Review of Reference
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|AUTHOR: Barbara Abbott
SERIES: Oxford Surveys in Semantics & Pragmatics
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
Maria Averintseva-Klisch, Deutsches Seminar, University of Tübingen
The book ''Reference'' by Barbara Abbott (in the following ''the author'') is the
second one in the series ''Oxford Surveys in Semantics and Pragmatics''.
Accordingly, the aim of the book is to give an introductory, albeit detailed and
ambitious, overview of the topic and a critical survey of the research on
linguistic reference in the last decades. The intended audience of the series
are ''researchers in linguistics and related areas'' (General Preface, p. xiii),
and correspondingly the book is of interest for a specialist and still readable
for an undergraduate student as well as for an interested amateur.
The book comprises 11 chapters, a list of references and a person and subject
index. The first chapter, ''Introduction'', introduces two main concepts of
referring: reference as a semantic phenomenon, relating expressions directly to
entities in the world or in some representation, and reference as a pragmatic
phenomenon, being at least a three-place relation between a speaker, a
linguistic expression and an entity.
In ch. 2, ''Foundations,'' the author gives a succinct and informative overview
over the beginnings of modern semantics and the work of Mill (1843), Frege
(1892) and Russell (1905). She introduces the main terms going back to this work
and compares the three approaches especially with regard to the dichotomy of
sense and reference in that she exemplarily evaluates the respective analyses of
definite descriptions and proper names. The following chapter 3, ''Subsequent
developments,'' deepens the semantic background given before in that it
introduces the issues of scope and quantification, extensionality and
intensionality, and proposition as the main semantic unit. Ch. 4, ''The proper
treatment of quantification,'' then presents briefly two influential semantic
theories of the second half of the 20th century, Gricean 'said' vs. 'implicated'
distinction and Montague Grammar. The latter is presented as detailed as
possible for a book serving as an introduction to the research on reference.
The subsequent four chapters are devoted in more detail to the most important
groups of NPs that are traditionally seen as referential expressions: proper
names, definite descriptions (including particular and generic NPs), pronouns
and demonstratives. Ch 5, ''Proper names,'' discusses the problem of the
(non)descriptional character of proper names, and reviews the most important
approaches to names starting again with Mills (1843), over Searle's ''cluster
view,'' Kripke's arguments against descriptional theories to Kaplan's concept of
rigid designation, mentions problems of each account, and sketches two newer
attempts to their solution (hidden indexical view and pragmatic view). The
author herself opts for constant individual concepts being the meaning of proper
names. In ch. 6, ''Definite descriptions'', she again gives a concise review of
the research on definite descriptions from Mills over Donnellan to present day
research, concentrating especially on the question whether definite descriptions
are always referential, and whether the distinction between reference and
quantification can really be maintained as a clear-cut one. In this context the
distinction between semantic and pragmatic view on reference is again alluded
to, and some arguments for the semantic concept are given. Donnellan's
referential vs. attributive distinction is introduced, and indefinite
descriptions are used as a comparison. In ch. 7, ''Plurals and generics,''
semantic peculiarities of plural and mass NPs are discussed. The author sketches
possible readings of plurals and mass terms and their interplay with scope
ambiguities. The concept of genericity is overviewed, whereby Carlson's
individual level vs. stage level distinction and different kinds of generics in
the sense of Krifka et al (1995) are accounted for. Ch. 8, ''Indexicality and
pronouns,'' turns to particular kinds of NPs, personal and demonstrative pronouns
and deictic expressions; the difference between denotation and reference,
crucial for proper names, is shown to play a role also for these NPs. The
indexicality and the individual concepts analyses of demonstratives as well as
the free variable and the dynamic semantics approaches to personal pronouns are
briefly sketched, and the issues of quantificational and non-quantificational
binding are brought up in this connection.
Ch. 9, ''Definiteness, strength, partitives, and referentiality'' is first and
foremost devoted to the question of the parameters licensing definiteness. The
author discusses two concepts proposed for definiteness, uniqueness and
familiarity. For uniqueness, she argues that there are in fact two concepts of
uniqueness: semantic uniqueness, if there is only one possible referent matching
the description, and referential uniqueness, i.e. only one thing being referred
to by the speaker. The author shows how different kinds of definite descriptions
-- proper names, definite descriptions, pronouns and demonstratives -- fit with
these two kinds of definiteness. In this context some formal details of the
representation of definite NPs are given, e.g. type shifting and type e account
The penultimate chapter, ch. 10 ''NPs in discourse'' takes a different point of
view on reference, leaving the issue of the reference of isolated expressions
and turning to the referential use of NPs in the discourse. Starting with the
well-known donkey pronoun case, the author gives a brief overview of the
beginnings of dynamic semantics and of models for the choice of a particular
referential expression in discourse. On 10 pages, the ideas of Prince (1981,
1992) on different kinds of givenness, as well as Accessibility Theory and
Givenness Hierarchy are reviewed. This review is inevitably very short, and is
bound to leave influential discourse theories crucially concerned with reference
like SDRT (Asher & Lascarides 2003) or Centering (Walker et al. 1998)
unmentioned or only referred to in a footnote. The author herself remarks that
''each of these topics [like choice of actual referential expression in
discourse, discourse referents vs. entities in the world, coreference in
discourse etc.] deserves much more consideration than we can give it here'' (p.
