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Summary It is clear enough that definite descriptions like "the F" are often used to talk about specific objects in the world.   It is far less clear, however, what the significance of this claim should be for semantic theory.  Some have posited that definite descriptions have a semantically-significant "referential use".  Indeed, some have gone so far as to propose that there are semantically-significant referential uses of indefinite descriptions as well.  When used referentially, the idea goes, descriptions serve to make the truth-conditions of the utterance of which they are a part object-dependent.  In contrast, others have claimed that definite and indefinite descriptions each represent unified semantic categories, categories which serve to isolate objects only indirectly, via descriptions of them (those who allow for semantically-significant referential uses call uses in line with this analysis "attributive uses").  According to this unified analysis, descriptions can still be used in context to talk about specific objects, but this is a matter not just of their meaning, but also of the shared background assumptions of the speaker and listener.  In other words, the effective use of these expressions to talk about specific objects is a matter of pragmatics, not semantics.  The question of whether to allow for a semantically-significant referential use of definite and indefinite descriptions thus turns out to hinge on a set of deeper questions regarding the nature of semantics and pragmatics, and, in particular, what constitutes the border between these.
Key works Russell 1905 proposed to treat sentences containing definite descriptions (e.g. "The F is F") as semantically equivalent to "There is one and only one F, and it is G."  In other words, and in contrast to his earlier Russell 1903, Russell proposed to treat definite descriptions, semantically, as a univocal class of non-referring terms.  As against this analysis, both Strawson 1950 and Donnellan 1966 argue that definite descriptions are only sometimes used attributively—that is, in line with Russell's analysis.  Often, definite descriptions are used to refer, and such referential uses differ in their truth-conditions from what the attributive analysis would predict.  In particular, such uses are object-dependent.  Kripke 1977 offers a defense of the univocal, attributive analysis, arguing that while definite descriptions may be used to refer, this is a pragmatically significant observation rather than a semantic one.  Subsequently, Neale 1990 has furthered these arguments, whereas Reimer 1998 and Devitt 1997 have offered additional arguments in favor of the semantic significance of referential uses of definite descriptions.  Finally, Chastain 1975 suggests extending the notion of semantically-singificant referential uses to indefinite descriptions as well.
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  1. Barbara Abbott, Specificity and Referentiality.
  2. Krešimir Agbaba (2009). Attributive” Uses of Definite Descriptions Are Always Attributive. Kriterion 22:1-6.
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  3. Felipe S. Amaral (2008). Definite Descriptions Are Ambiguous. Analysis 68 (300):288-297.
  4. Kent Bach (2007). Referentially Used Descriptions: A Reply to Devitt. European Journal of Analytic Philosophy 3 (2):33-48.
  5. Kent Bach (1981). Referential/Attributive. Synthese 49 (2):219 - 244.
  6. Rod Bertolet (1981). Referential Uses and Speaker Meaning. Philosophical Quarterly 31 (124):253-259.
  7. Rod Bertolet (1980). The Semantic Significance of Donnellan's Distinction. Philosophical Studies 37 (3):281 - 288.
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  8. A. Bezuidenhout (1997). Pragmatics, Semantic Undetermination and the Referential/Attributive Distinction. Mind 106 (423):375-409.
    It has long ben recognised that there are referential uses of definite descriptions. It is not as widely recognised that there are atttributives uses of idexicals and other such paradigmatically singular terms. I offer an account of the referential/attributive distinction which is intended to give a unified treatment of both sorts of cases. I argue that the best way to account for the referential/attributive distinction is to treat is as semantically underdetermined which sort of propositions is expressed in a context. (...)
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  9. William K. Blackburn (1988). Wettstein on Definite Descriptions. Philosophical Studies 53 (2):263 - 278.
    I critically examine an argument, due to howard wettstein, purporting to show that sentences containing definite descriptions are semantically ambiguous between referential and attributive readings. Wettstein argues that many sentences containing nonidentifying descriptions--descriptions that apply to more than one object--cannot be given a Russellian analysis, and that the descriptions in these sentences should be understood as directly referential terms. But because Wettstein does not justify treating referential uses of nonidentifying descriptions differently than attributive uses of nonidentifying descriptions, his argument fails.
