The scope of indefinites: An experimental investigation

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This paper reports on an experimental investigation of the scope of English a indefinites and a certain indefinites. Three experiments test whether native English speakers allow indefinites to scope out of syntactic islands, and to take intermediate as well as widest scope. The experimental findings indicate that a indefinites and a certain indefinites have different ranges of interpretations available to them. Experiment 1 shows that a certain indefinites, unlike a indefinites, cannot be interpreted in the scope of an intensional operator, and further shows that functional readings are available to a certain indefinites but not to a indefinites. Experiment 2 focuses on the availability of long-distance readings of indefinites out of scope islands, and shows that the most accessible reading for a certain indefinites is the widest-scope reading, while the most accessible reading for a indefinites is the narrow-scope reading. Experiment 3 shows that modification of an a indefinite by a relative clause does not facilitate long-distance readings, as long as it does not restrict the domain to a singleton set. Overall, these findings are consistent with the proposal of Schwarz (Proceedings of the Thirteenth Amsterdam Colloquium, ILCC, University of Amsterdam, 192-197, 2001) that a certain indefinites and a indefinites are derived by different semantic mechanisms. The behavior of a certain indefinites is shown to be consistent with the contextually determined choice function approach Kratzer (Events in grammar, Kluwer, Dordrecht, 165-196, 1998) and the singleton indefinite approach Schwarzschild (J Semant 19:289-314, 2002). In contrast, a indefinites are most compatible with a purely quantificational approach, contra much recent theoretical literature. These findings highlight the value of conducting experimental studies testing the predictions of semantic theories.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)295-350
Number of pages56
JournalNatural Language Semantics
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 24 2010


  • Choice function
  • Experiment
  • Indefinite
  • Island
  • Scope
  • Specificity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Philosophy
  • Linguistics and Language


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