An experimental investigation of the expression of genericity in English, Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese

Tania Ionin, Silvina Montrul, Hélade Santos

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This study examines NPs in generic environments cross-linguistically. According to the semantic literature, NPs obtain generic readings from two sources: characterizing sentences (Lions are dangerous) and kind-reference (Dodo birds are extinct). English, Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese are known to differ in the types of NPs (definite vs. indefinite; singular vs. plural) that are allowed in the two types of environments, but there is disagreement in the literature concerning (i) the status of bare (article-less) NPs in generic environments in Brazilian Portuguese; and (ii) whether singular and/or plural generics are restricted to canonical kinds cross-linguistically. The broader goal of this paper is to use experimental methodology to resolve these disagreements; the more specific goal is to test the theoretical proposal of Dayal (2004), which makes testable predictions for the distribution of generic NPs cross-linguistically. The results of Acceptability Judgment Tasks with native speakers of English, Spanish, and Brazilian Portuguese provide support for Dayal's proposal that plural generics cross-linguistically denote kinds, while definite singular generics denote taxonomic entities. These findings highlight the value of experimentally testing the predictions of semantic theories, and pose questions for further research.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)963-985
Number of pages23
Issue number5
StatePublished - Apr 2011


  • Determiners
  • Experiment
  • Genericity
  • Kinds
  • Nouns
  • Semantics

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language


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