Linguistics and Philosophy

, Volume 38, Issue 5, pp 377–435

Definiteness and determinacy

Open Access
Research Article

DOI: 10.1007/s10988-015-9178-8

Cite this article as:
Coppock, E. & Beaver, D. Linguist and Philos (2015) 38: 377. doi:10.1007/s10988-015-9178-8


This paper distinguishes between definiteness and determinacy. Definiteness is seen as a morphological category which, in English, marks a (weak) uniqueness presupposition, while determinacy consists in denoting an individual. Definite descriptions are argued to be fundamentally predicative, presupposing uniqueness but not existence, and to acquire existential import through general type-shifting operations that apply not only to definites, but also indefinites and possessives. Through these shifts, argumental definite descriptions may become either determinate (and thus denote an individual) or indeterminate (functioning as an existential quantifier). The latter option is observed in examples like ‘Anna didn’t give the only invited talk at the conference’, which, on its indeterminate reading, implies that there is nothing in the extension of ‘only invited talk at the conference’. The paper also offers a resolution of the issue of whether possessives are inherently indefinite or definite, suggesting that, like indefinites, they do not mark definiteness lexically, but like definites, they typically yield determinate readings due to a general preference for the shifting operation that produces them.


Definiteness Descriptions Possessives Predicates Type-shifting 
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© The Author(s) 2015

Open AccessThis article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made.

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of Gothenburg and Swedish Collegium for Advanced StudyUppsalaSweden
  2. 2.The University of Texas at AustinAustinUSA

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