Varieties of specification: Redefining over-and under-specification

Guanyi Chen, Kees van Deemter

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


A long tradition of research in theoretical, experimental and computational pragmatics has investigated over-specification and under-specification in referring expressions. Along broadly Gricean lines, these studies compare the amount of information expressed by a referring expression against the amount of information that is required. Often, however, these studies offer no formal definition of what “required” means, and how the comparison should be performed. In this paper, we use a simple set-theoretic perspective to define some communicatively important types of over-/under-specification. We argue that our perspective enables an enhanced understanding of reference phenomena that can pay important dividends for the analysis of reference in corpora and for the evaluation of computational models of referring. To illustrate and substantiate our claims, we analyse two corpora, containing Chinese and English referring expressions respectively, using the new perspective. The results show that interesting new monolingual and cross-linguistic insights can be obtained from our perspective.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)21-42
Number of pages22
JournalJournal of Pragmatics
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2023


  • Referring expressions
  • Over-specification
  • Under-specification


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