English article usage as a window on the meanings of same, identical and similar

Luna Filipovic, John Hawkins

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)
11 Downloads (Pure)


We propose an explanation for a traditional puzzle in English linguistics involving the use of articles with the nominal modifiers same, identical and similar. Same can only take the definite article the, whereas identical and similar take either the or a. We argue that there is a fundamental difference in the manner in which a comparison is made with these modifiers. Identical and similar involve direct comparisons between at least two entities and an assertion of either full property matching (identical), or partial property matching (similar). The comparison with same proceeds differently: what is compared is not linguistic entities directly, but definite descriptions of these entities that can be derived through logical entailments. John and Mary live in the same house entails the house that John lives in is the (same) house that Mary lives in. There must be a pragmatic equivalence between these entailed definite descriptions, ranging from full referential equivalence to a possibly quite minimal overlap in semantic and real-world properties shared by distinct referents. These differences in meaning and article cooccurrence reveal the sensitivity of syntax to semantic and pragmatic properties, without which all and only the grammatical sentences of a language cannot be predicted.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)295-313
Number of pages19
JournalEnglish Language and Linguistics
Issue number02
Early online date11 May 2016
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2016

Cite this