Reference and Inference

You have already come across the notion of reference in the section on Semantics where it was contrasted to sense, and defined as the relation between the linguistic expression and the entity in the real world to which it refers. However, words themselves actually do not refer to anything but the people using them.

Those referring expressions can be:
1) proper nouns'John L. Austin''Osnabrück'
2) definite noun phrases'the philosopher''the city'
3) indefinite noun phrases'a man''a place'
4) pronouns'he, him''it'

Reference, as the act of the speaker/writer using a linguistic form to enable a listener/reader to identify something, depends on the speaker's intentions (e.g. to refer to sth.) and on the speaker's beliefs (e.g. so the listener can identify the speaker's intention).

Since successful reference does not only depend on the speaker but also on the listener, we have to include the notion of inference, which denotes the process of decoding the pragmatic meaning of an utterance. In order to do so, the listener uses additional knowledge to make sense of what has not been explicitly said.

Have a look at the following three sentences and figure out the difference between the referring expressions set in boldface:

a. There's a woman waiting for you.
b. She wants to marry a man with lots of money.
c. I'd like to see a unicorn.

Go to page Referential and Attributive Use in order to read more on this topic.