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De Jure Coreference and Transitivity1

N.A. Pinillos

1. Introduction

Theorists have noted an important difference between two ways of referring to the same

thing. The pair of expression occurrences in <Mark Twain, Mark Twain> corefer de

jure.2 In contrast, the pair in <Mark Twain, Samuel Clemens> corefer de facto.

Following Kit Fine (2007), we can say that the de jure pair represent the referent as the

same while the second one does not do so. There are roughly three ways of capturing this

difference. One could say that de jure coreference between two expression occurrences

happen because (a) the occurrences have identical meanings, (b) they have identical

syntactic properties, or (c) they enter into a semantic relation not grounded in identity of

meaning or syntax. In what follows, I give some reason to think that de jure coreference

is not a transitive relation. As a consequence, we can rule out (a) and (b) just on these

grounds alone (since identity is a transitive relation). (c) then looks promising. I argue

that this gives further support for a relationist semantics along the lines of what Kit Fine

has proposed.

2. Two Tests for De Jure Coreference

The distinction between de jure and de facto coreference can be grasped at the intuitive

level. But we will need sharper tests to get at the hard cases. I propose two here. One

concerns knowledge of coreference and the other concerns embedding in belief clauses.

For helpful comments, I would like to thank Stew Cohen, Sam Cumming, Kit Fine, Michael McGlone,
Robert May, Michael Nelson, Adam Sennet and conference participants at the 2008 Western APA meeting
where parts of this paper were presented.
Here is a small sample of theorists who have addressed this issue whether at the level of thought or
language (and often using different terminology). J. Campbell (1984), Robert Fiengo and Robert May
(1994, 2006), Kit Fine (2007), K. Lawlor (2001), and Ken Taylor (2003).

Consider the following:

(1) Mark Twain is Mark Twain.

(2) The Prime Minister personally invited Mark Twain, but he didnt show up.

(3) The Prime Minister personally invited Mark Twain, but Mark Twain didnt

show up.

Focus on the most natural uses of these sentences such that the italicized occurrences are

intended to be coreferential.3 These occurrences exhibit de jure coreference. To get at the

heart of the matter, we need to compare (1-3) with their de facto counterparts:

(4) Mark Twain is Samuel Clemens.

(5) The Prime Minister personally invited Mark Twain, but he [pointing at Mark

Twain but not realizing that the person being pointed to is called Mark Twain]

didnt show up.

(6) The Prime Minister personally invited Mark Twain, but Samuel Clemens

didnt show up.

One important difference between (1-3) and (4-6) is that for the former, any hearer who

grasps and fully understand those sentence uses must know that the relevant occurrences

corefer.4 If they fail to know this, then they failed to fully understand that sentence use.

For example, suppose that upon hearing the natural use of (2), one were to respond this

Throughout this paper I will speak of uses of sentences. This seems like theory neutral way to proceed.
We can intuitively recognize that a surface string has a certain use before we make a decision as to whether
the use corresponds to a syntactic, semantic or pragmatic phenomenon.
Of course I am idealizing that the agent has the reference concept or something related.

way wait a second, I dont really know if he and Mark Twain designate the same

man. The natural reaction is to say that this person fails to understand the intended use

of (2).

Contrast the above with the de facto examples in (4-6). If we look at (4), for

instance, it is possible to fully grasp this sentence use without knowing that the terms

corefer. This might happen if one doesnt believe the identity statement. While such a

person might lack knowledge of literary history, he cannot be also blamed for

misunderstanding the use of the sentence.

Now one important caveat here is that, in (4) for example, a hearer might in fact

have personal doubts about whether Mark Twain exists at all. Arguably, this is

compatible with her fully grasping the sentence use. We should then say that what the

person knows when there is de jure coreference is that there is coreference if there is

reference at all.

These ideas suggest the following test for de jure coreference:

KNOWLEDGE TEST: To test if coreferential occurrences A and B in discourse D

exhibit de jure coreference, check to see if this is true: anyone who fully grasps D thereby

knows that if A and B refer at all (A refers to something and B refers to something) then

they refer to the same thing. If the answer is yes then this is evidence that there is de

jure coreference. If not, then this is evidence that there is de facto coreference.5

I point out that Kit Fine (2007, pg. 40) uses a different test for de jure coreference: [a pair is de jure
coreferential if] anyone who raises the question whether reference was the same would thereby betray his
lack of understanding of what you meant. This test is different from mine since, it seems to me, that one
could raise a question about some claim even if it is known.

It should be clear from the previous remarks that we can use this test to establish that (1-

3) exhibit de jure coreference, while (4-6) exhibit de facto coreference.

I introduce another test. This has to do with embedding the uses (1-6) in belief

ascriptions. We find that existential generalization on de jure coreferential occurrences is

closed under belief. For example, consider (2) which now gives way to (2)

(2) Sally believes that (the Prime Minister invited Mark Twain, but he didnt

show up).

