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  • Online publication date: March 2017

Coercion vs. indeterminacy in opaque verbs


Introduction. This paper is about the semantic analysis of opaque verbs such as seek and owe, which allow for unspecific readings of their indefinite objects. One may be looking for a good car without there being any car that one is looking for; or, one may be looking for a good car in that a specific car exists that one is looking for. It thus appears that there are two interpretations of these verbs—a specific and an unspecific one—and one may wonder how they are related. The present paper is a contribution to this question.


Paris. The time of the holy inquisition. Opaque verbs differ in their semantic behaviour from ordinary verbs. This phenomenon was already known to the medieval logician Buridanus:

I posit the case that for a good service you performed forme, I promised you a good horse. [] And since I owe you this, until I have paid that concerning the payment of which I have obligated myself [], you could rightly take action against me to bring about payment to you of a horse, which you could not do if I did not owe you. [] But the opposite is argued in a difficult way.

[Buridanus (1966 [1350]: 137)]

The followingmodern version of the opposite argument is less verbose than the original:

Let us then have our horse-coper arguing again. “If I owe you a horse, then I owe you something. And if I owe you something, then there is something I owe you. And this can only be a thoroughbred of mine: you aren't going to say that in virtue of what I said there's something else I owe you. Very well, then: by your claim, there's one of my thoroughbreds I owe you. Please tell me which one it is.”

[Geach (1965: 430)]

The two arguments are based on two different ways of reading the sentence under debate (1) — an obvious, unspecific interpretation and a somewhat remote, specific one.

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