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Show full table of contents Specificity and non-specificity

Section has shown that indefinite noun phrases are typically used to introduce a new entity into domain D or to allow the speaker to be less specific than he could be. What we did not discuss is that an indefinite noun phrase like een concert'a concert' can have at least two readings: either it has a specific reading, in which case it refers to a certain identifiable concert, or it has a nonspecific reading in which case it may refer to just any entity that has the property of being a concert. In many contexts, these two readings are difficult to distinguish. Consider example (26). The speaker of this utterance may or may not know to which concert Jan will go next week: in the first case, the noun phrase een concert is specific, referring to a certain concert identifiable by the speaker but not by the addressee, and in the latter case it is nonspecific, referring to a concert that is not identifiable by either the speaker or the hearer.

Example 26
Jan gaat volgende week naar een concert.
  Jan goes  next week  to a concert

The distinction is rather vague in (26), but can be made clearer in other contexts. First, consider example (27a), which involves the modal verb willen'to want'. If we are dealing with a specific indefinite noun phrase, the speaker is actually claiming that there will be a concert next week, and that he wants to go there (what is called the de re reading in the semantic literature). So, a natural continuation of the discourse would be the assertion that the speaker will try to get a ticket, as in (27b). If we are dealing with a nonspecific noun phrase, on the other hand, the speaker is not claiming to go to any particular concert and may not even know whether there actually is a concert next week (this is called the de dicto reading in the semantic literature), and he could continue by saying that he will have a look whether something interesting is going to take place next week, as in (27b').

Example 27
a. Ik wil volgende week naar een concert.
  want  next week  to a concert
  'I want to go to a concert next week.'
b. Ik zal morgen een kaartje kopen.
  will  tomorrow  a ticket  buy
  'Iʼll buy a ticket tomorrow.'
b'. Even kijken of ik iets leuks kan vinden.
  just  look  whether  something nice  can  find
  'Letʼs see whether I can find something nice.'

      Other contexts in which the two readings of indefinite noun phrases can be easily distinguished involve universal quantification. Consider example (28), which involves the universally quantified time adverb altijd'always'. If we are dealing with a nonspecific indefinite noun phrase, the sentence expresses that the meadow always has one horse or another in it. If the noun phrase is specific, on the other hand, it is always the same horse that is in the meadow.

Example 28
Er staat altijd een paard in de wei.
  there  stands  always  a horse  in the meadow
'There is always a horse in the meadow.'

      The difference between the specific and nonspecific reading has been given several treatments in the literature. The more or lesss traditional one describes the difference in terms of scope interactions (e.g., May 1985). It is assumed that the indefinite article is actually an existential operator, and that the ambiguity that arises is due to the fact that this operator may take different scopes with respect to the modal/universal operator expressed by the modal verb or universally quantified expression. The specific reading arises if the existential operator expressed by the indefinite article takes scope over the other operator in the sentence, as in the (a)-examples in (29); the nonspecific reading arises if the existential operator is within the scope of the other operator, as in the (b)-examples.

Example 29
a. ∃x (concert (x) & Jan wants to go to x next week)
a'. ∃x (horse (x) & ∀t (x is in the meadow at time t))
b. Jan wants: ∃x (concert (x) & Jan goes to x next week)
b'. ∀t ∃x (horse (x) & x is in the meadow at time t)

According to others (e.g., Hornstein 1984), the difference is not related to the scope taking properties of the existential quantifier but to the nature of the noun phrase itself. If the noun phrase is nonspecific, it acts like an existential quantifier in the scope of the modal/universal operator, just as indicated in (29b&b'). If it is specific, on the other hand, it does not behave as an operator but as a constant, that is, a specific indefinite noun phrase like een paard actually behaves on a par with a noun phrase like een zeker paard'a certain horse'. Here, we will not go any further into discussing what the proper semantic treatment of the ambiguity of indefinite noun phrases is.
      To conclude this section, note that, although definite noun phrases normally refer to a specific entity in domain D, they occasionally allow two readings comparable to the specific and nonspecific readings of indefinite noun phrases. This is especially the case with noun phrases like de president van de VS'the president of the USA' in example (30), the reference of which changes over time: this definite noun phrase may simply refer to a certain person who happens to be the president of the USA at the time of utterance (the specific, de re reading), but example (30) is also felicitous in case elections are being held at the time of utterance, so that is not clear who will be the president of the USA next year (the nonspecific de dicto reading).

Example 30
De president van de VS zal Nederland volgend jaar bezoeken.
  the president of the USA  will  the.Netherlands  next year  visit
'The president of the USA will visit the Netherlands next year.'

Something similar holds for examples such as (31). The specific reading of the definite noun de bus phrase arises in contexts where the speaker may expect the addressee to be able to identify the specific bus he is speaking about, e.g., if the speaker comes from A and there is just one bus going from A to B. This example is, however, also possible with a nonspecific interpretation of the definite noun phrase de bus, which may arise in contexts where the addressee cannot be assumed to be able to identify the actual bus that the speaker took, e.g., when there are twelve buses an hour that go from A to B or when there are buses taking different routes; in examples like these, the definite noun phrase is used to refer to a means of transport; see Section for more cases such as this.

Example 31
Ik ben met de bus gekomen.
  am  with  the bus  come
'I came with the bus/by bus.'
  • Hornstein, Norbert1984Logic as grammarCambridge, MAMIT Press
  • May, Robert1985Logical form: its structure and derivationLinguistic inquiry monographs 12Cambridge, MAMIT Press
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