Referential and Attributive Uses

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If you did the exercise at the bottom of page Reference and Inference, you might have already come to the conclusion that not all referring expressions have identifiable real-world referents.

Indefinite noun phrases can be used to describe a physically present referent as in

a. There's a woman waiting for you.

They can be used to identify a referent that is assumed to exist as in

b. She wants to marry a man with lots of money.

Furthermore, they can be used to describe entities that to our knowledge do not exist as in

c. I'd like to see a unicorn.

The referent in [b.] (a man with lots of money) can be known to the speaker only with respect to his descriptive properties. In that case, 'any' could replace the indefinite article 'a'. This is called attributive use, meaning 'whoever/whatever fits the description'. It is different from referential use where the referent is a specific person.

Exercise on referential and attributive uses

Read more on referential and attributive uses in the article "Understanding life: Trans-semiotic analogies" by Andres Luure (2002).

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