Linguistics and Philosophy

, Volume 5, Issue 3, pp 355–398

Referential and quantificational indefinites


  • Janet Dean Fodor
    • University of Connecticut
    • Stanford University
  • Ivan A. Sag
    • University of Connecticut
    • Stanford University

DOI: 10.1007/BF00351459

Cite this article as:
Fodor, J.D. & Sag, I.A. Linguistics and Philosophy (1982) 5: 355. doi:10.1007/BF00351459


The formal semantics that we have proposed for definite and indefinite descriptions analyzes them both as variable-binding operators and as referring terms. It is the referential analysis which makes it possible to account for the facts outlined in Section 2, e.g. for the purely ‘instrumental’ role of the descriptive content; for the appearance of unusually wide scope readings relative to other quantifiers, higher predicates, and island boundaries; for the fact that the island-escaping readings are always equivalent to maximally wide scope quantifiers; and for the appearance of violations of the identity conditions on variables in deleted constituents. We would emphasize that this is not a random collection of observations. They cohere naturally with each other, and with facts about other phrases that are unambigously referential.

We conceded at the outset of this paper that the referential use of an indefinite noun phrase does not, by itself, motivate the postulation of a referential interpretation. Our argument has been that the behavior of indefinites in complex sentences cannot be economically described, and certainly cannot be explained, unless a referential interpretation is assumed. It could be accounted for in pragmatic terms only if the whole theory of scope relations and of conditions on deletion could be eliminated from the semantics and incorporated into a purely pragmatic theory. But this seems unlikely.

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© D. Reidel Publishing Co 1982