Referring Expression

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A referring expression is a linguistic expression that is a referencer.



  • (Wikipedia, 2012)
    • QUOTE: A referring expression (RE), in linguistics, is any noun phrase, or surrogate for a noun phrase, whose function in a text (spoken, signed or written on a particular occasion) is "pick out" someone an individual person, place, object, or a set of persons, places, objects, etc. The technical terminology for "pick out" differs a great deal from one school of linguistics to another. The most widespread term is probably refer, and a thing "picked out" is a referent, as for example in the work of John Lyons. In linguistics, the study of reference belongs to pragmatics, the study of language use, though it is also a matter of great interest to philosophers, especially those wishing to understand the nature of knowledge, perception and cognition more generally.

      The kinds of expressions which can refer (as so defined) are:

      • a noun phrase of any structure, such as: the taxi in The taxi's waiting outside ; the apple on the table in Bring me the apple on the table ; and those five boys in Those five boys were off school last week. In those languages which, like English, encode definiteness, REs are typically marked for definiteness. In the examples given, this is done by the definite article the or the demonstrative adjective, here those.
      • a noun-phrase surrogate, i.e. a pronoun, such as it in It's waiting outside and Bring me it ; and they in They were off school last week. The referent of such a pronoun may vary according to context - e.g. the referent of me depends on who the speaker is - and this property is technically an instance of deixis.
      • a proper name, like Sarah, London, The Eiffel Tower, or The Beatles. The intimate link between proper names and type (1) REs is shown by the definite article that appears in many of them. In many languages this happens far more consistently than in English. Proper names are often taken to refer, in principle, to the same referent independently of the context in which the name is used and in all possible worlds, i.e. they are in Saul Kripke's terminology rigid designators.



  • (Bach, 2008) ⇒ Kent Bach. (2008). “On Referring and Not Referring.” In: Reference: Interdisciplinary Perspectives." Jeanette K. Gundel and Nancy Hedberg, editors. Oxford University Press.
    • QUOTE: Strawson’s dictum flies in the face of common philosophical lore. It is generally assumed, and occasionally argued, that there is indeed a class of referring expressionsindexicals, demonstratives, and proper names — and that they aren’t just eminently capable of being used to refer, which nobody can deny, but that they themselves refer, albeit relative to contexts. There is general consensus that at least some expressions do this, but there is considerable dispute about which ones. It is rare to find a philosopher who includes indefinite descriptions among referring expressions, but some are liberal enough to include definite descriptions. Some reject definites but include demonst rative descriptions (complex demonstratives) on their list. Some balk at descriptions of any kind referring but have no qualms about proper names. Some have doubts about proper names referring, but readily include indexicals and simple demonstratives. Anyhow, I can’t recall anyone actually responding to Strawson’s argument. Instead, what I’ve observed is that philosophers slide down a verbal slippery slope. Suppose Madonna says, referring to Britney Spears, “She is ambitious.”

      With this slippery slide in mind, from now on (except when discussing others’ views) instead of using ‘referring expression’ I’ll use the marginally better phrase ‘singular term’ for expressions that can be used to refer.

      By ‘reference' I will mean singular reference only (I will not be considering whether general terms refer and, if so, to what), and when I describe a use as nonreferential, I will not mean that reference fails but that there is no attempt to refer.

      footnote: Although our topic is singular reference, there is a broad sense in which every expression refers (or at least every expression that has a semantic value that contributes to the propositional content of sentences in which it occurs) ... In any case, the phrase ‘referring expression’ is ordinarily limited to any expression whose propositional contribution is its referent (if it has one).

      S5 Often the only way to refer to something is by using a definite description.

      Like it or not, proper names do have non-referential uses, including attribute uses and predicative uses.

      Consider that in standard first-order logic the role of proper names is play by individual constants and existence is represented by the existential qualifier. ... We have to resort to using a formula like '∃x(x=n)', which is to say there exists something identical to n. And, when there is not such thing as [math]\displaystyle{ n }[/math], we can't use the negation of a formula of that form '¬ ∃x(x=n)', to express the truth that there isn't anything to which [math]\displaystyle{ n }[/math] is identical, because standard first-order logic disallows [[empty name]s .... Russell had a logical motivation for insisting that a genuine name be one which is (epistemically) guaranteed to have a referent.

      Even more problematic is the case of negative existentials, and the related problem of empty names. (To assert, for example, that Hamlet does not exist is surely not to assert of Hamlet that he does not exist, mush less to presuppose that he exists. It is possible to argue that Hamlet is a fictional character, specifically an abstract entity created by Shakespeare.

      Referring is not as easy as is commonly supposed. Much of what speakers do that passes for referring really isn't but is merely alluding or describing.


  • (Matthews, 2007) ⇒ Peter H Matthews. (2007). “Oxford Concise Dictionary of Linguistics." Oxford University Press
    • QUOTE: reference: The relation between a part of an utterance and an individual or set of individuals that it identifies. Thus one might say on some specific occasion, 'That man is my brother', where the phrase that man is used as a referring expression whose referent is a specific man whose identity one's addressee must either know or be able to determine. ... Distinguished by philosophers from *sense(2), and by Lyons especially from *denotation. E.g. the man is a phrase that, in such as utterance, is used to refer to a man; the noun man, as a lexical unit, denotes a class of individuals that are thereby called 'men', and has a sense distinguished, in a network of *sense relations, from those of woman, boy, elephant, etc. But these distinctions are not needed for all purposes, and actual usage, as in many entries in this dictionary is more fluid.