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  10. Alan Brinton (1977). Uses of Definite Descriptions and Russell's Theory. Philosophical Studies 31 (4):261 - 267.
  11. Keith S. Donnellan (1966). Reference and Definite Descriptions. Philosophical Review 75 (3):281-304.
    Definite descriptions, I shall argue, have two possible functions. 1] They are used to refer to what a speaker wishes to talk about, but they are also used quite differently. Moreover, a definite description occurring in one and the same sentence may, on different occasions of its use, function in either way. The failure to deal with this duality of function obscures the genuine referring use of definite descriptions. The best known theories of definite descriptions, those of Russell and Strawson, (...)
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  12. Peter A. French, Theodore Edward Uehling & Howard K. Wettstein (eds.) (1977). Studies in the Philosophy of Language. University of Minnesota, Morris.
  13. Saul A. Kripke (1977). Speaker's Reference and Semantic Reference. In Peter A. French, Theodore E. Uehling Jr & Howard K. Wettstein (eds.), Studies in the Philosophy of Language. University of Minnesota Press. 255-296.
    am going to discuss some issues inspired by a well-known paper ofKeith Donnellan, "Reference and Definite Descriptions,”2 but the interest—to me—of the contrast mentioned in my title goes beyond Donnellan's paper: I think it is of considerable constructive as well as critical importance to the philosophy oflanguage. These applications, however, and even everything I might want to say relative to Donnellan’s paper, cannot be discussed in full here because of problems of length. Moreover, although I have a considerable interest in (...)
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  14. Stephen Neale (1990). Descriptions. Mit Press.
    When philosophers talk about descriptions, usually they have in mind singular definite descriptions such as ‘the finest Greek poet’ or ‘the positive square root of nine’, phrases formed with the definite article ‘the’. English also contains indefinite descriptions such as ‘a fine Greek poet’ or ‘a square root of nine’, phrases formed with the indefinite article ‘a’ (or ‘an’); and demonstrative descriptions (also known as complex demonstratives) such as ‘this Greek poet’ and ‘that tall woman’, formed with the demonstrative articles (...)
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  15. Michael Nelson (1999). Wettstein's Incompleteness, Salmon's Intuitions. Noûs 33 (4):573-589.
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  16. Gary Ostertag (2005). Review of Anne Bezuidenhout (Ed.), Marga Reimer (Ed.), Descriptions and Beyond. [REVIEW] Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews 2005 (8).
  17. Gary Ostertag (1998). Definite Descriptions: A Reader. MIT Press.
  18. D. E. Over (1985). Constructivity and the Referential/Attributive Distinction. Linguistics and Philosophy 8 (4):415 - 429.
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  19. Francesco Pupa (2008). Ambiguous Articles: An Essay On The Theory Of Descriptions. Dissertation, The Graduate Center, CUNY
    What, from a semantic perspective, is the difference between singular indefinite and definite descriptions? Just over a century ago, Russell provided what has become the standard philosophical response. Descriptions are quantifier phrases, not referring expressions. As such, they differ with respect to the quantities they denote. Indefinite descriptions denote existential quantities; definite descriptions denote uniquely existential quantities. Now around the 1930s and 1940s, some linguists, working independently of philosophers, developed a radically different response. Descriptions, linguists such as Jespersen held, were (...)
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  20. Francesco Pupa (2007). Referential Usage and Gödelian Completions. The Reasoner 1 (6):5-6.
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  21. Francois Recanati (1989). Referential/Attributive: A Contextualist Proposal. [REVIEW] Philosophical Studies 56 (3):217 - 249.
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  22. Marga Reimer (1998). Donnellan's Distinction/Kripke's Test. Analysis 58 (2):89–100.
  23. Wojciech Rostworowski (forthcoming). Roundabout Semantic Significance of the 'Attributive/Referential' Distinction. Kriterion - Journal of Philosophy 27 (1):30-40.
    In this paper, I argue that contrary to the approach widely taken in the literature, it is possible to retain Russell's theory of definite descriptions and grant some semantic significance to the distinction between the attributive and the referential use. The core of the argumentation is based on recognition of the so-called "roundabout" way in which the use of a definite description may be significant to the semantic features of the sentence: it is a case where the use of a (...)
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