Experimenting with the king of France: Topics, verifiability and definite descriptions

Márta Abrusán, Kriszta Szendrői


Definite descriptions with reference failure have been argued to give rise to different truth-value intuitions depending on the local linguistic context in which they appear. We conducted an experiment to investigate these alleged differences, thereby contributing new data to the debate. We have found that pragmatic strategies dependent on verification and topicalisation, suggested in the context of trivalent/partial theories, indeed play a role in people's subjective judgments. We discuss the consequences of these findings for all major approaches to definite descriptions (i.e. Russellian, Strawsonian, pragmatic). Finally, we offer a discussion of the relative contribution of verificational and topicality effects on truth values, reaching the conclusion that verification is primarily relevant and topicality is dependent on that. We thus support von Fintel's (2004) position on the primacy of verification, but not his dismissal of topicality as a factor.


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definite descriptions; presupposition; experimental pragmatics; verifiability; topics

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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.3765/sp.6.10

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

ISSN: 1937-8912

Journal doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.3765/sp