First, I quote Givon (2001, Chapter, p.303) directly for my question : The reference test for modality
One of the most sensitive cross-linguistic tests for modality involves the referential behavior of NPs under various modal scopes (see Ch. 10). For the purpose of applying this test, the four propositional modalities are grouped into two super-modalities:

  • Fact: presupposition and Realis-assertion;
  • Non-fact: Irrealis-assertion and Neg-assertion

The general prediction that one can make then is (Givón 1973b):

(40) Reference and propositional modality

  1. Under the scope of non-fact, NPs can be interpreted as either referring or non-referring.
  2. Under the scope of fact, NPs can only be interpreted as referring.

Consider the three possible types of nominals that can appear in a predicate-nominal construction:

A. Referring-definite (Ref-Def)

    (1) She’s the teacher I told you about yesterday.

B. Referring-indefinite (Ref-Indef)

    (2) She’s a teacher I’d like you to meet.

C. Non-referring (Non-Ref)

    (3) She’s a teacher. That’s what she does for a living.   

The three types of nominal predicates in (1-3) are set in different discourse contexts, respectively:

a. Ref-Def: The referent has already been identified.
b. Ref-Indef: The referent is being introduced for the first time.
c. Non-Ref: The nominal predicate is not used to refer to a particular individual (token), but rather to describe his/her/its inherent attributes (type).


I think the three example sentences (1-3) are corresponding to Fact modality above. According to explanation of (40), those three example should only be interpreted as referring. However, the author says example (3) indicates non-referring.

Isn't it contradictory to the notion of (40. 2)? or does it mean example (3) isn't Fact modality? I'm confused.

Additional Contents

Givon (2001, p.441-442)

  • 10.3.2 Reference and propositional modalities

    a. Fact: Presupposition
             R-assertion (realis)
    b. Non-fact: IRR-assertion (irrealis)
                 NEG-assertion (negation)

Since human discourse, most particularly everyday face-to-face communication, employ non-fact modalities much less frequently than fact modalities, it is possible to render (40) above more realistically as a markedness expression:

(13) Nominals may be interpreted non-referentially only if they are under the scope of some non-fact modality. Otherwise they must be interpreted referentially.
  • Reference and lexically-inherent modality

    (14) a. Fact-realis
            He has a dog
                (> a particular dog; Ref)
                (*> any dog; *Non-Ref)
        b. Irrealis
            He wants a dog
                (> a particular dog; Ref)
                (> any dog; Non-Ref)
        c. Negation
            He lacks a dog
                (> any dog; Non-Ref)
                (*a particular dog; *Ref)
    (15) a. Inherent irrealis verbs
             want, like, look for, dream of, think of, believe in
         b. Inherent negative verbs
             lack, refuse, decline, miss, fail
         c. Inherent presuppositional verbs
             know, forget, regret, be happy
  • I think your question is well-asked and also think that presupposition, (ir)realis assertion and neg.assertion make it rather unambiguous what the book understands by "facts" and "non-facts", but just to be sure in case it presupposes some unusual definitions, could you provide examples for these? Oct 12, 2016 at 14:56
  • @lemontree you mean the examples of "facts" and "non-facts" modality? I've added some additional contents of the book. Oct 18, 2016 at 7:44

2 Answers 2


Givon does seem a little unclear here. I think he needs to allow for the traditional predicate nominal. In "She is a teacher", "is a teacher" means "teaches" -- it's a predicate, not a reference.

In the other cases of non-referentials he's concerned with, a nominal which would ordinarily refer fails to refer to something in our real world because it's in a special context, but a predicate nominal doesn't refer at all. It predicates.

(Now, don't ask me about the reference of "it" in "She's a teacher, and it's a noble profession," or about "who" in "She's a teacher who loves her work.")

  • But he does allow for the traditional predicate nominal (in fact, he used the very same term in the quoted text...) To be honest, I'm not very sure about the difference between his position and yours. Could you clarify that a bit? Thanks! Jan 12, 2017 at 15:20
  • 1
    @WavesWashSands As the questiioner notes, Givon's (40) 2, "Under the scope of fact, NPs can only be interpreted as referring." is not true. In the simple example "She's a teacher" the context is factual, "a teacher" is a NP, yet it is not referring (as Givon himself later says). I'm not taking a different position -- I'm just saying that Givon is unclear. His (40) 2. needs to be modified.
    – Greg Lee
    Jan 12, 2017 at 18:06
  • But as I've noted above, Givón doesn't construe examples like (40) as being 'under the scope of fact'. What he means by that phrase is that something in addition to the unmarked clause is altering the mood of the sentence, such as a modal auxiliary verb, a modality verb, an implicative manipulative verb, etc. In the... context of the chapter, it's rather clear (at least to me when I was reading it). Jan 12, 2017 at 18:12
  • @WavesWashSands, Please give an example, then, of how a predicate nominal like "a teacher" in "She's a teacher" can be made referential by being brought "under the scope of fact". Evidently, I do not understand what you and Givon mean.
    – Greg Lee
    Jan 12, 2017 at 18:37
  • I've re-read the relevant section. The three sentences presented were not really examples of sentences to which the test can be applied; rather, they are intended to introduce his distinction between Ref-Def, Ref-Indef and Non-Ref, which are presented in greater detail in the next chapter. His tests for modal scope only apply to objects, and since 'a teacher' isn't an object, the tests don't aply. Jan 12, 2017 at 18:54

I think the most important part is this sentence:

One of the most sensitive cross-linguistic tests for modality involves the referential behavior of NPs under various modal scopes (see Ch. 10).

The canonical clause isn't construed as being under modal scopes:

The unmarked clause-type in language - the main, declarative, affirmative clause - has, by default, a realis modal status. As we have seen above, several grammatical or lexical operators can cast an irrealis, negation or presupposition modal scope over a main clause...

and the test therefore does not apply to it.

Edit: Givón also mentioned that verbs spread their modal scope over object NPs (p. 304). Since 'a teacher' is not an object, the test doesn't really look at it.

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