In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Definiteness

  • Introduction
  • Foundational Works and Comprehensive Overviews
  • Handbook Articles
  • Classical Papers on Theories
  • Morphological Marking
  • Language Acquisition

Linguistics Definiteness
Klaus von Heusinger
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0063


Definiteness is a semantic-pragmatic notion that is closely associated with the use of the definite article (or determiner) in languages like English, Hungarian, Hebrew, and Lakhota. The definite article can be used in different conditions: deictic, anaphoric, unique, and certain indirect uses, often also called “bridging uses.” Accordingly, there are different semantic theories of definiteness, such as the salience theory, the familiarity or identifiability theory, and the uniqueness or inclusiveness theory. Definite expressions cover personal pronouns, proper names, demonstratives, definite noun phrases, and universally quantified expressions. Noun phrases with the definite article, known as “definite descriptions,” are a key issue in semantics and analytic philosophy with respect to the interaction of reference and description in identifying an object. The research and analysis of definiteness is of great importance not only for the linguistic structure of languages but also for our understanding of reference and referring in philosophy, cognitive science, computational linguistics, and communication science.

Foundational Works and Comprehensive Overviews

Definiteness is the central referential property of nominal expressions, in linguistics most often related to the use of the definite article in languages that have definite articles. There are many monographs on definiteness in particular languages (see Particular Languages). More general approaches are represented in Christophersen 1939 on the use and diachronic development of the English articles and in Krámsky 1972 on the history of research and an overview of article systems in various languages. Hawkins 1978 is the most influential and comprehensive study of definiteness and its grammatical contrast, while Lyons 1999 embeds the discussion into an updated view with broad descriptive material. Neale 1990 is an excellent monograph spelling out the conception of definiteness in analytic philosophy (see Definite Descriptions and Analytic Philosophy).

  • Christophersen, Paul. 1939. The articles: A study of their theory and use in English. Copenhagen: Munksgaard.

    The seminal work on the different uses and the diachronic development of the definite article in English that also laid the theoretical foundation for the discussion in the 20th century within the “familiarity” theory of definiteness.

  • Hawkins, John. 1978. Definiteness and indefiniteness: A study in reference and grammaticality prediction. London: Croom Helm.

    Splendid overview of the grammatical effects of definiteness. Establishes the inclusiveness theory of definiteness as a development of the uniqueness theory.

  • Krámsky, Jirì. 1972. The article and the concept of definiteness in language. The Hague: Mouton.

    This monograph provides an excellent introduction into the history of the research as well as a broad overview of article systems in various languages.

  • Lyons, Christopher. 1999. Definiteness. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511605789

    Comprehensive work on the uses of definite articles and the semantics of definiteness and its diachronic dimension under a functional and typological approach.

  • Neale, Stephen. 1990. Descriptions. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    Accessible presentation and defense of the Russellian view on definite description and its contemporary discussion in analytic philosophy.

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