work as “all the beer”: We put beer (any amount that we have, including all) in the cooler (not in the cupboard). (At least that works in my English idiolect!)

        I look forward to tracking your progress. Any chance you’ll be at SBL this year?

      • Peter Bekins Says:

        OK, I get you now, you mean as a categorical statement: Beer goes in the red cooler, coke is in the blue cooler (or pop if that’s your dialect).

        I will indeed be at SBL, and I look forward to meeting up with many of my faceless friends from the blogosphere.

  2. John Hobbins Says:

    This is sweet stuff. BTW, if you are going to apply this discussion to determination in classical Hebrew, I’m wondering whether you will deal with the issues James Barr raised about the curious distribution of the occurrence of the definite article in conjunction with inseparable prepositions.

    • Peter Bekins Says:

      That is not high on my priorities, but I tend to agree with him that many of the articles (especially in poetry) may be imposed by the Masoretes. Perhaps I will be able to add something to the argument. I think that’s what he argues at least, but its been a while since I read that article.

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