Linguistics and Philosophy

, Volume 32, Issue 6, pp 583–617 | Cite as

Descriptions, truth value intuitions, and questions

Research Article


Since the famous debate between Russell (Mind 14: 479–493, 1905, Mind 66: 385–389, 1957) and Strawson (Mind 59: 320–344, 1950; Introduction to logical theory, 1952; Theoria, 30: 96–118, 1964) linguistic intuitions about truth values have been considered notoriously unreliable as a guide to the semantics of definite descriptions. As a result, most existing semantic analyses of definites leave a large number of intuitions unexplained. In this paper, I explore the nature of the relationship between truth value intuitions and non-referring definites. Inspired by comments in Strawson (Introduction to logical theory, 1964), I argue that given certain systematic considerations, one can provide a structured explanation of conflicting intuitions. I show that the intuitions of falsity, which proponents of a Russellian analysis often appeal to, result from evaluating sentences in relation to specific questions in context. This is shown by developing a method for predicting when sentences containing non-referring definites elicit intuitions of falsity. My proposed analysis draws importantly on Roberts (in: Yoon & Kathol (eds.) OSU working papers in Linguistics: vol. 49: Papers in Semantics 1998; in: Horn & Ward (eds.) Handbook of pragmatics, 2004) and recent research in the semantics and pragmatics of focus.


