Linguistics and Philosophy

, Volume 42, Issue 2, pp 177–206 | Cite as

Nip and tuck for definite description

  • Barry ScheinEmail author


Speaking of dental floss contaminated with bacteria, I may separate the dental floss that is sterile from the dental floss that isn’t sterile. The definite description “the dental floss that isn’t sterile” contracts its reference to just the dental floss near bacteria, although it, the dental floss whole, isn’t sterile. To accommodate the definite descriptions that contract their reference, received definitions for ⌜the Φ⌝ are amended from (1) to read as in (2):
  1. (1)

    ⌜the Φ⌝ refers to that which any Φ is part of and is the least such.

  2. (2)

    ⌜the Φ⌝ refers to that which any Φ overlaps and is the least such.

If definite description is to be based on a purely logical notion of plural and mass predication, it is further amended. Like overt demonstratives—⌜this/these Φ⌝, ⌜that/those Φ⌝—any definite description in natural language is also perspectival, scanning everywhere the description Φ is satisfied:
  1. (3)

    ⌜the Φ⌝ refers to the least Φ that overlap Φ anywhere there is Φ.



General theory of definite description Plural and mass reference Syntax of definite descriptions in natural language 


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Many thanks for critical discussion to Elena Herburger, Yael Sharvit and Anna Szabolcsi, to the Semantics Reading Group, Rutgers Center for Cognitive Science, 18 April 2017, to Michael Glanzberg, and to three anonymous reviewers.


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© Springer Nature B.V. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of LinguisticsUniversity of Southern CaliforniaLos AngelesUSA

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