Journal of Linguistics

Research Article

Indeterminacy by underspecification1


a1 Faculty of Linguistics, Philology and Phonetics, University of Oxford

a2 Powerset, San Francisco

a3 Department of Language and Linguistics, University of Essex


We examine the formal encoding of feature indeterminacy, focussing on case indeterminacy as an exemplar of the phenomenon. Forms that are indeterminately specified for the value of a feature can simultaneously satisfy conflicting requirements on that feature and thus are a challenge to constraint-based formalisms which model the compatibility of information carried by linguistic items by combining or integrating that information. Much previous work in constraint-based formalisms has sought to provide an analysis of feature indeterminacy by departing in some way from ‘vanilla’ assumptions either about feature representations or about how compatibility is checked by integrating information from various sources. In the present contribution we argue instead that a solution to the range of issues posed by feature indeterminacy can be provided in a ‘vanilla’ feature-based approach which is formally simple, does not postulate special structures or objects in the representation of case or other indeterminate features, and requires no special provision for the analysis of coordination. We view the value of an indeterminate feature such as case as a complex and possibly underspecified feature structure. Our approach correctly allows for incremental and monotonic refinement of case requirements in particular contexts. It uses only atomic boolean-valued features and requires no special mechanisms or additional assumptions in the treatment of coordination or other phenomena to handle indeterminacy. Our account covers the behaviour of both indeterminate arguments and indeterminate predicates, that is, predicates placing indeterminate requirements on their arguments.

(Received August 28 2007)

(Revised October 07 2008)


c1 Authors' addresses: Centre for Linguistics and Philology, University of Oxford, Walton St., Oxford OX1 2HG, UK

c2 Powerset, Inc., a Microsoft company, 475 Brannan St., San Francisco, CA 94107, USA

c3 Department of Language and Linguistics, University of Essex, Wivenhoe Park, Colchester CO4 3SQ, UK


[1] Thanks for feedback and helpful discussion to Anne Abeillé, Doug Arnold, Jim Blevins, Ron Kaplan, Ingo Mittendorf, Irina Nikolaeva, and two anonymous JL reviewers, none of whom, of course, are responsible for anything we have made of their comments. The work reported here was carried out with the support of the Arts and Humanities Research Board under project AN10939/APN17606, which we gratefully acknowledge.