261). Still, the presentation pinpoints the most important issues and supplies
necessary references for further reading. The discussion of the status of the
referent as an entity in (some) world or in a mental representation (discourse
referent) and the implications of either accounts for the semantic theory of
reference concludes the chapter.
The last chapter of the book, ch.11, ''Taking stock'', is intended to sum up and
to resolve the ''tension between the semantic conception of reference and the
pragmatic conception of reference'' (p. 268). This is done in favour of the
semantic view; in particular, the author argues for a plausible concept of
semantic reference as reference to variable or constant individual concepts
(these being functions from possible situations to individuals), cf. p. 280 .
As the author puts it, she intended a book on reference ''accessible to all'' (p.
1), and the great merit of this book is that it is really readable and enjoyable
for an undergraduate student as well as for a an advanced expert. The book
combines the clarity and the wide orientation crucial for a good introduction
with the in-depth presentation of chosen fine-grained issues and rather
complicated and specific formalisms. The latter are presented step-by-step and
commented in a way that is always understandable and never trivial. The book is
a comprehensive introduction into the main issues of NP semantics embracing e.g.
definite and indefinite NPs, specificity, genericity, proper names and
quantificational NPs. In addition, it introduces its reader to important
instruments of formal semantics as Montague grammar and lambda calculus as well
as to general issues as modeling possible worlds, scope ambiguities or embedding
in propositional attitude contexts. This introduction is done in a clear and
well-illustrated way. Especially the chapters 2-4 offer a broad and at the same
time profound theoretic background in formal semantics. Thus the book is best
suited as an informative and accessible introduction into formal semantics in
general or an overview over NP semantics in particular. What makes the book
especially valuable (not only for students!) is the explicitness of the
argumentation, e.g. in computing and then comparing the actual theory-internal
consequences of different analyses of definite NPs in ch. 6. In an equally
explicit and consequent way the author distinguishes from the very beginning (p.
3ff) the concepts of ''semantic reference'' and ''pragmatic reference;'' this
distinction is repeatedly picked up in the course of the book, and the
respective theoretic implications of both approaches are discussed (ch. 10, 11).
However -- and this is my main criticism of this book --, Abbott concentrates
nearly exclusively on the semantic concept of reference, although the author
states in the ''Introduction'' that she will discuss both concepts. Her overview
stays strongly biased towards the semantic view on reference. Whilst the early
milestone works of Mill, Frege, Russell and Strawson are introduced in detail,
in the following the comparable attention is given only to the work of
logicians, philosophers and formal semanticists grounding on this early base
(either critically or not) and regarding reference as a property of expressions
that plays a role in the compositional sentence semantics. In the last chapter
the author criticizes that for Bach (2006) pragmatic reference serves only as a
tool for the definition of semantic reference: if one knows how an expression
can be used for referring, one can conclude about the inherent referential
character of this expression: ''the criterion for semantic reference ... is
consistency in pragmatic reference'' (p. 278). This leads her to opt against
Bach's approach and against what Salmon (2004: 239, n.13) called a ''speech-act
centered conception of semantics'' and for an ''expression-centered'' one (p. 279,
fn. 11). Intuitively, one does agree with this plea as such. But: does it really
make sense to reduce the pragmatic concept of reference to a criterion for the
definition of semantic reference?
In ch. 9 devoted to definiteness, again the semantic perspective is the only one
discussed. However, definiteness and the parameters licensing the use of
definite NPs have been extensively investigated in the last decades, both on the
theoretical side under the pragmatic perspective, e.g. research on bridging and
so-called ''indirect anaphora'' starting with Clark (1977) and on the
psycholinguistic side, especially for language comprehension, cf. the overviews
in Frazier (2006), Tanenhaus (2007). What I miss are some references to this
Only one chapter of 30 pages in a nearly 300-page book is devoted to reference
as actually taking place in the discourse (ch. 10 ''NPs in discourse''). To my
opinion this does not mirror correctly the ''state-of-the-art perspective'' on
reference that is a proclaimed aim of the book (cf. the General Preface, p.
xiii). Many crucial issues based on the pragmatic concept of reference has been
extensively discussed in the last years; these are thus bound to come too short.
