The Nature of Linguistic Variables

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The concept of a variable is central to a range of explanations in linguistics and the
philosophy of language, especially pertaining to quantification and so-called ‘empty
categories’. The notion however, is in need of disambiguation. My aim is to remove the
ambiguity by first settling on a formal characterization of a variable and then
distinguishing between three grades of variable involvement: variables as theoretical
artifacts, as features of semantic representations, or as syntactically realized items. I
shall suggest that the first grade is relatively innocent, although unfortunately often
wedded to a general antirealism about syntax. The second semantic grade, however, is
difficult to evaluate on its own terms. The best case for semantic variables is for the third
grade to be vindicated, but the evidence for syntactically realized variables is weak and if
the notion of a variable is the formal concept, the position is conceptually problematic.
The notion of a linguistic variable therefore remains to be properly explained.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationOxford Handbooks Online
Subtitle of host publicationPhilosophy, Philosophy of Language
PublisherOxford University Press
Number of pages38
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2014


  • variables
  • quantification
  • empty categories
  • syntax
  • semantics

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