The multi-dimensional feature-based dynamic model of the semantics of BNs

Ewa Rudnicka (University of Wrocław) Maciej Piasecki (Wrocław University of Technology)

Our objective in this paper is to build a multi-dimensional, feature-based dynamic model of the semantics of bare nominals (henceforth, BNs), which would have possibly widest cross-linguistic applicability. By BNs we will mean singular and plural arguments, which do not involve any overt exponents of definiteness and quantification, and, hence, are open for the rich variety of interpretations. The accounts of the semantic structure of BNs that have appeared so far ascribe the status of the basic meaning to some sort of either kind or indefinite reading, and argue that other readings are derived (from this basic one) by means of mechanisms of interaction of this basic meaning with contextual factors (cf. the kind approach of Carlson 1977, the indefinite approach of Diesing 1992, the Neo-Carlsonian kinds approach of Chierchia 1998 and Dayal 2003.)

We believe that the semantics of BNs (and other nominals as well) can be best accounted for with the help of a multi-dimensional model, which should involve reference, quantification and definiteness, as interacting, but still independent of each other dimensions. Every dimension will be defined by means of a cluster of characteristic features, which take binary values. Such an approach allows to give precise descriptions of various BNs readings in terms of different configurations of values of features from distinct dimensions. Thus, reference will distinguish between kind and object-referring BNs; quantification will specify the scopal properties of BNs as well as properties related to varieties of quantification (e.g. cumulative or collective); whereas definiteness will determine the status of a BN with respect to the context of interpretation (e.g. uniqueness, familiarity and specificity features). Let us illustrate the working of our model with the examples of English and Polish bare plurals and Polish bare singulars:

Sasanki są prawem chronione.
'Pasque-flowers are protected by law.'

a. Wydaje mi się, że po strychu kręci się kot.

'It seems to me that a cat is hanging around in the attic'

Wydaje mi się, że kot kręci się po strychu.

'It seems to me that the cat is hanging around in the attic.'

Czterech chłopców pocałowało żabę.

'Four boys kissed a frog.'

In (1) the bare plural sasanki - 'pasque-flowers' appears in the subject position of the kind-favouring predicate być prawem chronionym - 'be protected by law.' The BP gets the following reading: +kind, +universal, +collective. In (2a) the BS kot - 'cat' is interpreted as +object-referring, -definite, +specific. Note that in (2a) the BS appears in the focus position. If it is shifted to topic position as in (2b), it gets a different reading, namely, +object-referring, +definite. In (3) the BS appears in the object position and its semantic specification runs as follows: +object-referring, -definite, -specific, +wide scope.

In contrast to the existing models of the semantics of BNs, our model does not rely on the precedence of any particular reading over other possible readings, and, thus, avoids the danger of monostratal approaches, which analyse all the possible readings as if they were located on one level. The multi-dimensional perspective offered by our model allows to represent various BN interpretations as unique clusters of values of features from distinct, although interacting dimensions.


Carlson, G. 1977. "A Unified Analysis of the English Bare Plural." Linguistics &Philosophy.

Chierchia, G. 1998. "Reference to Kinds Across Languages." Natural Language Semantics 6.

Dayal, V. 2001. "Number Marking and (In) definiteness in Kind Terms." Ms. Rutgers University.

Diesing, M. 1992. Indefinites. Cambridge, Mass. :MIT Press.

Hess, M. 1989. Reference and Quantification in Discourse. Unpublished dissertation. University of Zurich.