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Three arguments for an individual concept analysis of specificational sentences

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Higgins (1973) famously distinguished between predicational and specificational interpretations of copular sentences. Since then, the literature has debated whether specificational interpretations exist and, if so, what they are. This paper contributes to this debate by providing three new arguments for recognizing specificational interpretations, and against the view, prevalent in the syntactic literature, that sentences with allegedly specificational readings actually involve predicational readings and a structure of predicate inversion. Our arguments support Romero’s (2005) analysis of specificational readings as involving individual concepts. Our discussion also demonstrates that the question of the semantics of specification is entirely independent of the question of whether the syntax of specification involves inversion or not.

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  1. The distinction also applies to so-called pseudocleft constructions, such as What she heard was an insult, which have also been claimed, by Higgins and others, to have specificational as well as predicational readings. Pseudoclefts bring in structural and interpretational complications that merit bracketing them, and we leave them outside the scope of this paper.

  2. All the data in this paper have been checked with native speakers of English.

  3. Higgins does not consider quantification. For him, a predicational interpretation of any sentence (copular or not) is one in which the surface subject refers (or perhaps is used to refer) to something, and the surface predicate does not refer (or is not used to refer) to anything, but rather attributes, or is used to attribute, a property to the referent of the surface subject.

  4. A third analysis assigns specificational sentences an equative interpretation, expressing identity between two terms of the same semantic type. One version of this analysis views the pre- and post-copular noun phrases as referential (Heycock and Kroch 19992002; Rothstein 2001). Mikkelsen (2005:64–93) convincingly argues against this analysis, and we do not entertain it here. As discussed in Mikkelsen (2005:61–62), her arguments are broadly compatible with the individual concept analysis.

  5. For example, the referent of the president of the US in the world and time of our writing this paper is not the same individual it would have been if US election results reflected the popular vote.

  6. In a different type of predicate inversion analysis, the surface position of the pre-copular nominal in a specificational sentence is due to A′-movement (Heggie 1988). See Heycock (1991:171–173), Rothstein (2001:258–259) and Mikkelsen (2005:6–40) for arguments that the pre-copular position of this nominal is not an A′-position, but the same position as preverbal subjects in at least English and Danish.

  7. Identificational sentences should not be confused with equative sentences, which, as mentioned in fn. 4, involve two arguments of the same semantic type.

  8. We thank an anonymous reviewer for raising this issue.

  9. For reasons we do not understand, coordination of this type is not always possible, as in *The winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature is Toni Morrison and is selected by a committee.

  10. The temperature paradox, first discussed by Montague (1973), is the name of the invalid inference from the temperature is 90 and the temperature is rising to 90 is rising.

  11. In order to test this claim, we use examples with strong indefinite NPs (such as partitives) as specificational subjects, as this type of nominal meets several requirements imposed on the test. First, we need quantified NPs, in order to check their scope with respect to negation. Second, since one of the accounts we compare here is the predicate inversion analysis, this NP also needs to be a possible predicate in predicational copular sentences. Third, as discussed, among others, in Mikkelsen (2005), indefinites are interpreted as strong in specificational subject position.

  12. The sentence is pragmatically odd because of the implicature that every other judge in this trial is Kim. This follows precisely from the fact that the subject scopes over negation.

  13. In this context, the specificational continuation would be appropriate if in the last five years, Bolt won all three medals, but not this year, and the predicational continuation would be appropriate if in the last five years, Bolt won at least one medal, but he didn’t win any this year.

  14. As above, we abstract away from partitivity.

  15. Another component of the meaning is that 3.99 is low on the scale of prices. We abstract away from this in our analysis.

  16. This is also the case under the individual concept analysis. However, the denotation of the VP in (50) is the same whether only attaches to VP or directly to 3.99, so this does not alter the predictions of the analysis.

  17. The denotation assumed for the VP is the same as the VP in One of the prices is 3.99 under the predicate inversion analysis, but modified by scalar only (which introduces the second conjunct in the denotation). It is immaterial for our purposes how this is done compositionally.


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We would like to thank Caroline Heycock and the audience at Sinn und Bedeutung 18 in Gasteiz for helpful feedback on this work.

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Correspondence to Karlos Arregi, Itamar Francez or Martina Martinović.

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Arregi, K., Francez, I. & Martinović, M. Three arguments for an individual concept analysis of specificational sentences. Nat Lang Linguist Theory 39, 687–708 (2021).

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