Since the paper by Clark and Wilkes-Gibbs (1986) with a programmatic title
''Referring as a collaborative process'', lots of research that could be comprised
under the label of ''cognitive approach to referring'' has been done. Under this
approach, reference is understood as a collaborative activity of speakers and
addressees in whose course extra-linguistic mental representations are activated
with the help of linguistic expressions. The main research question, ''how a
speaker's intended referent is [identified] by the addressee'' (Fretheim & Gundel
1993, p.7), being part of the broader question of how information conveyed by an
utterance is incorporated into a mental model of a discourse, opens new
perspectives on reference. Some of the most important issues here, directly
concerned with the definition and characteristics of reference, are: coreference
and referential anchoring (e.g. Clark 1977) as well as anaphora involving
ontological changes, i.e. ''abstract object anaphora'' (Asher 1993), or
''combination anaphora'', cf. a short overview in Schwarz-Friesel (2007);
processing of referring expressions (Tanenhaus 2007); or reference in
interdisciplinary perspective (Enfield & Stivers 2007). Even in the case one has
reasons to favour the semantic concept of reference, the pragmatic and the
''cognitive'' concepts should receive due attention in a ''critical survey of the
major approaches'' (General Preface, p. xiii) to reference.
A minor point is the following: the author concentrates explicitly on NPs as
referring expressions, leaving aside the issue of whether also VPs or APs can
refer. This is of course a very feasible limitation, especially as it is stated
and motivated in the ''Introduction'' (p. 3). What seems to me to be less
reasonable is that implicitly -- as this is the case in virtually all of the
discussed examples -- the reference of an NP is taken to be a person, an animal
or an artefact (or a corresponding mental object). The ontologic and semantic
complications that come with NPs referring e.g. to processes, either due to
their lexical semantics, cf. ''inquiry'' in (1), or due to a meaning shift, cf.
inferences done when interpreting ''the new book'' in (2), are worth being at
least briefly mentioned (see e.g. Pustejovsky 1995, Asher 2007):
(1) The inquiry lasted for several days.
(2) John began the new book today.
Of course, it is perfectly justified (and maybe the only possible way) if an
author selects certain aspects of a subject and ignores others. But of a general
survey entitled just ''Reference'' I would expect a less unilateral approach --
or, at least, a clarifying subtitle or a clear delimitation of the topic of the
book with sufficient references to the other concepts of linguistic reference in
the introduction. As stated in the last chapter, one of the main aims of this
book has been ''to present as clear as possible a picture of what people are
talking about when they talk about reference'' (p. 280); as it is, the book
rather presents a picture of what semanticists are talking about when they talk
about reference, albeit a truly illuminating and clear one.
Asher, Nicholas (1993) Reference to abstract objects in discourse, Dordrecht:
Asher, Nicholas (2007) A web of words: lexical meaning in context. Manuscript,
CNRS Toulouse & Univ. of Texas.
Asher, Nicholas & Alex Lascarides (2003) Logics in conversation. Cambridge: CUP.
Bach, Kent (2006) What does it take to refer? In Ernest Lepore & Barry Smith
(eds.), The Oxford handbook of philosophy of language, Oxford: Clarendon, 516-554.
Clark, Herbert (1977) Bridging. In Philip Johnson-Laird & Peter Wason (eds.),
Thinking. Reading in cognitive science, Cambridge: CUP, 411-420.
Clark, Herbert H. & Deanna Wilkes-Gibbs (1986) Referring as a collaborative
process. Cognition 22, 1-39.
Enfield, Nick & Tanya Stivers (2007) Person reference in interaction:
linguistic, cultural and social perspectives. Amsterdam: Benjamins.
Frazier, Lyn (2006) The big fish in a small pond: accommodation and the
processing of novel deﬁnites. Manuscript, University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
Krifka et al. (1995) Genericity: an introduction. In Gregory Carlson & Francis
Pelletier (eds), The Generic book, Chicago: Univ. Press, 1-124.
Fretheim, Thorstein & Jeannette Gundel (1993 eds.) Reference and referent
accessibility, Amsterdam: Benjamins.
Pustejovsky, James (1995) The generative lexicon, Cambridge: MIT Press.
Salmon, Nathan (2004) The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. In Anne Bezuidenhout &
Marga Reimer (eds), Descriptions and Beyond, Oxford: OUP, 230-260.
Schwarz-Friesel, Monika (2007) Indirect anaphora in text. In Monika
Schwarz-Friesel, Manfred Consten & Mareile Knees (eds), Anaphors in text,
Amsterdam: Benjamins, 3-20.
Tanenhaus, Michael K. (2007) Spoken language comprehension: insights from eye
movements. In M. Gareth Gaskell (ed), The Oxford handbook of psycholinguistics,
Oxford: OUP, 309-326.
Walker, Marylin, Aravind Joshi & Ellen Prince (1998 eds.), Centering Theory in
Discourse, Oxford: Clarendon.
| ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Maria Averintseva-Klisch is a researcher at the department of German
linguistics at the Tübingen University. She wrote her Ph.D. on German right
dislocation and its function in the discourse. Her research concentrates in
the first place on the discourse-grammar interface, as well as on semantic,
syntactic and pragmatic issues.