Weak definites. Semantics, lexicon and pragmatics

A. Aguilar Guevara

Research output: ThesisDoctoral thesis 1 (Research UU / Graduation UU)


This dissertation studies definite noun phrases like (reading) the newspaper, (answering) the phone, and (going to) the hospital. They are called weak definites because, in contrast to regular definite phrases, they can occur in contexts where more than one individual satisfies their descriptive content. In addition, weak definites exhibit a number of other peculiar properties: resemblance with generic definites, restricted modification, discourse referential defectiveness, “sloppy identity” in VP-ellipsis sentences, “narrow scope” interpretations, typical occurrence in object position and limited capacity to occur as subjects of episodic sentences, meaning enrichment, restricted range of nouns, and restricted range of governing verbs (and verb-preposition combinations). The main contribution of this dissertation is a compositional analysis of the meaning of weak definites. The proposal is that these phrases refer to kinds of individuals, which are instantiated by ordinary individuals when the definites combine with object-level predicates. This combination is made possible by a lexical rule, which lifts object-level predicates to kind-level predicates, and incorporates into their denotation a relation representing the stereotypical usages of the kinds. The present analysis accounts for the special behavior of weak definites plus it makes a number of theoretical and empirical predictions. The first prediction is that only adjectives operating at the level of kinds should be able to occur in weak definite configurations. The second prediction is that only nouns designating objects used in a stereotypical way can occur in weak definites. The third prediction is that only verbs supporting these stereotypes can govern weak definites. The fourth prediction is that the meaning enrichment weak definite sentences display is partly truth- conditional. The last prediction is that weak definites are not able to establish discourse referents. This dissertation also aims to corroborate these predictions. The dissertation is organized in eight chapters. After an introduction, in Chapter 1, Chapter 2 characterizes weak definites in detail. Then, Chapter 3 presents a compositional analysis of weak definites. Chapter 4 then discusses some modification restrictions weak definites are subject to. Chapter 5 explores the lexical meaning of the nouns and verbs occurring in weak definite configurations. Chapter 6 discusses the semantic-pragmatic nature of the meaning enrichment exhibited by weak definite sentences. Chapter 7 then discusses the discourse referential properties of weak definites. Chapter 8 provides conclusions. This work constitutes a relevant contribution to the literature on definite phrases and weak referentiality. It should also be of interest to any linguist, language philosopher and psycholinguist studying the interpretation of various noun phrases, genericity, adjectives, meaning enrichment, and the lexical meaning of nouns.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Utrecht University
  • de Swart, Henriette, Primary supervisor
  • Everaert, Martin, Supervisor
  • Zwarts, Joost, Co-supervisor
Award date27 Jun 2014
Print ISBNs978-94-6093-142-0
Publication statusPublished - 27 Jun 2014


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