On Indefinite Singular Generics

Journal Title
Journal ISSN
Volume Title
Consider a simple statement like 'A dog has four legs', which, under a generic reading, is an example of an Indefinite Singular (IS) generic. Different varieties of generics are differentiated by their subject nominal type; for instance, English has both the indefinite singular and bare plural (BP) generic (e.g. 'Dogs have four legs'). Crucially, IS generics have a more limited distribution than their BP counterparts. A myriad of theories have been posited to explain this, characterizing IS generics as expressing, inter alia, “rules and regulations” (Cohen, 2001), or “in-virtue-of” (Greenberg, 2003), “non-accidental” (Lawler, 1973) or “definitional” (Krifka, 2013) properties. However, no existing account captures the full variety of data. I introduce the idea that IS generics discuss samples (Elgin, 1983; Goodman, 1976) (objects which exemplify one or more properties in a given context), or more specifically abstract samples, which are mental entities. Uttering an IS generic is argued to constitute a speech act that contributes an abstract sample to the discourse, one which is deemed felicitous if it is judged to be a “good sample”, that is, one which is reflective of the kind so as to not seem like “false advertising”. Speaker intent selects the exemplified properties, as well enforces that they are characteristic of the kind (at least according to the speaker’s point of view). This degree of speaker commitment to the generalization is precisely what distinguishes IS generics from their BP counterparts. I additionally argue that characterizations of truth evaluation for IS generics in terms of being “accepted by the language community” (Cohen, 2001, p. 199) are far too broad, and that instead acceptability should be judged on a much smaller (e.g. speaker-specific) scale, meaning the use and evaluation of an IS generic is relativized to individual perspective (cf. Mari, 2008).
generics, indefinite singular generics, samples, semantics, pragmatics
Goddard, Q. (2023). On indefinite singular generics (Master's thesis, University of Calgary, Calgary, Canada). Retrieved from https://prism.ucalgary.ca.