What is specificity?

Specificity is a semantic-pragmatic notion that distinguishes between different uses or interpretations of indefinite noun phrases. It is related to the communicative or pragmatic notion of “referential intention”. A speaker uses an indefinite noun phrase and intends to refer to a particular referent, the referent “the speaker has in mind”. This communicative function of the indefinite has various consequences for sentence and discourse semantics. Specificity was originally introduced to describe the different potential of two types of indefinites to introduce discourse referents. In subsequent work, this contrast was related to the referential properties of indefinites in opaque contexts and to the scopal behavior of indefinites with respect to extensional operators. Since then specificity has been used to describe further contrasts such as different epistemic states of the speaker, different grades of familiarity and different levels of discourse prominence. The intuitive contrast of specific vs. non-specific indefinites was quickly accepted. The new notion of specificity spread throughout the linguistic community, in formal semantics, pragmatics and in syntax, as well as in descriptive and functional linguistics, and a large number of different types of specificity were introduced. There is no agreed-upon set of semantic and pragmatic properties of specific indefinites. They have been characterized, for instance, (i) (direct) referential terms, (ii) rigid designators, (iii) always showing wide scope, (iv) signaling the certainty of the speaker about the identity of the referent, (v) licensing discourse anaphora, (vi) being presuppositional, and (vii) discourse prominence. It is controversial which of the mentioned characteristics are essential for a definition of specificity. Research on specificity in the last four decades has not only proven very productive, introducing new theories and tools such as the use of choice functions. It has also deepened our understanding of the semantics and pragmatics of indefinites and of the interpretation of noun phrases in general. Furthermore it has defined new research questions and challenges for the semantics-pragmatics interface as well as the semantics-syntax interface. Yet the very question of the nature of specificity is still open: What are the linguistic phenomena that should count as good instances of specificity contrasts? Is specificity just a general communicative principle or a proper semantic category? And if the latter is the case what is the semantic contrast between a specific and a non-specific indefinite?

- see more in recent publication
- see seven types of specificity