Definite, Indefinite, Referential, Generic & Specific Expression


Definite – a noun phrase that is marked to indicate that the speaker believes the addressee can identify its referent

Indefinite – when the noun phrase is not marked with the assumption that the addressee can identify the referent

Kanbulo: Who brought in the cat?
Futhu: The boy.

Pronouns and proper nouns are generally definite – but there are exceptions

There is a Hassan Thakuru on my register who hasn’t yet showed up for a single class this semester.

In English and many other languages, definiteness is marked by the choice of articles (the Vs a) or by demonstratives (this & that)

Some languages have only one article (e.g. Fijian)


na totoka mua
Article handsome sailor
‘The handsome sailor’

e dua na totoka mua
he/she/it one Article handsome sailor
‘A handsome sailor’

Many languages do not have articles at all, and hence mark definiteness in other ways (e.g. Chinese)

There are also some languages that have two word forms – one definite and one indefinite (e.g. Rotuman)

Definiteness is different from givenness as a noun phrase can be:
a. definite and given

Once upon a time, in a town far away, there lived a beautiful princess. One day, the beautiful princess was cursed by a wicked witch.

b. indefinite and given


On his birthday, he took us to a café a café so noisy that it was impossible to hear yourself think, let alone have a conversation.
c. definite and new

Any medication should be taken only after consulting the physician.

d. indefinite and new

Yousuf is waiting for a lovely girl with curly hair.
Yousuf is waiting for a lovely girl with curly hair; her name is Zainab.

Out of the above, definite and given and indefinite and new are most common

Definiteness and givenness are two distinct categories of information structure

A referential noun phrase is one that refers to a particular entity.

Referentiality and definiteness need to be distinguished as a noun phrase can be:
a. referential and definite

He’s the president of the committee.

b. referential and indefinite

My son bought a rabbit.

c. nonreferential and definite

Where’s the closest café around here?

d. nonreferential and indefinite
We need to write an essay.

Although pronouns and proper nouns are usually referential, certain pronouns such as you, it, they and one are often nonreferential.

If you borrow others’ ideas, you need to acknowledge them.
It is said that the Maldives is paradise for tourists from cold climates.
They have changed the deadline for the assignment again.
One shouldn’t panic in situations such as these.

A noun phrase may be generic or specific depending on whether it refers to a category or to a particular member of a category.

The cat is a feline.
The cat is sleeping.

Generic/specific contrast is a separate category that differs from definiteness and referentiality.

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By azu