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Weak definites refer to kinds

Ana Aguilar Guevara et Joost Zwarts
p. 33-60


Cet article présente une analyse des définis faibles (comme répondre au téléphone) introduits par Carlson et Sussman (2005). On y défend l’idée que les définis faibles font référence à des espèces, qui s’instancient dans des individus ordinaires quand ils se combinent avec des prédicats de type object-level. Cette composition est rendue possible par une règle lexicale qui change les prédicats de type object-level en prédicats de type kind-level et qui incorpore à leur dénotation un prédicat qui reflète les usages stéréotypiques de ces espèces. Cette analyse permet de rendre compte de la plupart des propriétés caractéristiques des définis faibles.

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This research is supported by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO, 360-70-340). We would like to thank Peter Bosch, Seth Cable, Greg Carlson, Maria Cieschinger, Chuck Clifton, Berit Gehrke, Bart Geurts, Jesse Harris, Lyn Fraizer, Louise McNally, Rick Nouwen, Barbara Partee, Jolien Scholten, Florian Schwarz, the members of the Weak Referentiality project: Martin Everaert, Ellen-Petra Kester, Bert Le Bruyn, Maartje Schulpen, and Henriëtte de Swart, the audiences of the conferences Weak Referentiality and Definitude, SALT 20, and the participants of the Semantics Group UiL OTS, the Linguistics Meeting of the University of Osnabrück, the Semantics and Pragmatics Colloquium of Radboud University Nijmegen, and the GLiF Seminar of Pompeu Fabra University for very helpful discussions. We also thank Tikitu de Jager for proofreading this manuscript, and Víctor Breña for his help with LATEX formatting. Of course, the usual disclaimers apply.

1. Introduction

1Weak definites, like to answer the phone, to take the train and to go to the hospital, are definites that do not refer to uniquely identifiable individuals (Carlson and Sussman 2005). Consequently, they felicitously describe contexts in which more than one entity satisfies their descriptive content. For example, sentence (1) is an accurate summary of a situation in which Lola traveled by train from Amsterdam to Nijmegen and made a transfer halfway (i.e. she took two trains, one from Amsterdam to Utrecht and another one from Utrecht from Nijmegen):


Lola took the train from Amsterdam to Nijmegen

2Another consequence of the lack of uniqueness is that weak definites (2a), in contrast to regular definites (2b), display sloppy identity in elliptical contexts. From now on, we use the symbol # to indicate when a definite does not receive any weak reading:



Lola went to the hospital and Alice did too.

(Lola and Alice could have gone to different hospitals)


Lola went to #the hotel and Alice did too.

(Lola and Alice must have gone to the same hotel)

3In addition to non-unique reference and sloppy identity, weak definites display the following special properties (also originally described by Carlson and Sussman 2005). First, they receive ‘narrow scope’ interpretations when they interact with quantified expressions:



Every boxer was sent to the hospital.

(Each boxer could have been sent to a different hospital)


Every boxer was sent to #the hotel.

(All the boxers were sent to the same hotel)

4Second, weak definites display lexical restrictions: not every noun can occur in a weak definite configuration (4) and not every verb can govern a weak definite (5).



Martha listened to the radio.


Martha listened to #the walkie talkie.



Martha listened to the radio.


Martha fixed #the radio.

5Weak definites also display restrictions on modification. Typically, the weak reading disappears if the nouns are modified (6a). Only a few adjectives establishing subtypes of objects are acceptable (6b).



Lola went to #the old hospital.


Lola went to the psychiatric hospital.

6Weak definites typically occur in the object position of verbs and prepositions (7). When the same definites occur as subjects of episodic sentences, they can only be interpreted as specific definites (8):


Martha was sent to the hospital.


# The hospital was closed today.

7In contrast, the same definites that can be interpreted as weak definites in appropriate configurations can also occur in generic sentences:


The hospital is where you go to get healthy.

