Word and concept reference

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This article/section is a stub — some half-sorted notes, not necessarily checked, not necessarily correct. Feel free to ignore, or tell me about it.


In linguistics, reference often refers to one (or both) of:

  • reference from one word to another word, such as the relation between pronouns and nouns
  • the semantic reference from from a word to a concept (see lexicalisation) or real-world object

object is also addressed, as well as various details such as type/instance reference, interaction with abstract/proper nouns/names, and more.

In human understanding and computational interpretation, referent resolution is an important task, which quickly becomes a disambiguation process.

Related terms include

  • referent - the thing that is referred to, be it an object, action, state, attribute, or anything else you can talk about
  • referential realm - anything you can think to talk about
  • coreference - the concept of multiple references to the same referent
For example You said you would come.

See e.g. pronouns, and various anaphora.


This article/section is a stub — some half-sorted notes, not necessarily checked, not necessarily correct. Feel free to ignore, or tell me about it.

The referent is the object a reference leads to -- something that is referred to (there does not seem to be a common term for the source of a reference - people seem to rephrase around this)

The concept is both used in the semantic sense (a word referring to the world, something you can wax philosophic about) and, apparently more commonly, in a sentence structure sense (e.g. a pronoun referring to a noun).

The default referent is often the most recent subject (antecedent) that lexically, semantically, and/or pragmatically matches well enough, though it can also refer to an object, action, state, relationship, attributes and probably more.

Note that even concrete things that we can refer to (such as a specific person or object) can be referred to in many different ways and styles.

Semantic theories might say that while there is one referent in the referential realm (that is, the realm of things we can refer to, talk about), there are various ways to refer to it. Such cases may (arguably) often be a little easier to resolve, since such concrete referents are often fairly unambiguous in themselves.


Deixis (adjective: deictic) is often understood as reference that depends on the person, place, time, and other aspects of the viewpoint they create.

It includes orientational reference in terms of time and space - who is speaking, relative position, when they were speaking, and more.

Consider the information that words like "I", "you", but also "here", "then", "this", "that", "go", "come" and such give you.

Sentence elements that are deictic, such as demonstratives, need to be resolved in context, and cannot be understood without context. This happens particularly in dependent clauses.

More formally, the origo is the context/viewpoint from which the reference is made and which must be understood for interpretation, and is the thing that may move around, as it does e.g. in conversation.


(Note that in the context of rhetoric, anaphora refers to emphasis by repetition. While related, that sense is ignored here; the below details anaphora as it relates to reference.)

Anaphora refers to (the concept of) reference by an expression, often a coreference to another expression.

The reference in a specific example may be seen as being syntactic (e.g various pronouns), semantically implied through omission (see e.g. things that have been called Null Complement Anaphora, VP ellipsis), or bound only in semantics and not syntax (see e.g. donkey pronoun/anaphora).

When anaphora are contrasted with cataphora, anaphora refer backwards in text or utterances (the assumed usual case) and cataphora refer forwards.

In more general contexts, anaphora can refer to both.

If you want to specifically say you don't know the direction, you would probably use endophora (or endophoric anaphora), meaning references to something in the same text.

Exophora are references to things outside the text.

Interpretation (human or computational) will often try to resolve and bind endophoric anaphora where possible. Expophora not so much.

Pro-forms may be anaphora, but need not be.(verify)

Donkey anaphora

The terms donkey anaphora, donkey pronouns, donkey sentence, and possibly others, are named for a classical example: Every farmer who owns a donkey beats it..

It is common sense that resolves which farmers beat how many donkeys.

You probably find it obvious, but this comes from semantic/pragmatic level of everyday sence, because syntax alone doesn't get you there.

More technically, this refers to cases where binding (and the eventual meaning/interpretation) makes more sense at a semantic/pragmatic level than a syntactic one.

This is a problem when machine parsing wants to mark up meaning as specifically as it can.

See also:


Grounding refers to establishing a time, location, or other situational detail, particularly when this is necessary for discourse.

In synthetic languages, inflection takes care of grounding to some noticeable degree.

Symbol grounding

The concept of symbol grounding is similar, but a different, somewhat more technical concept:

The relation of words with their concepts, which gets into semiotics, and cognitive aspects.


Demonstratives (like this, that, these, those) indicate which entities are being referred to.

Demonstratives help us be brief within discourse with minimal ambiguity.

are determiners that is used deictically to indicate a referent's spatial, temporal, or discourse location.

Most demonstratives are deictic, in that their resolution (and so meaning) can be resolved from closeby context.

Not least because a lot of uses are spatial or temporal deixis. For example, many languages indicate distance, by having one set of demonstratives that are for closeby (e.g. this), another for further away (e.g. that).

Demonstratives can also refer to more abstract concepts, and topics probably count as that, which blurs the line towards anaphora (which often reference other expressions)

See also