A definiteness scale

Consider the set of sentences in example 1:

1 a. I went to see a doctor today.

1b. I went to see the doctor today.

1c. I went to see your doctor today.

1d. I went to see Dr. Brown today.

1e. I went to see that doctor today.

1f. I went to see her today.

All of the highlighted phrases share the same referent, but notice that there are many more choices for referring expressions beyond indefinite and definite.  This is because these other types of expression also align with definiteness.

While the binary indefinite-definite opposition can be used to code the basic distinction between identifiable and unidentifiable referents, these other types of noun phrases can be used to code other points on the scale in the form of an implication hierarchy. Sticking with Prince’s identifiability scale, a general definiteness hierarchy can be proposed such as 2:

(2) evoked > unused > inferable > brand new >
pronoun
demonstrative
proper noun definite noun phrase
possessive phrase
indefinite noun phrase

On an implication hierarchy, if a form can be used for one point on the scale, this implies that it can also be used for any higher point on the scale. On the other hand, conversational implicature suggests that if their is a more informative grammatical form for a higher point on the scale, this will be used instead. This tends to limit a particular form to a particular range on the scale, though there can also be reasons for over- or under-specifying a discourse referent.

Personal and demonstrative pronouns are usually taken to be highest on the scale because they refer directly and always express evoked referents. Pronouns can refer either through anaphora, which Prince labels textually evoked, or deixis, in which case the referent is situationally evoked. Demonstratives can also function as determiners when used together with a noun phrase. They can be either deictic (Look at that guy!) or anaphoric (I read that article too.).

Proper nouns also refer directly and are therefore considered to be uniquely identifiable as in Russell’s analysis. Certainly proper nouns can be ambiguous, ie “John Smith”, but unmodified proper nouns tend only to be used to introduce a discourse referent if it is one that the hearer is assumed to be familiar with, and therefore they correlate to the unused category.

Noun phrases marked with the definite article generally cover all discourse referents that can be considered identifiable. Definite noun phrases that are co-referential to an already introduced discourse referent are anaphoric and can be considered textually evoked as in 3:

(3) The neighbor’s dog got out last night. The cur knocked over our garbage cans.

More complicated is the case of first-mention definite noun phrases. In some situations a definite article can function similarly to a demonstrative as in 4 (assuming that a hammer is present in the immediate situation):

(4) Pass me the hammer please.

In this case the definite phrase could be considered situationally evoked. Definites which have unique referents within the relevant social context are comparable to proper nouns and correlate to the unused category. Examples include the sun, the president, the river, etc.  However, most first-mention definites are inferables as I discussed in the last post (like the driver).

Possessives are a more complicated case which I will discuss in my next post. Usually, however, they can be considered an inferrable that includes its anchor.

Additional Bibliography

Fraurud, Kari. “Definiteness and the processing of NPs in natural discourse.” Journal of Semantics 7 (1990): 395-433.

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One Comment on “A definiteness scale”


  1. [...] Linguistics has a lot to teach any discipline that studies words quite as closely as biblical scholars do. Peter Bekins has an interesting post on the use of definite markers which is part of a series. See, for example, here and here. [...]


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