Definiteness within Discourse

The idea of definiteness as a scalar rather than binary category comes from its correlation with identifiability. As mentioned in my previous post, identifiability has to do with the hearer’s ability to identify the referent of a particular expression. Thus the choice between “a car” and “the car” by a speaker has to do with their assumptions about whether this particular car can (or should) be identified by the hearer.

First, I need to introduce the concept of a discourse model. The processing of a text by the hearer can be conceptualized as the creation of a temporary discourse model in the hearer’s mind.  This can be conceived of as a relational database consisting of the discourse referents represented by noun phrases in the text (Heim actually uses the analogy of file cards, but I took the liberty to update it a bit). Discourse referents can be individuals, classes, concepts, etc, and can be given attributes and links to other discourse referents based on the information in the text.

So, for instance, in our car example the hearer would have a discourse referent labeled Car to which they could add the attribute that it was bought by me. There can also be a link to me, since I am another discourse referent, with the attribute that I bought the car.

Referent: Pete Car
Attribute: bought car bought by Pete
Links: Car Pete

The most important clue to a hearer when processing a noun phrase in a text is whether they should create a new record for the discourse referent or find an existing record to update. This distinction between new referents and old referents is also termed givenness, expressed as a distinction between given and new information. Irene Heim noted that there is a basic relationship here with definiteness. An indefinite noun phrase triggers the creation of a new discourse referent, while a definite noun phrase usually implies that a discourse referent is given.

So, if the car is unfamiliar to my hearer, then I introduce it as an indefinite, but if I want to refer to it again later I switch to a definite phase to tip the hearer that they already have a record created as in 1:

(1) I bought a car today…. The car is a metallic black color.

The Car record can now be updated with the attribute metallic black.

This view of definiteness tends to highlight the anaphoric use of definiteness – the car is identifiable because it was mentioned previously. However, if identifiability was only a binary category, we would have discourses such as in 2 (from Prince and Walker):

(2) I bought a book yesterday. The book had a cover. The cover was torn.

This sequence feels redundant because it seems likely that the speaker can assume that the hearer knows that books have covers, thus it violates Grice’s Maxim of Quantity:

1. Make your contribution to the conversation as informative as necessary.
2. Do not make your contribution to the conversation more informative than necessary.

However, this sort of general and situational knowledge – that books have covers – is not captured in the basic given-new or definite-indefinite distinctions. Therefore, in my next post I will look at the idea of an identifiability scale and how definiteness can also be considered a scalar.

Additional Bibliography

Heim, Irene. “File Change Semantics and the Familiarity Theory of Definiteness.” Pages 164-89 in Meaning, Use, and the Interpretation of Language. Edited by R. Bauerle, C. Schwarze, and A. von Stechow. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1983.

Kartunnen, Lauri. “Discourse Referents.” Pages 363-85 in Syntax and Semantics 7: Notes from the Linguistic Underground. Edited by J. McCawley. New York: Academic Press, 1976.

Lambrecht, Knud. Information Structure and Sentence Form: Topic, Focus, and the Mental Representations of Discourse Referents. Cambridge ; New York, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Walker, Marilyn, and Ellen Prince. “A Bilateral Approach to Givenness: A Hearer-Status Algorithm and a Centering Algorithm.” Pages 291-306 in Reference and Referent Accessibility. Edited by Thorstein Fretheim, and Jeanette K. Gundel. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1996.

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One Comment on “Definiteness within Discourse”


  1. [...] has an interesting post on the use of definite markers which is part of a series. See, for example, here and [...]


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