May I have an example of a language which separately marks definiteness and specificity (or indefiniteness and non-specificity), and also a principled way for deciding which of the two sets of terms is appropriate in description?


1 Answer 1


I wrote a paper about these topics, among others, many years ago, which was translated into French before being published (in Langages 48, 1976).

Here's the original English MS and the French translation of "Quelques Problèmes de Référence", aka "Some Problems of Reference".

The OP has added this material summarized from the cited paper:

NP's in English which are marked as indefinite can be ambiguous for specificity. The example given in the paper is that the phrase "I'm looking for a policeman" is ambiguous between two readings:

  1. I'm looking for a policeman, but I can't find him. (specific)
  2. I'm looking for a policeman, but I can't find one. (non-specific)

Specific indefinites are associated with specific instantiations of a referring phrase (in addition to lexical and definitional information), while non-specific indefinites are only associated with lexical or definitional information associated with referring phrase.

  • I like reading something in French every now and then ;-) thanks.
    – user483
    Mar 23, 2012 at 2:42
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    Is it possible to have a summary (in the context of the question), for the sake of the readers? Like if there are example languages, or how to distinguish the two sets of terms?
    – Louis Rhys
    Mar 23, 2012 at 15:57
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    In English specific and non-specific indefinite NPs are distinguished in syntax, though not morphology. E.g, I'm looking for a policeman, but I can't find him/one; him is used for the specific, and one for the non-specific. The paper goes into the interactions of these categories, among others.
    – jlawler
    Mar 23, 2012 at 17:39
  • As for some principled ways to distinguish them, and lots of examples, I'd recommend pp 71-78 of Frawley's Linguistic Semantics, which is what's listed in the index under Definiteness, versus Specificity.
    – jlawler
    Mar 23, 2012 at 17:42

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