06 April, 2009

Reference and Inference

Referring is one of the basic things we do with words, and it would be a good idea to understand what that involves and requires.

Speaker reference

Speaker reference is a four-place relation, between a speaker, an expression, an audience, and a referent: you use an expression to refer someone to something.

· To be in a position to refer to something (or to understand a reference to it) requires being able to have singular thoughts about it, and that requires perceiving it, being informed of it, or (having perceived or been informed of it) remembering it.

· To succeed in referring to something in using a certain expression requires getting them to think of it (and generally to grasp a singular proposition about it) via identifying it as what you intend them to think of by virtue of your using that expression.

· We generally choose the least informative sort of expression whose use will enable the hearer to identify the individual we wish to refer to, but this is not a matter of convention.

Reference – an act by which a speaker (or writer) uses language to enable a listener (or reader) to identify something (Yule, 2006: 115).

  • Words that we use to identify things are not in direct relation to these things:


  • Have you seen my Yule?

“Referring is not something an expression does; it is something that someone can use an expression to do.” (Strawson: 1950).

Strawson exploited the fact that almost any referring expression, whether an indexical, demonstrative, proper name, or definite description, can be used to refer to different things in different contexts. This fact, he argued, is enough to show that what refers are speakers, not expressions.

Inference any additional information use by the listener to connect what is said to what must be meant (Yule, 2006: 116).


  • Anaphora – is a subsequent reference to an already introduced entity. Speakers (writers) use anaphora in texts to maintain reference.


A: Have you seen my Yule?

B: Yeah, it is on the desk.

  • Yule” and “it”: “it” – anaphora, Yule – antecedent.

A referring expression, in linguistics, is any noun phrase, or substitute for a noun phrase, whose function in a text (spoken, signed or written on a particular occasion) is to "pick out" 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. (From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)

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

(1) 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, referring expressions are typically marked for definiteness. In the examples given, this is done by the definite article the or the demonstrative adjective, here those.

(2) a noun-phrase substitute 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.

(3) a proper noun, like Sarah, London, The Eiffel Tower, or The Beatles. The intimate link between proper names and type (1) referring expressions 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.

Referring can take place in a number of ways. Typically, in the case of (1), the referring expression is likely to succeed in picking out the referent because the words in the expression and the way they are combined together give an true, accurate, description of the referent, in such a way that the hearer of the expression can recognize the speaker's intention. In the first example, if the hearer knows what an apple and a table are, and understands the relation expressed by on, and is aware that the is a signal that an individual thing/person is intended, s/he can build up the meaning of the expression from the words and grammar and use it to identify an intended object (often within sight, or at any rate easily recoverable, but not necessarily). Of course, the speaker may use a mistaken description and still manage to refer successfully. If I ask you to "Take this plate to the woman with the glass of soda", you may take it to the intended person even if, unbeknown to me, her soda is really water. On the other hand I may be accurate in calling it soda, but you may believe wrongly that it is water, and therefore not deliver the plate. So accurate reference is not a guarantee of successful reference, and successful reference does not wholly depend on accurate reference. But naturally there is a strong positive correlation between them.

Proper names, on the other hand, generally achieve reference irrespective of the meaning of the words which constitute them (if any are recognizable). If my local café is called The Anchor, this is simply a label which functions conversationally with no appeal to the meaning of the words. If I say, I'm going to the Anchor, I do not mean I'm going to the device for halting and securing a ship, and you will not necessarily call such a device to mind when I say this. The Anchor just serves to identify a particular building. This point is more obvious still with those names like Sarah and London which have no lexical meaning of their own.

In addition to the (in many languages) grammatically obvious singular and plural reference, linguists typically distinguish individual or specific reference, exemplified by each case presented so far, from generic reference, where a singular expression picks out a type of object (etc.) rather than an individual one, as in The bear is a dangerous animal. Plural expressions can, of course, be interpreted in the same way, as in Bears are dangerous animals.

Definite reference to single individuals is usually taken to be the prototypical type of reference.

Other types of reference recognized by linguists include indefinite as opposed to definite reference, and collective and distributive reference. Definite referring expressions refer to an identifiable individual or class (The Dalai Lama; The Coldstream Guards; the student with the highest marks), whilst indefinite referring expressions allow latitude in identifying the referent (a corrupt Member of Parliament; a cat with black ears - where a is to be interpreted as 'any' or 'some actual but unspecified'). Collective reference is the picking out of the members of a set as a set, whilst distributive reference is the picking out of the members of a set individually. The difference may not be marked linguistically, but arrived at by interpretation in context. Compare Manchester United won again today (where the reference of Manchester United is to members of the team as a unit), with Manchester United wear red shirts and black shorts (where the reference of Manchester United is to the team members as individuals). English allows such expressions to be ambiguous: compare Manchester United are rich beyond my wildest dreams.

Referring as a Collaborative Process

Clark and Wilkes-Gibbs (1986) investigated how participants in a conversation collaborate in making a referring action successful. They conducted experiments in which participants had to refer to objects--tangram patterns--that are difficult to describe.

They found that typically the participant trying to describe a tangram pattern would present an initial referring expression. The other participant would then pass judgment on it, either accepting it, rejecting it, or postponing his decision. If it was rejected or the decision postponed, then one participant or the other would refashion the referring expression. This would take the form of either repairing the expression by correcting speech errors, expanding it by adding further qualifications, or replacing the original expression with a new expression. The referring expression that results from this is then judged, and the process continues until the referring expression is acceptable enough to the participants for current purposes. This final expression is contributed to the participants' common ground.

Below are two exampless from Clark and Wilkes-Gibbs's experiments that illustrate the acceptance process.

A: 1 Um, third one is the guy reading with, holding his book to the left.

B- 2 Okay, kind of standing up?

A: 3 Yeah.

B" 4 Okay.

In this dialog, person A makes an initial presentation in line 1. Person B postpones his decision in line 2 by voicing a tentative "okay," and then proceeds to refashion the referring expression, the result being "the guy reading, holding his book to the left, kind of standing up." A accepts the new expression in line 3, and B signals his acceptance in line 4.

A: 1 Okay, and the next one is the person that looks like they're carrying something and it's sticking out to the left. It looks like a hat that's upside down.

B: 2 The guy that's pointing to the left again?

A" 3 Yeah, pointing to the left, that's it! (laughs)

B: 4 Okay.

In the second dialog, B implicitly rejects A's initial presentation by replacing it with a new referring expression in line 2, "the guy that's pointing to the left again." A then accepts the refashioned referring expression in line 3.


  • Cann, Ronnie (1993) Formal semantics. Cambridge University Press.
  • Clark, Herbert H., and Wilkes-Gibbs, Deanna (1986). "Referring as a collaborative process." Cognition, 22, 1-39. Reprinted in Arenas of Language Use, edited by Herbert H. Clark, 107-143.
  • University of Chicago Press and CSLI.
  • Kripke, Saul (1980) Naming and necessity, second edition. Basil Blackwell.
  • Lyons, John (1977) Semantics. Cambridge University Press.
  • Saeed, John (1997) Semantics. Blackwell.
  • Strawson, P. F. (1950), “On Referring,” Mind 59: 320-44.
  • Yule, G. (2006). The Study of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (p. 112 – 117).

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