Definiteness and determinacy


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.


  1. 1.

    Aguilar-Guevara, A., & Zwarts, J. (2010). Weak definites and reference to kinds. In Proceedings of SALT 20, eLanguage (pp. 179–196)

  2. 2.

    Barker C. (1995) Possessive descriptions. CSLI Publications, Stanford

    Google Scholar 

  3. 3.

    Barker, C. (2004). Possessive weak definites. In Y. Kim, Y. Lander, & B. H. Partee (Eds.), Possessives and beyond: Semantics and syntax (pp. 89–113). Amherst: GSLA Publications

  4. 4.

    Barwise J., Cooper R. (1981) Generalized quantifiers and natural language. Linguistics and Philosophy 4: 159–219

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. 5.

    Beaver, D. (1992). The kinematics of presupposition. In P. Dekker & M. Stokhof (Eds.), Proceedings of the eighth Amsterdam colloquium (pp. 17–36). Amsterdam: ILLC, University of Amsterdam

  6. 6.

    Beaver, D. (1994). When variables don’t vary enough. In M. Harvey & L. Santelmann (Eds.), Proceedings of SALT IV (pp. 35–60). Ithaca: Cornell University

  7. 7.

    Beaver D.I., Clark B.Z. (2008) Sense and sensitivity: How focus determines meaning. Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester

    Google Scholar 

  8. 8.

    Beaver D., Krahmer E. (2001) A partial account of presupposition projection. Journal of Logic, Language and Information 10: 147–182

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. 9.

    Beaver, D., & Zeevat, H. (2007). Accommodation. In The Oxford handbook of linguistic interfaces (pp. 503–539). Oxford: Oxford University Press

  10. 10.

    Carlson, G. N., Sussman, R., Klein, N., & Tannenhaus, M. (2006). Weak definite noun phrases. In C. Davis, A. R. Deal, & Y. Zabal (Eds.), Proceedings of NELS 36 (pp. 179–196). Amherst: GSLA, University of Massachusetts

  11. 11.

    Chierchia G. (1998) Reference to kinds across languages. Natural Language Semantics, 6: 339–405

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. 12.

    Cooper, R. (1978). Variable binding and relative clauses. In F. Guenthner & S. J. Schmidt (Eds.), Formal semantics and pragmatics for natural languages (pp. 131–170). Dordrecht: Reidel

  13. 13.

    Cooper, R. (2013). Update conditions and intensionality in a type-theoretic approach to dialogue semantics. In R. Fernández & A. Isard (Eds.), Proceedings of SemDial 2013, University of Amsterdam (pp. 15–24).

  14. 14.

    Coppock, E., & Beaver, D. (2011). Sole sisters. In N. Ashton, A. Chereches, & D. Lutz (Eds.), Proceedings of semantics and linguistic theory (SALT) 21, eLanguage (pp. 197–217). Newark: Rutgers University

  15. 15.

    Coppock, E., & Beaver, D. (2012a). Exclusivity, uniqueness, and definiteness. In C. Piñón (Ed.), Empirical Issues in Syntax and Semantics 9. Published online at

  16. 16.

    Coppock, E., & Beaver, D. (2012b). Weak uniqueness: The only difference between definites and indefinites. In A. Chereches (Ed.), Proceedings of semantics and linguistic theory (SALT) 22 (pp. 527–544). Ithaca, NY: CLC Publications

  17. 17.

    Coppock E., Beaver D. (2014) Principles of the exclusive muddle. Journal of Semantics 31(3): 371–432

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. 18.

    Dayal V. (2004) Number marking and (in)definiteness in kind terms. Linguistics and Philosophy 27: 393–450

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. 19.

    Donnellan K.S. (1966) Reference and definite descriptions. The Philosophical Review 75: 281–304

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. 20.

    Doron, E. (1983). Verbless predicates in Hebrew. PhD Thesis, University of Texas at Austin

  21. 21.

    Elbourne P. (2005) Situations and individuals. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  22. 22.

    Elbourne P. (2012) Definite descriptions. Clarendon Press, Oxford

    Google Scholar 

  23. 23.

    Fara, D. G. (2001). Descriptions as predicates. Philosophical Studies, 102, 1–42. (Originally published under the name “Delia Graff”)

  24. 24.

    Fara D. G. (2015) Names are predicates. Philosophical Review 124(1): 59–117

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. 25.

    Frege, G. (1892). [reprinted 1948]). Sense and reference. The Philosophical Review, 57(3), 209–230

  26. 26.

    Gendler Szabó Z. (2000) Descriptions and uniqueness. Philosophical Studies 101: 29–57

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. 27.

    Geurts B. (1999) Presuppositions and pronouns. Elsevier, Oxford

    Google Scholar 

  28. 28.

    Geurts B., van der Sandt R. (2004) Interpreting focus. Theoretical Linguistics 30(1): 1–44

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. 29.

    Glanzberg M. (2007) Definite descriptions and quantifier scope: Some Mates cases reconsidered. European Journal of Analytic Philosophy 3(2): 133–158

    Google Scholar 

  30. 30.

