Linguistics and Philosophy

, Volume 40, Issue 6, pp 549–593 | Cite as

Split-scope definites: Relative superlatives and Haddock descriptions

  • Dylan BumfordEmail author
Original Research


This paper argues for a particular semantic decomposition of morphological definiteness. I propose that the meaning of ‘the’ comprises two distinct compositional operations. The first builds a set of witnesses that satisfy the restricting noun phrase. The second tests this set for uniqueness. The motivation for decomposing the denotation of the definite determiner in this way comes from split-scope intervention effects. The two components—the selection of witnesses on the one hand and the counting of witnesses on the other—may take effect at different points in the composition of a constituent, and this has non-trivial semantic consequences when other operators inside the DP take action in between them. In particular, I analyze well-known examples of mutually recursive definite descriptions like ‘the rabbit in the hat’ (when there are two rabbits and two hats but only one rabbit in a hat and only one hat with a rabbit in it) as examples of definites whose referent-introducing and referent-testing components are interleaved rather than nested. I further demonstrate that this picture leads to a new theory of relative superlative descriptions like ‘the kid who climbed the highest tree’ (when there is no highest tree per se, only a highest tree-climbing kid), which explains the previously mysterious role of the definite determiner in licensing such readings.


Definites Superlatives Numerals Dynamic semantics Quantification and scope 


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.New York UniversityNew YorkUSA

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