The Pragmatics of Possession: Issues in the Interpretation of Pre-Nominal Possessives in English

  • Julia Kolkmann

Student thesis: Phd


In everyday conversation, we frequently express relationships between two entities by using attributive possessive NPs. Structurally, these consist of a possessor referent, a possessum nominal and a possessive marker which explicates said relationship. For example, if I want to enquire about a house owned by your friend Mary which you are currently decorating, I might feasibly say "How are you getting on with Mary's house?". My utterance of the pre-nominal possessive NP Mary's house allows you to represent a specific referent, ensuring that we mentally converge on the same house and are able to talk about it. This study investigates English pre-nominal possessive NPs from a pragmatic point of view.It does so with the aim of providing a cognitively plausible description of their interpretationwhich simultaneously serves to understand how they function as referring expressions in communication. In particular, I discuss some of the intricacies they pose to interlocutors when itcomes to their referential interpretation. One of these concerns the fact that pre-nominal possessives are semantically compatible with numerous different interpretations, yet reference aparticular possessive relation in concrete communicative situations. Thus, given that the Englishlanguage, quite in contrast to the majority of the world's languages, does not render thepossessive relation that holds between two entities morphosyntactically explicit, the interpretation of pre-nominal possessive NPs falls entirely within the remit of a pragmatic theory. This should explain how Mary's house, which is compatible with interpretations such asthe house that Mary is letting, the house that Mary wishes to buy, as well as various others,comes to denote the house that Mary owns in a communicative situation like the above. Fullyinterpreting this NP, as Peters & Westerståhl (2013) suggest, involves knowing what possibleinterpretations it gives rise to, selecting the most salient one to the detriment of any others, and, finally, representing a determinate referent denoted by the NP as a whole. While the first aspect has received much attention (e.g. Barker, 1995; Vikner & Jensen, 2002), the other two have been considered by only few researchers. This study represents the first holistic account of possessive interpretations which combinesall three questions to explain the various facets of their pragmatics. On the theoretical level, itsuggests that the currently dominant stance (advocated by Vikner & Jensen, 2002), accordingto which it is the lexical semantic content of the possessum nominal which largely exhausts theinterpretation process, is in need of rethinking. Contrary to existing insights, I attribute a greaterrole to context and pragmatic reasoning both at the level of possible and at the level of salientinterpretations. On the methodological level, the study is multimethodological in its approach,complementing theoretical argument by means of a psycholinguistic production study and alarge-scale corpus study. In this respect, the present study paves the way for a description of pragmatic aspects of theEnglish grammar which have hitherto been explained in terms of more descriptive possessivetaxonomies, including ones delineating alienable vs. inalienable (e.g. Nikolaeva & Spencer,2013), prototypical vs. non-prototypical (e.g. Langacker, 1995; Rosenbach, 2002) and lexicalvs. pragmatic interpretations (Vikner & Jensen, 2002). Ultimately, I suggest that construing referential interpretation as an addressee-dependent search for relevance (e.g. Sperber & Wilson, 1986/1995) largely obviates the need for taxonomies of this kind at the descriptive level.
Date of Award31 Dec 2016
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorJohn Payne (Supervisor) & Martina Faller (Supervisor)


  • Pragmatic saturation
  • Reference resolution
  • Semantics-pragmatics interface
  • English attributive possession
  • Default interpretations

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