If (2) is true, the following will also be true:

(7) Sally believes that the prime minister invited someone who didnt show up.

(7) follows from (2) in part because Mark Twain and he in (2) are de jure

coreferential. Contrast this with (5), which if embedded in a similar way (5), does not

entail (7):

(5) Sally believes that the Prime Minister personally invited Mark Twain, but he

[pointing at Mark Twain but not realizing that the person being pointed to is called Mark

Twain] didnt show up.

Sally may have this belief and still not think that that the person invited was the person

who failed to show up (she might think of them as distinct). The entailment does not hold

then in part because coreference in the embedded construction is de facto and not de jure.

We can use this test then to distinguish de jure from de facto coreference:

BELIEF EMBEDDING TEST: To test whether two coreferential occurrences A, B in a

sentence use S believes AB are de jure coreferential, check to see whether it

entails S believes x(x...x). If it does, then this is evidence that A and B are de jure

coreferential. If not, then this is evidence that they are de facto coreferential.

I emphasize that the test is just that, a test. It will not be able to cover some cases at the

border. First, it is arguable that if Sally believes that Mark Twain is Samuel Clemens, she

will believe anyways there is some x such that x is identical to x. But we dont want to

say that Mark Twain and Samuel Clemens exhibit de jure coreference. Second, if A

and B concern fictional names, we might not want to say that the believer thinks the

existential generalization. With some further refinement the test can be modified to cover

these cases. However, since these issues will not arise in this context (I do not bring up

fictional names, for example), I do not want to complicate the tests beyond what is


3. Transitivity

Consider the following on their most natural readings. (co-indexing indicates de jure


(8) We were debating whether to investigate both Hesperus1 and Phosphorus2; but when

we got evidence of their true identity, we immediately sent probes there 1,2 .

(9) As a matter of fact, my neighbor John1 is Professor Smith2, you will get to meet (the

real) John Smith1,2 tonight.

(10) Hesperus1 is Phosphorus2 after all, so Hesperus-slash-Phosphorus1,2 must be a very

rich planet.

(11) Smith1 is wearing a costume, so Sally thinks he2 is someone other than Smith1.6

(12) He1,2 is often in drag, so yesterday Sally thought that Smith1 wasnt Smith2.

Let us consider (8) first. Here, Hesperus and Phosphorus are de facto coreferential.

Why? First, they are paradigm cases of de facto coreference. Second, using the

Knowledge test, it is plausible that one can understand the use of (8) without having

genuine knowledge that those occurrences corefer. Imagine someone hearing (8) but

merely believing (not knowing) that the occurrences corefer (perhaps they are somewhat

skeptical of the astronomical findings). We wouldnt think that their not knowing (and

merely believing) disqualifies them from understanding: such a hard line stance would

make communication too hard to achieve.

It might objected that the sentence use in (8) presupposes that hesperus and

phosphorus corefer and as a consequence conversational participants must know that

coreferential fact (contrary to what I have said here). This objection is off track. Even if

Soames (1994) uses a case like this to show that the anaphor in (11) cannot inherit a Fregean sense from
the first occurrence of Smith. This is correct since if it did, then Sally couldnt possibly have the thought
(11) ascribes to her.

there is such a presupposition, this doesnt require that hearers know it. Presuppositions

need not be known, even if the higher order fact that they are presuppositions is

something that must be known by competent hearers. 7

Let us now consider there in the use of (8). there and Hesperus are de jure

coreferential because (using the knowledge test) one who understands the use of (8) must

know that if there refers at all it must corefer with Hesperus. Hearers who understand

the use of (8) know that those occurrences cant refer to different objects. Similarly,

hearers who understand the use of (8) must also know that if there refers at all, it must

corefer with Phosphorus. Hearers must know that they cant refer to different things.

Hence, the Knowledge test yields that there is de jure coreferential with both Hesperus

and Phosphorus.

The considerations from the last two paragraphs yield the result that de jure

coreference is not a transitive relation. In the use of (8), Hesperus and Phosphorus are

each de jure coreferential with there. But since they are not de jure coreferential with

each other, we get the desired result. The reader may check that similar remarks apply to

(9) and (10).

I turn to (11) and (12) which now concern the Belief Embedding test. Let us look

at (12). The last two occurrences of Smith must de facto corefer. If they were de jure

coreferential, then it should follow that Sally thought that there is an x such that x is not x

(an absurd belief). But we dont suppose that the truth of (12) commits us to that result.

Hence we conclude that the last two occurrences of Smith are de facto coreferential.

Presuppositions need not be known: A use of The moon is flat too uttered at a meeting of the flat earth
society presupposes that the earth is flat, but no one knows that the earth is flat.

What about He in (12)? Of course, here it is important that the pronoun is not

accompanied by any deictic demonstration. Under this assumption, we can say that

competent speakers must know that the pronoun corefers with each of the uses of

Smith. If someone claimed that they didnt know whether the pronoun coreferred with

the first Smith (for example), we would judge that they didnt understand the intended

use of (12).

