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enter image description here https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Privative_adjective

Is "non-existent" a privative adjective like "imaginary", "fictional", "hypothetical", etc.?

  • In view of what I wrote below, I doubt that the list of privative adjectives that you cite is correct. A deputy speaker is a speaker, right? An artificial strawberry flavour is a strawberry flavour...
    – Alazon
    Commented Nov 30, 2023 at 10:38

1 Answer 1


A very intriguing question, but it might not have a definitive answer. The following is my opinion, and not a definitive answer.

First of all, note that people are often unsure about the concept of a "privative adjective", i.e. unsure of how to apply its theoretical definition. Kamp & Partee (Prototype theory and compositionality, Cognition 57, 1995) write (p. 138):

Among the non-subsective adjectives we might further distinguish the subclass of "private" adjectives, those for which an instance of the adjective + noun combination is never an instance of the noun alone. The adjectives conterfeit and fake are of this sort, at least if it is agreed that a fake gun is not a gun, while alleged is not, since an alleged gangster, for instance, may or may not be a gangster. For some non-subsective adjectives it is not completely clear whether they are privative or not, and even the case of fake is not uncontroversial.

In other words, contrary to first appearances, "a fake gun" may be argued to be a gun, because the concept of a gun could be taken in a looser sense (something that has the appearance of, or the use of a gun, just maybe not all the usual properties of a gun).

For another thing: the crucial criterion, the statement "x is not an N", is very coarse, because usually a proposition is true if something is an N at a particular time in some possible world. So, "a former senator" is not simply "not a senator", but it is someone who has been a senator at some time, just not at the time your sentence is about. You cannot judge most statements without a specified time, that will be an incomplete statement without a truth value. Privative adjectives might be adjectives that do not so much deny the statement "x is N" but shift it to a different time or possible world.

And the possible worlds are a tricky issue: what do you do with a statement like "He is talking to imaginary friends – all these people just don't exist." ? Note that you can say: "there are people in his imagination, who..." So there is a huge philosophical difficulty in what it means "to be non-existent". And to me, it seems that this difficulty makes the concept "privative" useless in this context. In applying the definition, you have to judge the implication

IF "x is a [non-existent friend]" is true THEN "x is a friend" is false.

But both sides of the implication suffer from the same problem: where do you find that individual x? As I see it, the whole implication is situated in some possible world, and in isolation I don't know how to determine the truth or falsity of the predication. My conclusion would be that the concept of a privative adjective is not as useful as it first appears.

The closest I can get to an answer is to say: "given that you are already assuming such an individual x, then x will be a friend, because that is no more unreal than your initial assumptions". But that's also counterintuitive, isn't it. It might follow that "non-existent" is not reasonably to be called "privative", but that does not mean it is one of the normal, intersective or subsective adjectives either. So what :)

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