Viebahn (Pac Philos Q 99:749–762, 2018. https://doi.org/10.1111/papq.1222) has recently argued that several tests for ambiguity, such as the conjunction-reduction test, are not reliable as tests for polysemy, but only as tests for homonymy. I look at the more fine-grained distinction between regular and irregular polysemy and I argue for a more nuanced conclusion: the tests under discussion provide systematic evidence for homonymy and irregular polysemy but need to be used with more care to test for regular polysemy. I put this conclusion at work in the context of the debate over the alleged referential-attributive ambiguity of the definite article. In reply to various criticisms, defenders of the ambiguity view argue that this is a case of polysemy. But opponents object that the dual use of the definite article fails tests for ambiguity. The debate seems to have come to stalemate, unless the relevance of the tests is determined for cases of alleged polysemy. I conclude that the balance of considerations incline towards rejecting the ambiguity thesis.
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Donnellan (1966) includes in his discussion cases of misdescription, in which the speaker has in mind and intends to talk about an object that does not satisfy the DD she uses. The use is still referential, but on Reimer’s (1998) and Devitt’s (2004, 2007) version of Referentialism the object is not the semantic referent of the DD. There are other versions of Referentialism, such as Marti’s (2008), which takes the intended object to be the semantic referent even if it does not satisfy the descriptive content uniquely.
Bach’s and Kripke’s arguments make use of empirical claims, which, although plausible, are not supported by empirical investigation. Thus, Elbourne’s (2013: 109) question is to the point: “And just how many languages has Bach surveyed in establishing his generalization? We are not told.”. In fact, Amaral (2008: 294–295) writes, it is not true that there are no languages that remove the ambiguity of the definite article: Amaral cites evidence concerning Malagasy, an Austronesian language, and Mönchengladbach, a Low Franconian dialect spoken in the northwest of Germany, where there are two definite articles, corresponding to the two uses.
Actually, Kripke (1977) goes a long a way towards acknowledging this point (although he does not explicitly mention the distinction between homonymy and polysemy): “The more we can explain relations among senses, and the more “natural” and “inevitable” the relationship, the more we will expect the different senses to be preserved in a wide variety of other languages” (1977: 275). However, Kripke does not formulate the polysemy hypothesis.
See the discussion in Sennet (2015: §4) concerning this point.
Sennet also notes that “the conjunction reduction test assumes that the following cannot serve as legitimate implicature cancellation: “Jim and Steve own bats, but Jim’s has wings and Steve’s is made of wood”” (Sennet 2002: 93).
One famous example of zeugma is Chomsky’s (1957) ‘Colorless green ideas sleep furiously’. The sentence is grammatically correct but nonsensical.
Although Sennet (2002) invokes the “conjunction and reduction test”, he in fact uses the version of the test designed for argument-taking expressions, i.e. “the argument coordination test”.
Sennet (2002: 87) and Koralus (2013: 283) both argue that the DD ‘the prince and queen’ could not be used attributively with respect to the prince. However, I do not find their arguments compelling. According to Sennet (2002: 87), an attributive use of ‘the prince’ “requires that there is a change of meaning” as between the first use of ‘the prince’ in (11), where it is used referentially, and the second use in (13). Sennet comments: “To posit any such inscrutable change of meaning is at best a desperate move. Desperate moves are a sign of a bad view” (2002: 87). But this argument is problematic: even if the use in (11) is referential and in (13) is attributive this does not mean there is a change in the meaning of the DD between the two sentences, given that at this point of the argument it cannot be assumed that DDs have two meanings. At this point we are only checking whether the cross interpretation is available. If it is, this is a reason to think it does not have two meanings. In turn, Koralus (2013: 283), who also discusses the example, takes ‘the prince’, when used referentially in (11), to be a misdescription of some individual in the palace that looked like a prince without being one, while there is no actual price. Consequently, he argues that if we were to interpret both ‘the prince’ and ‘<the> queen’ attributively, then (13) would turn out false, contrary to intuition. But if ‘the prince’ is a misdescription and there is no unique prince, then (13) is semantically false, according to both Russellians and most Referentialists (see also footnote 1). Cases of misdescriptions introduce further unnecessary complications, so it is better to leave them out of the discussion.
See the discusses in Gillon (2004) for the technical details.
Koralus (2013: 283) applies this test to DDs, but his example is rather cumbersome and involves intensional contexts, which introduce further complications (such as scope ambiguities) that I wish to avoid here.
Viebahn comment that the lack of zeugmaticity in (23) to (25) “presumably has to do with the fact that these cases involve polysemous target expressions and only subtle differences in meaning—differences that are hard to detect without careful reflection” (2018: 6). But, this cannot be the whole explanation, given the presence of zeugma in sentences (26) and (28). I come back to this point in Sect. 4.
As Vicente (2015: 58) writes, “In these cases (i.e. regular polysemy), non-zeugmatic co-predication is typically possible, as in ‘the book is heavy but very entertaining’”.
I leave out a discussion of the referential-attributive uses of pronouns and proper names for the reason that they are not determiner phrases.
See also the discussion of this proposal in Elbourne (2013: 110–112).
The truth-conditions resulting from the Gödelian completion are slightly different from those the Referentialist postulates in that the latter takes the semantic content to be Ga, and the presupposition to be that there is a unique x such that Fx and x = a. See Reimer (1998: 93) and Devitt (2004: 282).
See also Ruhl (1989: 97) for a discussion of the related distinction between semantics and pragmatic metonymy.
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Moldovan, A. Descriptions and Tests for Polysemy. Axiomathes 31, 229–249 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10516-019-09445-y