Using the tests, we just saw that the Smith occurrences in (12) are de facto

coreferential. However, we saw that the pronoun is de jure coreferential with each of the

Smith occurrences. This shows, again, that de jure coreference is not a transitive

relation. The reader may check herself that similar remarks apply to (11).

The cases that I have presented point to an unappreciated phenomenon in

language. If I may speak loosely, it is possible for speakers to link two expression

occurrences that are de facto coreferential to a third occurrence in such a way that the

third occurrence is committed to be coreferential with the first two. Although the cases

may be rare, they are robust. More importantly, these cases tell us a lot about the nature

of de jure coreference.8

4. Consequences

If de jure coreference is not transitive, then accounts which say that the relation is

explained by identity of meaning or identity of syntactic form will be inadequate

(because identity is transitive) . This will include Fregean inspired accounts including

I want to issue a caveat. There might be various competing ways of further analyzing (8-12). It might be
thought that the data I have provided should only be given after I have defended particular analyses of these
constructions. I do not believe that this is the right way to proceed. Intuitions about sentence uses often
count as evidence before any analysis is attempted. This is especially true here, where the data presented
rely on simple intuitions about reference, knowledge and entailment.

two-dimensional semantics. Similarly, syntactic accounts such as Fiengo and Mays

(1994, 2006) will also fall short.9

Fine, Fiengo and May and others have made a case that if we take de jure

coreference seriously as an independently motivated notion, then we can look with fresh

eyes at some long standing problems of philosophy.10 Given that hesperus and

phosphorus designate the same object, Gottlob Frege (1892) worried about finding a

semantic difference between pairs such as the following:

(13) Hesperus is Hesperus

(14) Hesperus is Phosphorus

Freges point is that (13) and (14) differ in a priori status, cognitive significance and

information content. But note also that (13) involves de jure coreference where (14) does

not. Continuing with our thought, suppose that the important difference between these

two is somehow derived from the de jure/de facto coreference distinction. If so, then

given our remarks about intransitivity and de jure coreference, we should not expect that

the important difference between the two statements is to be found by appealing to

identity of meaning or syntax. As a consequence, Freges well-known solution to the

problem he posed, which relies on the identity of meaning between the occurrences in

(13) but not in (14), is ultimately unsatisfying. This should be a welcome result for direct

reference theorists, who have thought that the difference between (13) and (14) cannot be

The criticism will also extend to accounts that rely on identity of variables or discourse referents to
explain de jure coreference.
Fine ,Op. Cit. Fiengo and May, Op. Cit.

found by positing a distinction in meaning between coreferring proper names anyways. In

this regard, the arguments in this paper provide yet another reason to be dissatisfied with

the Fregean framework.

Finally, let us then turn to Kit Fines relationism.11 Kit Fine has argued that (13) is

not synonymous with (14) but not in virtue of hesperus and phosphorus having

different meanings. (He is a Millian so he thinks that they do not so differ). Instead, he

believes that some meaning facts are irreducibly relational. The relation in question is

coordination. Thus, in (13) the two Hesperus occurrences are coordinated while the

corresponding occurrences of hesperus and phosphorus in (14) are not coordinated.

This counts as a difference in semantic properties between the statements and this can

help explain the important differences Frege noted.

The arguments given in this paper support Fines theory, or something close to

it.12 Fines idea that some meaning facts must be understood in the first place as a

relation, and not one that is derived from the identity of some objects, seems like the most

plausible way to accommodate the failure of transitivity noted here. Ultimately, the case

for or against transitivity will have to face all the evidence, so I do not claim that

considerations I have raised in this short paper are conclusive. At the very least, I hope to

have indicated how the question of transitivity raised here might be a useful one to ask

for those interested in the representational capacity of natural languages.

Works Cited

Campbell, J. 1987. Functional Role and Truth Conditions: Is Sense Transparent.

Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume LXI

Fine, Op. Cit.
Fine, Op. Cit. does not endorse failure of transitivity for a single discourse. He does, however, thinks
transitivity fails for case of inter-discourse exchange. The arguments he gives there are not related to the
ones I have provided here.

Fiengo, R and May, R. 1994. Indices and Identity. MIT Press

Fiengo, R. and May, R 2006. De Lingua Belief. MIT Press.

Fine, K 2007. Semantic Relationism. Blackwell Publishing

Frege, G. 1892. On Sense and Reference. Reprinted in P. Geach and M. Black, (eds.),
Translations from the Philosophical Writings of Gottlob Frege. Oxford: Blackwell,

Lawlor, K 2001. New Thoughts About Old Things: Cognitive Policies as the Ground of
Singular Concepts. Garland Publishing.

Soames, S. 1994. Attitudes and Anaphora. Philosophical Perspectives 8.

Taylor. K. 2003. Reference and The Rational Mind. CSLI