Discourse model representation of referential and attributive descriptions

Kristine H. Onishi, Gregory L. Murphy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Definite descriptions (as in The murderer of Smith is insane) can have at least two interpretations: a referential one, in which insanity is predicated of a particular individual who killed Smith, and an attributive one, in which insanity is predicated of whoever it is that killed Smith. Experiment 1 manipulated shared knowledge and focus on specific entities, the verb in the sentence, and whether the description was definite or indefinite. Each factor influenced interpretation of the description. Experiment 2 confirmed that changing the verbs alone affected reference choice. Experiments 3 (ratings) and 4 (reading times) indicated that both referentially and attributively introduced entities are conceptually singular (better as antecedents of singular than plural pronouns) while generically introduced entities are conceptually plural. Thus, the difference between the discourse representation underlying referential and attributive interpretations does not hinge on a difference in the number of tokens being instantiated.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)97-123
Number of pages27
JournalLanguage and Cognitive Processes
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2002

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Education
  • Linguistics and Language


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