8There are a few other similarities between weak and generic interpretations of definites. For example, generic definites also do not accept modification (10) unless they are modified by adjectives that create subclasses of objects (11):


??The old hospital is where you go to get healthy.


The public hospital is where you go to get healthy.

9On the other hand, in contrast to sentences with generic definites, sentences containing weak definites typically display enriched meanings, that is to say, they carry more information than what is conveyed by the straightforward composition of their constituents:


Eva called the doctor = Eva called a doctor + she asked for medical assistance.

10Weak definites seem to be defective with respect to discourse reference. This is reflected in the questionable acceptability of weak definites as antecedents of anaphoric expressions:


Lola listened to the radioiuntil she fell asleep. ? She turned itioff when she woke up in the middle of the night.

11Finally, weak definites are in complementary distribution with the type of bare singular nominals illustrated as follows (Stvan 1998, 2009):



The ship is at sea/port.


He's in bed/jail/prison/church.


I watched television this weekend.

12These nominals (hereafter bare singulars) display most of the properties of weak definites. They display sloppy identity in VP-ellipsis sentences (15) and narrow scope interpretations in quantified sentences (16). Also, not every noun can occur bare (17), and not every predicate can govern a bare singular (18). Likewise, modification turns bare singulars ungrammatical (19a), although some modifiers creating subclasses of objects are allowed (19b). Bare singulars in subject position of episodic sentences are typically not acceptable (20). As subjects of generic sentences they are possible (21), although restricted. Bare singulars do not serve as good antecedents for anaphoric expressions (22). Finally, sentences with bare singulars display meaning enrichments (23).


Alice is in jail and Lola too.

(Alice and Lola could be in different jails)


Every boxer is in jail.

(Each boxer could be in a different jail)


*Alice is in cage.


*Alice is behind prison.



*Alice is in old prison.


Alice is in military prison.


*Jail was full last year.


Jail is not a nice place to be for a young woman.


?? Alice is in jailibut she thinks that itiwill be demolished soon.


Alicia is in jail. = Alicia is in a jail + she is imprisoned.

13There are at least three good reasons why weak definites deserve to be studied. First, they challenge the well-established assumption that definites refer uniquely. Second, their special properties constitute an intriguing puzzle from a semantic point of view, in the way compositional, lexical, and pragmatic factors come together. Finally, as the properties of weak definites are also displayed by bare singulars, the study of weak definites also benefits the understanding of these other constructions.

  • 1 As from Carlson and Sussman's (2005) work, weak definites have received significant attention. We r (...)

14The present paper presents an analysis of weak definites that aims to account for the peculiarities listed above. This is an elaborated version of the account presented in Aguilar-Guevara and Zwarts (2011), which is the backbone of Aguilar-Guevara (2013).1 The proposal in a nutshell is that weak definites refer to kinds instantiated by objects when they combine with object-level predicates. The combination is made possible by a lexical rule that lifts object-level predicates to kind-level predicates, ensures that the kinds are instantiated via Carlson's (1977) realization relation, and incorporates into the denotation of the lifted versions a relation that corresponds to the stereotypical usages of the kinds.

15This paper is organized as follows. Section 2 spells out the semantics we adopt for the definite article present in weak definites. Section 3 discusses how weak definites make reference to kinds. Section 4 discusses how the kinds denoted by weak definites are instantiated, which allows for the formulation of logical forms of sentences with weak definites in Section 5. Then, Section 6 discusses stereotypical usages of kinds and how they are captured in the logical form of weak definite sentences. Section 7 discusses how the combination of weak definites with object-level predicates takes place. Section 8 summarizes the main claims and discusses the virtues of this analysis as well as its disadvantages and some other open questions.

2. The meaning of the definite article

16There exist two main lines of thought accounting for the meaning of definites. One line, initiated by Frege (1892); Russell (1905) and Strawson (1950), and followed by contemporary authors like Hawkins (1991); Abbott (1999) and partially by Farkas (2002) and Schwarz (2009) can be summarized in the following condition:


Uniqueness condition

A definite is felicitous if there is one and only one entity in the context that satisfies its descriptive content.