    Grice, H. P. (1981). Presupposition and conversational implicature. In P. Cole (Ed.), Radical pragmatics (pp. 183–198). New York: Academic Press

  31. 31.

    Haug, D. (2013). Partial dynamic semantics for anaphora: Compositionality without syntactic coindexation. Journal of Semantics (online first)

  32. 32.

    Heim, I. (1982). The semantics of definite and indefinite noun phrases. PhD Thesis, University of Massachusetts at Amherst

  33. 33.

    Heim, I. (1983). On the projection problem for presuppositions. In D. Flickinger, M. Barlow, & M. Westcoat (Eds.), Proceedings of the second West Coast conference on formal linguistics (pp. 114–125). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press

  34. 34.

    Heim, I. (1991). Artikel und Definitheit. In A. von Stechow & D. Wunderlich (Eds.), Semantik: Ein internationales Handbuch der zeitgenössischen Forschung (pp. 487–535). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter

  35. 35.

    Heim I., Kratzer A. (1998) Semantics in generative grammar. Blackwell, Oxford

    Google Scholar 

  36. 36.

    Hendriks H (1993). Studied flexibility: Categories and types in syntax and semantics. PhD Thesis, Universiteit van Amsterdam

  37. 37.

    Hoeksema, J. (1988). The semantics of non-boolean and. Journal of Semantics, 6, 19–40

  38. 38.

    Horn, L., & Abbott, B. (2002). <the, a>: (In)definiteness and implicature. In W. Kabasenche, M. O’Rourke, & M. Slater (Eds.), Reference and referring (pp. 325–355). Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press

  39. 39.

    Isaacs J., Rawlins K. (2008) Conditional questions. Journal of Semantics 25(3): 269–319

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. 40.

    Kadmon, N. (1987). On unique and non-unique reference and asymmetric quantification. PhD Thesis, University of Massachusetts at Amherst

  41. 41.

    Kamp, H. (2001). The importance of presupposition. In C. Rohrer, A. Roßdeutscher, & H. Kamp (Eds.), Linguistic form and its computation (pp. 207–254). Stanford, CA: CSLI Publications

  42. 42.

    Kaplan, D. (1977). Demonstratives: An essay on the semantics, logic, metaphysics, and epistemology of demonstratives and other indexicals. In J. P. Almog & H. Wettstein (Eds.), Themes from Kaplan (pp. 267–298). Oxford: Oxford University Press

  43. 43.

    Karttunen L. (1974) Presuppositions and linguistic context. Theoretical Linguistics 1: 181–194

    Article  Google Scholar 

  44. 44.

    Karttunen, L. (1976). Discourse referents. In J. D. McCawley (Ed.), Notes from the linguistic underground. Syntax and Semantics (Vol. 7, pp. 363–385). New York: Academic Press

  45. 45.

    Kripke S.A. (2011) Philosophical troubles: Collected papers. Oxford University Press, Oxford

    Google Scholar 

  46. 46.

    Landman F. (2004) Indefinites and the type of sets. Blackwell, Malden, MA

    Google Scholar 

  47. 47.

    Lasersohn P. (1993) Existence presuppositions and background knowledge. Journal of Semantics 10: 113–122

    Article  Google Scholar 

  48. 48.

    Löbner S. (1985) Definites. Journal of Semantics 4: 279–326

    Article  Google Scholar 

  49. 49.

    Löbner S. (2011) Concept types and determination. Journal of Semantics 28: 279–333

    Article  Google Scholar 

  50. 50.

    Mates B. (1973) Descriptions and reference. Foundations of Language 10: 409–418

    Google Scholar 

  51. 51.

    Matushansky O. (2008) On the linguistic complexity of proper names. Linguistics and Philosophy 21: 573–627

    Article  Google Scholar 

  52. 52.

    McNally, L. (1992). An interpretation for the English existential construction. PhD Thesis, UC Santa Cruz

  53. 53.

    McNally L. (1998) Existential sentences without existential quantification. Linguistics and Philosophy 21: 353–392

    Article  Google Scholar 

  54. 54.

    Moltmann F. (1997) Intensional verbs and quantifiers. Natural Language Semantics 5: 1–52

    Article  Google Scholar 

  55. 55.

    Montague, R. (1974). The proper treatment of quantification in ordinary English. In R. H. Thomason (Ed.), Formal philosophy (pp. 247–270). New Haven: Yale University Press

  56. 56.

    Muskens R. (1995) Meaning and partiality. CSLI Publications, Stanford, CA

    Google Scholar 

  57. 57.

    Muskens R. (1996) Combining Montague semantics and discourse representation. Linguistics and Philosophy 19: 143–186

    Article  Google Scholar 

  58. 58.

    Neale S. (1990) Descriptions. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA

    Google Scholar 

  59. 59.

    Nelson, M. (2012). Existence. In E. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy.

  60. 60.

    Oliver A., Smiley T. (2013) Plural logic. Oxford University Press, Oxford

    Google Scholar 

  61. 61.

    Partee, B. H. (1986). Noun phrase interpretation and type-shifting principles. In J. Groenendijk, D. de Jongh, & M. Stokhof (Eds.), Studies in discourse representation theory and the theory of generalized quantifiers (pp. 115–143). Dordrecht: Foris

  62. 62.

