Interpreting referential noun phrases in belief reports -- the de re/de dicto competition
Yuhan Zhang, Kathryn Davidson
July 2024

The de re/de dicto ambiguity centers on the referential and/or attributive properties of noun phrases in the scope of intentional operators such as belief reports. For the belief report "Julie believes Elizabeth’s poem will win the competition", a de re reading of the embedded referential noun phrase "Elizabeth’s poem" entails that the referential association between this noun phrase and the target poem is true from the perspective of the speaker but may not be registered as such in the belief holder’s (e.g. Julie’s) mind. In contrast, a de dicto reading describes Julie’s beliefs as she registers them in her mind. While both the de re and de dicto readings of definite noun phrases like Elizabeth’s poem are generally available given supporting contexts, we show that the de re acceptability is vulnerable to contextual and pragmatic manipulations to the extent of obtaining the opposite truth value, even when the rest of the context permits a de re reading. Specifically, when the de re permitting context also allowed a de dicto reading of a competing noun phrase that refers to the same entity, the speaker-oriented de re reading of the target noun phrase achieved bimodal acceptability and participants preferred the de dicto noun phrase that oriented toward the belief holder’s mind. Our study is the first that systematically lays out the empirical landscape of de re/de dicto readings of definite noun phrases, which solidifies the foundation for formal theory development and endorses the practice of collecting reliable empirical judgment data for nuanced semantic phenomena.
Format: [ pdf ]
Reference: lingbuzz/007689
(please use that when you cite this article)
Published in: Glossa Psycholinguistics
keywords: de re/de dicto, definite noun phrases, belief reports, linguistic judgment, experimental semantics, context effects, semantics
previous versions: v3 [May 2024]
v2 [February 2024]
v1 [October 2023]
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