Do common nouns have any singular 'denotation' or do all of them denote entirely contextually? For example in 'a car' is 'car' denoting a type of object and the entire phrase describing an object of that type?

Do singular words like 'king' denote a specific role/office? Is there any rule for the denotation of common nouns after determiners?

Taking any philosophical views out of it, is there any lingusitic rules on the denotation of common nouns, or is it simply that they can be used to describe and may denote contextually a real object, for example in:

'men entered the room'

If I take the word 'man' does this have any particular denotation other than we use it to discuss real things of that type?

1 Answer 1


The typical assumption is that common nouns denote a set of individuals, namely all those which satisfy the predicate in the given situation. E.g. the denotation of "king" in the real world right now is {King Charles III of GB, King Carl XVI. Gustav of Sweden, King Felipe VI. of Spain, King Vajiralongkorn of Thailand, ...}. (Note that the denotation is supposed to contain the real humans, not just names, I just can't put the real king Charles into an SE post so I have to resort to using words.) Similarly, "man" denotes the set of all real, concrete adult male humans.

Determiners such as "a", "the" or the empty indefinite plural determiner as in "men entered the room" then combine with these nouns to form phrases which have an open slot to plug in a predicate that also denotes a set of individuals (typically a verb, like "walks"), which results in a sentence that is true if a certain relation between the two predicates (as expressed by the determiner, e.g. there is at least one individual which is a member of both sets) holds. The details of this are too long for an SE post; I recommend E. Coppock & L. Champollion's Semantics Boot Camp, ch. 6.3 (Quantifiers) for further reading.

  • Do you mean that the denotation of "man" right now is the set of all real, concrete adult male humans (bad example since "man" also denotes "human", but whatever)? And the denotation of "man" a month ago was a slightly different set?
    – user6726
    Jan 23, 2023 at 23:19
  • Yes, that's correct. Jan 23, 2023 at 23:23
  • Note that this presupposes the Axiom of Choice, which is independent.
    – jlawler
    Jan 24, 2023 at 18:36
  • @jlawler Why would that be? Jan 24, 2023 at 18:39
  • 1
    A man does not denote a set, but rather a member chosen from the set. It's only the generic noun that denotes a set.
    – jlawler
    Jan 24, 2023 at 18:47

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