    Partee, B., & Borschev, V. (2003). Genitives, relational nouns, and argument-modifier ambiguity. In E. Lang, C. Maienborn, & C. Fabricius-Hansen (Eds.), Modifying adjuncts (pp. 67–112). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter

  63. 63.

    Percus, O. (2006). Antipresuppositions. In A. Ueyama (Ed.), Theoretical and empirical studies of reference and anaphora: Toward the establishment of generative grammar as an empirical science (pp. 52–73). Tokyo: Japan Society for the Promotion of Science

  64. 64.

    Peters S. (1979) A truth-conditional formulation of Karttunen’s account of presupposition. Synthese 40(2): 301–316

    Article  Google Scholar 

  65. 65.

    Peters S., Westerståhl D. (2013) The semantics of possessives. Language 89(4): 713–759

    Article  Google Scholar 

  66. 66.

    Poesio, M. (1994). Weak definites. In M. Harvey & L. Santelmann (Eds.), Proceedings of the fourth conference on semantics and linguistic theory. Ithaca: CLC Publications

  67. 67.

    Rawlins, K. (2005). Possessive definites and the definite article. UCSC Qualifying Paper

  68. 68.

    Rawlins, K. (2006). Possessive antecedents to donkey pronouns. In D. Baumer, D. Montero, & M. Scanlon (Eds.), Proceedings of the 25th West Coast conference on formal linguistics (pp. 337–345). Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Press

  69. 69.

    Reinhart T. (1997) Quantifier scope: How labor is divided between QR and choice functions. Linguistics and Philosophy 20: 335–397

    Article  Google Scholar 

  70. 70.

    Roberts C. (1989) Modal subordination and pronominal anaphora in discourse. Linguistics and Philosophy 12: 683–721

    Article  Google Scholar 

  71. 71.

    Roberts, C. (1996). Information structure in discourse: Towards an integrated formal theory of pragmatics. In J. H. Yoon & A. Kathol (Eds.), OSU Working Papers in Linguistics 49: Papers in Semantics (pp. 91–136). Columbus: The Ohio State University

  72. 72.

    Russell B. (1905) On denoting. Mind 14: 479–493

    Article  Google Scholar 

  73. 73.

    Schlenker P. (2012) Maximize Presupposition and Gricean reasoning. Natural Language Semantics 20(4): 391–429

    Article  Google Scholar 

  74. 74.

    Schoubye A.J. (2009) Descriptions, truth value intuitions, and questions. Linguistics and Philosophy 32(6): 583–617

    Article  Google Scholar 

  75. 75.

    Schoubye, A. J. (2014). Type-ambiguous names. Ms., University of Edinburgh

  76. 76.

    Schwarz, F. (2012). How weak and how definite are weak definites? Ms., University of Pennsylvania

  77. 77.

    Stalnaker, R. (1978). Assertion. In P. Cole (Ed.), Syntax and semantics (Vol. 9, pp. 315–332). New York: Academic Press

  78. 78.

    Strawson P.F. (1950) On referring. Mind 59(235): 320–344

    Article  Google Scholar 

  79. 79.

    Strawson P. (1964) Identifying reference and truth-values. Theoria 30(2): 96–118

    Article  Google Scholar 

  80. 80.

    Thomason, R. (1990). Accommodation, meaning, and implicature: Interdisciplinary foundations for pragmatics. In P. Cohen, J. Morgan, & M. Pollack (Eds.), Intentions in communication (pp. 326–363). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

  81. 81.

    van der Sandt R.A. (1992) Presupposition projection as anaphora resolution. Journal of Semantics 9: 333–377

    Article  Google Scholar 

  82. 82.

    Vikner C., Jensen P.A. (2002) A semantic analysis of the English genitive: Interaction of lexical and formal semantics. Studia Linguistica 56: 191–226

    Article  Google Scholar 

  83. 83.

    von Fintel, K. (2004). Would you believe it? The king of France is back! (Presuppositions and truth-value intuitions). In A. Bezuidenhout & M. Reimer (Eds.), Descriptions and beyond (pp. 315–342). Oxford: Oxford University Press

  84. 84.

    von Heusinger K. (1997) Definite descriptions and choice functions. Logic, Language and Computation 5: 61–91

    Article  Google Scholar 

  85. 85.

    Wang, L., & McCready, E. (2005). Testing predicative definite descriptions. Ms., National Chung Cheng University and Osaka University

  86. 86.

    Winter Y. (2001) Flexibility principles in Boolean semantics. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA

    Google Scholar 

  87. 87.

    Zimmermann T.E. (1993) On the proper treatment of opacity in certain verbs. Natural Language Semantics 1(2): 149–179

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to David Beaver.

Additional information

The appendix is dedicated to Robin Cooper, who once wistfully expressed to the first author a wish that people still did fragments these days.

Rights and permissions

Open Access This 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.

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Coppock, E., Beaver, D. Definiteness and determinacy. Linguist and Philos 38, 377–435 (2015).

Download citation


  • Definiteness
  • Descriptions
  • Possessives
  • Predicates
  • Type-shifting