Notes on denotation and denoting

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

9 Scopus citations


In their now classic introduction to the foundations of semantic theory, Chierchia and McConnell-Ginet (1990) observe that “denotation might constitute the fundamental semantic relation” if it is possible, as they argue, to extend the elementary case of a proper name to other expressions, perhaps “to expressions of any kind whatsoever.” In the elementary case, a name like Pavarotti “refers to or denotes its bearer (the popular singer)”; and generally, “from a denotational point of view, symbols stand for objects.” This core notion – the referentialist doctrine – is standard, as indicated even in the titles of some of the founding works on these topics in the early days of contemporary linguistic semantics over half a century ago: Words and Things (Brown 1958), Word and Object (Quine 1960). And of course the referentialist doctrine has much deeper roots. Chierchia and McConnell-Ginet argue that it should serve a dual function, leading to explanation of the two fundamental questions of semantics: the link between symbols and their information content, the “aboutness of language,” its connection to the external world; and “language as a social activity.” To illustrate the critical role of denotation beyond the elementary case, Chierchia and McConnell-Ginet provide examples of language use in which noun phrases “besides proper names seem to derive their significance or semantic power from their reference.” In these cases, “an act or demonstration” individuates the reference of the expression “in our perceptual space” – e.g., the expression “this” in an utterance of “this is yellow.” And we would not “understand the meaning of the NPs in these [cases] if we didn’t know what they referred to.” Accordingly, “the notion of reference appears to be a fundamental component of what the NPs in question mean.”.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationFrom Grammar to Meaning
Subtitle of host publicationThe Spontaneous Logicality of Language
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages9
ISBN (Electronic)9781139519328
ISBN (Print)9781107033108
StatePublished - Jan 1 2011
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences


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