17The other line of thought, proposed by Heim (1982); Kamp (1981), and partially followed by authors like Roberts (2003) and Schwarz (2009) can be summarized in the following condition:


Familiarity condition

A definite is felicitous only if the existence of its referent is presumably known by the hearer.

18Most of the contemporary approaches to definites opt for either uniqueness or familiarity (see references above). However, more recently, some authors have pursued a combination of both approaches (e.g. Farkas 2002; Roberts 2003) and some others have adopted both to account for different uses of definites (e.g. Schwarz 2009).

  • 2 Notice that Russell's analysis only concerns definite phrases containing singular countable nouns. (...)

19 Contributing to an evaluation of these approaches is not one of the aims of this paper. Instead, we simply assume that the definite article present in weak definites is the same one occurring in at least a great range of regular definites, and that it encodes uniqueness.2

20 In addition to the usual motivations that are provided in favor of the uniqueness approach, we have another one related to the way weak definites are expressed in some dialects of German. In these dialects, when a preposition precedes a definite article (e.g. zu dem Haus ‘to the house’), the definite article can contract for several reasons (e.g. zum Haus ‘to the house’) (Cieschinger 2006; Puig-Waldmüller 2008; Schwarz 2009). One of these reasons is the expression of weak definiteness. Schwarz has noticed that if the definite article is not contracted in these contexts, then the weak reading of the definite is not available:


Maria ging zum/zu #dem Supermarkt. (Schwarz 2009)

Maria went to-the/to the supermarket

‘Maria went to the supermarket’

21Interestingly, something similar happens with generic uses of definites. The following sentence, which makes a statement not about a particular zebra, but about the kind zebra, is only acceptable if the definite article is contracted:


Am/#an dem Zebra kann man sehen, dass die Natur symmetrisch ist. (Schwarz 2009)

on-the/on the zebra can one see that the nature symmetrical is

‘The zebra shows us that nature is symmetrical.’

22Schwarz attributes a presuppositional uniqueness-based meaning to the contracted form. His analysis only deals explicitly with definites referring to unique ordinary individuals and he leaves for future work the analysis of generic and weak definites. As far as we are concerned, the only two assumptions that are needed to extend Schwarz's analysis to cover these cases straightforwardly, are, on the one hand, that both weak and generic definites refer to unique kinds and, of course, that the denotation of the definite article he proposes can range over kinds.

23 Before we move on to analyze generic and weak definites, let us provide in (28) the denotation we adopt for the singular definite article. This denotation corresponds to a function from properties to truth values which presupposes that the entity x is the unique individual of which the property P holds. Following Partee (1986), uniqueness is indicated by means of the iota-operator:


[[the]] = λPιx.P(x)

24Now, if we combine, via Function Application, the denotation of the with that of a common noun like balloon, which in this context denotes a property of individuals, we obtain an expression of type e corresponding to the unique individual that has the balloon property:



[[the]] = λPιx.P(x)


[[balloon]] = λx.Balloon(x)


[[the balloon]] = [[λPιx.P(x)]] ([[λx.Balloon(x)]])

by FA

= ιx.Balloon(x)

25In regular definites like the balloon, nouns denote sets of ‘ordinary’ individuals. However, as we will see in the next section, nouns can also denote sets of kinds.

3. Reference to kinds

26Kinds can be defined as abstract objects which are representative of a group of individuals with similar characteristics. Since Carlson (1977), it is standardly assumed that NPs can refer to kinds (and subkinds) besides ordinary individuals. Since then, several authors have studied how this reference is accomplished by different types of NPs in a diverse range of contexts (see Carlson 1977; Chierchia 1998; Ojeda 1991; Krifka et al. 1995; Geurts 2001; Cohen 2002, 2005; Dayal 2004; Krifka 2004; Katz and Zamparelli 2005; Farkas and de Swart 2007; Dobrovie-Sorin and Pires de Oliveira 2008; Mueller-Reichau 2012; Borik and Espinal 2012, among many others). The following sentences illustrate this diversity with different types of verbal predicates and, crucially, with different types of kind-referring NPs (in bold letters), namely, bare plurals, indefinites, and definites:



Women are good managers.


