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

  • Introduction
  • Textbooks and General Overviews
  • Edited Volumes
  • Special Journal Issues
  • Indefinites as Generalized Quantifiers
  • Negative Polarity and Negative Concord
  • Type-Shifting Perspectives
  • Discourse Reference and Unselective Binding
  • Specificity Issues
  • Plural Indefinites

Linguistics Indefiniteness
Henriëtte de Swart
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 November 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0102


The philosophical work on definite and indefinite descriptions of the form “the N” and “a N” focuses on the logic of natural language. Definites and indefinites are sometimes treated as devices of reference and at other times associated with quantificational expressions. Along with quantificational noun phrases such as “every N” they receive a unified analysis as generalized quantifiers. Insights into the semantic properties of generalized quantifiers have led to productive lines of research on indefinites in existential contexts and indefinites under negation, including negative polarity items and negative concord items. Clearly, indefinites have referential features as well. Unlike true quantificational expressions, they serve as anchors for anaphoric pronouns in subsequent discourse, which motivates Discourse Representation theory as a dynamic extension of first-order logic. Their variable quantificational force is accounted for by the treatment of indefinites as variables, which depend on other quantifiers in the sentence. The observation that indefinites can scope out of scope islands such as embedded clauses gave rise to analyses in terms of choice functions. Finally, indefinites are frequently found in predicative contexts, which have led to analyses in terms of property denotations. Many analyses focus on one particular aspect of indefinites, or posit ambiguities between different types of denotations. However, the quantificational, referential, and predicative roles of indefinites can be reconciled in a type-shifting framework, which allows indefinites to live in different types. Besides singular indefinite articles, languages may also have plural indefinite articles. Interestingly, many languages do not grammaticalize indefinite articles and instead use bare plurals or bare singulars. In English, bare plurals are ontologically different from full indefinites in that they may refer to kinds, besides regular individuals. They also display a different scopal behavior, in that they take obligatory narrow scope with respect to other scope-bearing operators. In languages where we find them, bare singulars share these features. Typological variation raises a special interest in grammaticalization patterns over time. Indefinites have also drawn attention in the psycholinguistic literature in which their cognitive status and the relation of indefinites with bare nominals and definites in acquisition and processing has been investigated. All in all, the study of indefiniteness is relevant for philosophy of language, semantic theory, the syntax-semantics interface, language typology, historical linguistics, and psycholinguistics. Additional relevant references to indefinite descriptions and indefiniteness appear in the Oxford Bibliographies articles Definiteness, Anaphora, Negation, and Polarity.

Textbooks and General Overviews

The literature on indefiniteness in linguistics, logic, and philosophy of language is quite extensive. Hawkins 1978 focuses on descriptive features of indefinites in relation to definites. Haspelmath 1997 provides a large-scale typological overview of indefinite pronouns. De Swart 1998 is a textbook introduction to natural language semantics, which pays special attention to indefinites. Szabolcsi 2010 provides a survey of the literature on quantification, scope, and indefinites. Landman 2004 (cited under Type-Shifting Perspectives) and Dobrovie-Sorin and Beyssade 2012 offers in-depth book-length overviews of the descriptive and formal semantic features of indefinites. Recent encyclopedic and handbook articles discussing the role of indefinites in the linguistics, logical, and philosophical debates of the 20th and early 21st century include Abbott 2006, Ludlow 2011, and Heim 2012.

  • Abbott, Barbara. 2006. Definite and indefinite. In Encyclopedia of language and linguistics. 2d ed. Vol. 3. Edited by Keith Brown, 392–399. Oxford: Elsevier.

    Concise overview of a range of characterizations of the definite/indefinite contrast that have been proposed in the literature. Contains many illustrative examples and puzzles and helpful definitions of terminology. Accessible to undergraduate students.

  • Dobrovie-Sorin, Carmen, and Claire Beyssade. 2012. Redefining indefinites. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-94-007-3002-1

    English translation of the French Définir les indéfinis, published in 2004. Accessible, yet thorough overview of the logical, semantic, and linguistic literature on indefinites and bare singulars/plurals, dealing with scope, weak/strong interpretations, and genericity. Includes discussion of French indefinite mass nouns and plurals introduced by du/des.

  • Haspelmath, Martin. 1997. Indefinite pronouns. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Large-scale typological study on the form and meaning of indefinite pronouns in a wide range of languages that is widely cited in the literature. Groups special meanings such as specificity, polarity, and free choice in semantic maps, which provides insight into the distributional patterns of indefinites across languages.

  • Hawkins, John A. 1978. Definiteness and indefiniteness. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press.

    Early work that describes a wide range of uses of definite and indefinite noun phrases in natural language grammar and defines many empirical puzzles that subsequent literature tries to account for. While the definite article signals inclusive reference to objects in the shared speaker-hearer set, the indefinite article refers exclusively.

  • Heim, Irene. 2012. Definiteness and indefiniteness. In Handbook of Semantics. Edited by Klaus von Heusinger, Claudia Maienborn, and Paul Portner, 996–1024. Berlin: De Gruyter.

    Characterizes definites and indefinites as different in semantic type, uniqueness, and presuppositionality. Empirical issues addressed concern scope, genericity, and implicatures. Accessible to graduate students.

  • Ludlow, Peter. 2011. Descriptions. In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta.

    Provides an in-depth overview of the role definite and indefinite descriptions have played in the philosophical literature of the 20th century. Discusses many puzzles that challenge the Russellian theory of definite descriptions but also includes their relation to indefinites. Accessible to graduate students.

  • de Swart, Henriëtte. 1998. Introduction to natural language semantics. Stanford, CA: Center for the Study of Language and Information.

    Provides an accessible introduction to semantics for undergraduate students and readers with little or no background in logic. Chapters 4–6 and chapter 8 pay attention to indefinites in classical logic, Generalized Quantifier theory, and discourse theories. As a textbook, it includes exercises.

  • Szabolcsi, Anna. 2010. Quantification. Research Surveys in Linguistics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511781681

    Excellent reading for advanced undergraduate and graduate students looking for a thorough overview of the syntax-semantics interface literature on quantification, including generalized quantifier theory, scope, and indefinites.

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