The identifiability scale

In my last post, I noted that the choice between “a car” and “the car” has to do with the assumption of whether the particular car is identifiable by the hearer. Thus the use of an indefinite phrase tips the hearer that they need to create a new “record”, while the definite noun phrase causes them to search for an existing record in their mental database.

However, identifying a referent is not always as simple as whether a record exists or not. Though some modify it slightly, the identifiability scale suggested by Ellen Prince remains the starting point for most studies (see also Gundel, et al for a more complicated scale). Prince multiplies the given-new distinction into four basic categories similar to 1:

(1) evoked > unused > inferable > brand new

An evoked discourse referent correlates basically to a given status. It has either been mentioned already or is self-evident from the extra-linguistic situation and can therefore be referred to through anaphora or deixis. For instance, if we are standing in a museum looking at a painting, I might say, “I like the painting.” I don’t need to introduce the painting into the discourse, but can evoke it directly.

On the other end of the scale, brand new discourse referents correspond to what is normally termed new information since they are unfamiliar to the hearer before being mentioned in the discourse. Brand new referents can be made slightly more identifiable by anchoring them. For instance, I might say, “a man I work with” instead of just “a man”.

The middle categories cover referents which have not been introduced into the discourse, but are identifiable based on the hearer’s broader knowledge, so-called first-mention definites. An unused referent is new to the discourse, but it is already familiar to the receiver. This can also be termed discourse-new and hearer-old information. Rather than creating a new referent from scratch, the existing record can be copied from long-term storage directly into the discourse model, along with any existing attributes or links. For instance, take sentence 2:

(2) I went down to the river yesterday.

Presumably, there is only one prominent river within the relevant speech community so that it can be introduced with a definite noun phrase.

Inferrables deal with cases like the cover in my previous post. An entity is inferable “if the speaker assumes that the hearer can infer it via logical or plausible reasoning based on other evoked or inferable entities.” Thus, because it can be inferred that books have covers, there is no reason to introduce a cover as an indefinite noun with a third sentence. A more efficient discourse would be 3:

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

Givón notes that this can also be called “double-grounding”, since it requires both association and anaphora, or “frame-based reference”. A frame is the set of general knowledge that can be connected to a particular entity or situation.  Often this type of reference is based on whole-part relations or possession as in the case of the book. However, Chafe also gives the example of a classroom which can be inferred to have a teacher, blackboard, and students, but can also be connected to things like homework, books, quizzes, etc., and all of these can be introduced with definites.

In this post I have continued to give examples with indefinite or definite noun phrases, but in my next post I will explore the options for tipping off the hearer more precisely as to where a referent falls on the identifiability scale.

Additional Bibliography

Givón, Talmy. Syntax: An Introduction. Amsterdam: Benjamins, 2001.

Prince, Ellen. “Toward a Taxonomy of Given-New Information.” Pages 223-55 in Radical Pragmatics. Edited by Peter Cole. New York: Academic Press, 1981.

Prince, Ellen. “The ZPG Letter: Subjects, Definiteness, and Information-status.” Pages 295-325 in Discourse Description: Diverse Analyses of a Fund Raising Text. Edited by S. Thompson, and W. Mann. Philadelphia & Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1992.

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One Comment on “The identifiability scale”

  1. Wayne Leman Says:

    Confession time: I wish I had more time and had visited your recent posts on definiteness and degres of identifiability before my posts last week on the translation issue of “the house” in Matthew’s Gospel, on Better Bibles Blog. At least I’ve kept your blog in the BBB blogroll. Thank you for these posts, including reference to Ellen Prince’s work, which I also referred to in my latest post.


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