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7. Names and definiteness

        So far I have concentrated on the similarities between proper names and common nouns. The free conversion possibilities between the two types of nominals makes a categorial distinction seem unlikely and furthermore lead to the assumption of <<e, t>, t> as base type for all nominals. Nevertheless, there are some characteristics that do seem to set apart proper names. Consider the paradigms in (20) and (21):

(20)     a. There is/are a man / men / few men / two men in the garden.

            b. *There is/are John / the man / everybody / most of the men in the garden.

(21)     a. We were sitting at the table when – suddenly - a ghost / two ghosts / John appeared.

            b. *We were sitting at the table when - suddenly – the ghost / everybody appeared.

Paradigm (20) exhibits what used to be called the definiteness effect, since it was taken to distinguish between definite and indefinite nominals. Enç (1991) showed this to be a misnomer: the distribution does not depend on familiarity/novelty (i.e. definiteness in Heim’s framework), but rather on specificity. Thus, the syntactic environment in (20) allows the occurrence of nonspecifics but not of specifics. Proper names pattern here with specifics, i.e. nominals that require a previously established discourse referent for either identification (the man) or comparison (most of the men). This is expected, since proper names are usually taken to be definite and thus by extension specific (cf. Enç 1991: 9). 

(21), on the other hand, is supposed to provide a discourse environment in which discourse referents are newly introduced. Proper names pattern here with indefinites, i.e. nominals that require that the discourse referent they introduce be novel.

 Proper names thus exhibit the puzzling characteristic of being both definite and indefinite, depending on the context. I believe that the puzzle’s solution lies in the characterization of the syntactic requirements imposed by each of the constructions: assume that each of the constructions is sensitive to overt markings. One could argue then that (20) requires nominals which are overtly marked as nonspecific, wheras (21) rules out the occurrence of nominals overtly marked for definiteness. The shifty behavior of proper names could then be attributed to underspecification. If proper names carry neither definiteness nor specificity features (or the corresponding indices in Enç’s definition), syntactic constraints that are specified for overt features will simply not apply to them. Thus, the semantics of proper names is interdependent with one’s view on the syntactic encoding of definiteness and specificity.

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© Philipp Strazny 1998