I was looking at indefinite noun phrases like 'a man' or specifically sentences of this form:

'If I were to bring a chicken home, my dog would try to eat it.

Why is it that 'a chicken' does not refer, yet we can later use 'it' to refer to the chicken that I would have bought home?

I understand giving a 'description' of what I could bring home, yet why can I use 'it' like a reference to something that I have not referenced?

I understand it is a requirement to speak of things in generality, but why can we do this?

  • 3
    A chicken introduces the animal into the discourse; once introduced, it is known material and can be referenced as such. You can even reference it before introducing it if you switch the clauses (“My dog would try to eat it if I brought home a chicken”), as long as the introduction is close enough. Dec 20, 2022 at 11:30
  • @JanusBahsJacquet does the fact there is no 'real' chicken affect anything, the fact it could be any chicken, and there is no 'denotation' of a real thing? When I begin saying 'the dog will eat it' do I introduce it as a hypothetical chicken?
    – Confused
    Dec 20, 2022 at 13:06
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    No, the fact that the situation is hypothetical makes no difference – hypothetical chickens are just as real as real chickens in terms of their availability as discourse material. In the cataphoric example, you’re creating an expectation in the listener’s mind that some discourse element will be referred to – a ‘slot’, as it were, which the listener then fills in with either an existing discourse element or the introduction of a new one. Dec 20, 2022 at 13:14
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Ok that makes sense thank you
    – Confused
    Dec 20, 2022 at 13:15
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    One of Postal's Linguistic Anarchy Notes concerns an alligator whose tail fell off, though it grew back. Postal goes on to give (iirc) the following example: His house burned to the ground, but he rebuilt it. Exactly what kind of reference do we have here? (incidentally, Postal's notes are in Notes from the Linguistic Underground)
    – jlawler
    Dec 20, 2022 at 18:14

1 Answer 1


Noun phrases don't have to refer to entities in the real world. This is why a phrase like "a unicorn" can still make sense, when unicorns do not exist in the real world.

"A chicken" here refers to a hypothetical chicken, in the fictional world of an if-then clause.

  • I guess my issue is 'if I had a chicken' is so indeterminate it almost seems like theres no particular hypothetical chicken either, it could be any chicken, but at the same time we could say 'it' is whichever chicken I bring.
    – Confused
    Dec 21, 2022 at 9:57
  • @Confused Exactly, it's the one particular hypothetical chicken that you decided to bring home in this fantasy.
    – Draconis
    Dec 21, 2022 at 17:44

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