Thomas Stewart had invented a clamping mop that could wring the water out of itself by the use of a lever.


The whale eats lots of fish and krill in order to fatten up for its long trip to its mating grounds.

In what follows we focus on the generic definites that (30c) illustrates, and (31) more extensively:



The Dutchman is a good sailor.


Shockley invented the transistor.


The potato genome contains 12 chromosomes and 860 million base pairs making it a medium-sized plant genome.


Context: In the zoo.

Sentence: Look children! This is the reticulated giraffe.

27Understanding the meaning of generic definites is essential for our purposes because, as we saw before, there is a parallelism between generic and weak definites. This parallelism largely motivates our theory of weak definites.

3.1 Generic definites and reference to kinds

28Generic definites have received much less attention than other kind-referring expressions, in particular bare plurals. However, works like Ojeda (1991); Chierchia (1998); Dayal (2003, 2004, 2011, 2013); Krifka (2004); Beyssade (2005); Farkas and de Swart (2007); Borik and Espinal (2012) are examples of insightful attempts to understand the distribution and meaning of these constructions as well as to differentiate well enough the nature of the kinds they refer to from the kinds bare plurals refer to.

  • 3 We are aware that this analysis is not uncontroversial (see Farkas and de Swart 2007, for discussio (...)

29 Following Dayal (2004); Krifka (2004); Farkas and de Swart (2007); Borik and Espinal (2012), we assume that the meaning of generic definites results from the combination of the uniqueness-encoding definite article plus nouns denoting properties of kinds, which are conceived as atomic individuals.3 According to this analysis, the denotation of a generic definite like the whale (in (30c)) corresponds to the unique kind of which the whale property holds (the unique member of the singleton {W}). This denotation is abbreviated with a capital letter in boldface:


[[the whale]]

= ιxk.Whale(xk)

= W

30As simple and intuitive as this denotation may be, there are a few things to say about it. The first thing is that this denotation obviously implies that the iota-operator that the definite article represents can bind kind variables in addition to individual variables. This is an intuitive assumption as there is no reason why the iota operator, like the existential and universal quantifier, cannot bind different sorts of variables.

  • 4 In this denotation the kind argument is related to the individual argument via Carlson's (1977) rea (...)
  • 5 Admittedly, assuming that properties, in this case denoted by nouns in generic definites, can hold (...)

31 The second thing to say is that the adopted denotation implies that NPs can operate at the level of either kinds or ordinary individuals. This has been independently assumed to account for other phenomena apart from generic definites, such as incorporation and pseudo-incorporation in a number of languages (see, for example, Dayal 2003, 2011; Espinal and McNally 2011; McNally and Boleda 2004; Dobrovie-Sorin and Pires de Oliveira 2008). In the literature there exist at least three ways in which the ability of nouns to operate at the level of both kinds and individuals has been proposed to happen. One is by assuming that nouns can systematically denote both properties of ordinary individuals and properties of kinds. This is in line with Dayal (2004) and Farkas and de Swart (2007). Another possibility, proposed by Borik and Espinal (2012), is that nouns always denote properties of kinds and that the number projection (NumP) adds the individual level. The idea is that, when this projection is not present, as they claim to happen with generic definites, the kind level is the only one available. The third possibility, assumed by McNally and Boleda (2004), is that the denotation of nouns includes at the same time both an individual and a kind argument.4 To evaluate in detail the advantages of these thrs="texte">Semically denote both properties of ordinary individuals and properties of kinds. This is in line with Dayal (2004) and Farkas and de Swart (2007). Another possibility, proposed by Borik and Espinal (2012), is that nouns always denote properties of kinds and theyand pse2

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