Truth value intuitions Definites Questions Prosodic focus Topic Presuppositions Semantics Pragmatics 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Bäuerle R. (1983) Pragmatischsemantische Aspekte der NP-Interpretation. In: Faust M., Harweg R., Lehfeldt W., Wienold G. (eds) Allgemeine Sprachwissenschaft, Sprachtypologie und Textlinguistik. Tübingen, NarrGoogle Scholar
  2. Beaver D.I., Clark B.Z. (2008) Sense and sensitivity: How focus determines meaning. Chicester, UK, Wiley BlackwellGoogle Scholar
  3. Beaver D.I., Zeevat H. (2007) Accommodation. In: Ramchand G., Reiss C. (eds) Oxford handbook of linguistic interfaces. Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp 503–539Google Scholar
  4. Elbourne P. (2005) Situations and individuals. MIT Press, Cambridge, MAGoogle Scholar
  5. Elbourne, P. (2008). The existence entailments of definite descriptions. Available from (Unpublished ms.)
  6. Fodor, J. D. (1970). The linguistic description of opaque contexts. Ph.D. thesis, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Published in 1976 by Indiana University Linguistics Club and in 1979 in the Garland Series Outstanding Dissertations in Linguistics.Google Scholar
  7. Frege G. (1892) On Sinn and Bedeutung. In: Beaney M. (eds) The Frege reader (1997). Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, pp 151–172Google Scholar
  8. Frege G. (1918) The thought. In: Beaney M. (eds) The Frege reader (1997). Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, pp 325–346Google Scholar
  9. Geurts B. (1999) Presuppositions and pronouns. Elsevier, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  10. Geurts B. (2007) Existential import. In: Comorowski I., Heisinger K. (eds) Existence: Syntax and semantics. Springer, Dordrecht, pp 253–271Google Scholar
  11. Glanzberg, M. (2005). Presuppositions, truth values, and expressing propositions. In G. Preyer G. Peters (eds) Contextualism in philosophy: Knowledge, meaning, and truth. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  12. Groenendijk, J., & Stokhof, M. (1984). Studies on the semantics of questions and the pragmatics of answers. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Amsterdam.Google Scholar
  13. Hamblin C.L. (1973) Questions in Montague English. Foundations of Language 10: 41–53Google Scholar
  14. Hausser R. (1983) The syntax and semantics of English Mood. Questions and answers. Reidel, DordrechtGoogle Scholar
  15. Heim I. (1991) Artikel und Definitheit. In: Stechow A., Wunderlich D. (eds) Semantik: ein internationale Handbuch der zeitgenössichen Forschung. Walter de Gruyter, Berlin, pp 487–535Google Scholar
  16. Kadmon N. (2001) Formal pragmatics. Blackwell Publishing, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  17. Kadmon, N. (2009). Contrastive topics and the focal structure of questions. Available from (Unpublished ms.)
  18. Krifka, M. (1991). A compositional semantics for multiple focus constructions. Proceedings of SALT 1. Cornell University Working Papers in Linguistics, Ithaca, NY.Google Scholar
  19. Krifka, M. (2001). For a structured meaning account of questions and answers. Audiatur Vox Sapientia. A Festschrift for Arnim von Stechow (pp. 287–320). Berlin: Academie Verlag.Google Scholar
  20. Krifka, M. (2004). The semantics of questions and the focusation of answers. In Topic and focus: A cross-linguistic perspective (pp. 139–151). Dordrecht: Kluwer.Google Scholar
  21. Lasersohn P. (1993) Existence presuppositions and background knowledge. Journal of Semantics 10: 113–122CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Neale S. (1990) Descriptions. MIT Press, Cambridge, MAGoogle Scholar
  23. Roberts, C. (1998). Information structure in discourse: Towards an integrated formal theory of pragmatics. In J.-H. Yoon, & A. Kathol (Eds.), OSU working papers in linguistics: Vol. 49: Papers in semantics. Columbus, OH: Deptartmen of Linguistics, Ohio State University.Google Scholar
  24. Roberts C. (2004) Context in dynamic interpretation. In: Horn L.R., Ward G. (eds) Handbook of pragmatics. Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, pp 197–221Google Scholar
  25. Roberts, C. (2009). Forthcoming in C. Maienborn, K. von Heusinger, P. Portner (Eds.), An international handbook of natural language meaning. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.Google Scholar
  26. Rooth, M. (1985). Association with focus. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Massachusetts, Amherst.Google Scholar
  27. Rooth M. (1992) A theory of focus interpretation. Natural Language Semantics 1.1: 75–116CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Rooth M. (1996) Focus. In: Lappin S. (eds) Handbook of contemporary semantic theory. Blackwell, Oxford, pp 271–297Google Scholar
  29. Russell B. (1905) On denoting. Mind 14: 479–493CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Russell B. (1957) Mr. Strawson on referring. Mind 66: 385–389CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Scha, R. (1983). Logical foundations for question answering. Doctoral Dissertation, Groningen University.Google Scholar
  32. Schoubye, A. J. (2010). Some presuppositions. (Unpublished ms.)
  33. Stalnaker R.C. (1970) Pragmatics. Synthese 22(1/2): 272–289CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Stalnaker R.C. (1974) Pragmatic presuppositions. In: Munitz M., Unger P. (eds) Semantics and philosophy. New York University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  35. Stalnaker R.C. (1978) Assertion. In: Cole P. (eds) Syntax and Semantics 9. Academic Press, New York, pp 315–332Google Scholar
  36. Stalnaker R.C. (1998) On the representation of context. Journal of Logic, Language, and Information 7: 3–19CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Stalnaker, R. C. (2002). Common ground. Linguistics and Philosophy, 25 (701–721).Google Scholar
  38. Strawson P.F. (1950) On referring. Mind 59: 320–344CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Strawson P.F. (1952) Introduction to logical theory. Methuen, LondonGoogle Scholar
  40. Strawson, P. F. (1964). Identifying reference and truth-values. Theoria, 30, 96–118 (Reprinted in P. F. Strawson Logico-Linguistic Papers, Ashgate, London 1971).Google Scholar
  41. van der Sandt R. (1992) Presupposition Projection as Anaphora Resolution. Journal of Semantics 9: 333–377CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. von Fintel K. (2004) Would you believe it? The King of France is back! (Presuppositions and truth-value intuitions). In: Bezuidenhout A., Reimer M. (eds) Descriptions and beyond. Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp 315–342Google Scholar
  43. von Fintel K. (2008) What is presupposition accommodation, again?. Philosophical Perspectives 22(1): 137–170CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. von Stechow, A. (1989). Focusing and background operators. In Arbeitspapier nr. 6. Fachgruppe Wissenschaft, Universität Konstanz.Google Scholar
  45. von Stechow A. (1991). Current issues in the theory of focus. In: von Stechow D. & Wunderlich (Eds.) Semantik/semantics: An international handbook of contemporary research (pp. 804–825). Berlin: de Gruyter.Google Scholar
  46. Yablo S. (2006) Non-catastrophic presupposition failure. In: Thomson J.J., Byrne A. (eds) Content and modality: Themes from the philosophy of Robert C. Stalnaker. Oxford University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  47. Yablo S. (2009) Must existence-questions have answers?. In: Chalmers D.J., Manley D., Wasserman R. (eds) Metametaphysics: New essays on the foundations of ontology. Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp 507–525Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Arché, University of St AndrewsSt AndrewsScotland, UK

Personalised recommendations