The referential ambiguity of personal pronouns and its pragmatic consequences
  • ISSN 1018-2101
  • E-ISSN: 2406-4238


The present contribution examines how interlocutors resolve reference problems concerning the second singular person (2sg) in ongoing conversation. Apart from its ‘normal’ reading as a term of address, generic and also speaker-referring uses have been documented and studied for a variety of languages. However, there are amazingly few documented cases of interlocutors who openly display having problems of disambiguation between forms of address and reference to a larger entity ‘anybody in this particular situation’. A sequential analysis shows that interlocutors tend not to ask for further specification of reference in a possibly ambiguous situation, most likely for face reasons: Instead, they tend to rely on contextualization in later conversational development and on all available conversational resources. Ambiguous reference that leads to misunderstandings only becomes a topic once serious conversational problems arise and the need for disambiguation becomes more important than interlocutors’ face needs.


Article metrics loading...

Loading full text...

Full text loading...


  1. Bolinger, Dwight
    (1979) To catch a metaphor. You as norm. American Speech54.3: 194-209. doi: 10.2307/454949
    https://doi.org/10.2307/454949 [Google Scholar]
  2. Borthen, Kaja
    (2010) On how we interpret plural pronouns. Journal of Pragmatics42.7: 1799-1815. doi: 10.1016/j.pragma.2009.02.008
    https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pragma.2009.02.008 [Google Scholar]
  3. Brown, Penelope , and Stephen Levinson
    (1978/1987) Politeness: Some universals in language usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
    [Google Scholar]
  4. Bühler, Karl
    [1982] (1934) Sprachtheorie. Stuttgart: Fischer.
    [Google Scholar]
  5. Coveney, Aidan
    (2003) ‘Anything you can do, tu can do better’. Tu and vous as substitutes for indefinite on in French. Journal of Sociolinguistics7.2: 164-191. doi: 10.1111/1467‑9481.00218
    https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9481.00218 [Google Scholar]
  6. Moneglia, Massimo
    (2005) The C-ORAL-Rom Resource. In Emanuela Cresti , and Massimo Moneglia (eds.), C-ORAL-Rom. Integrated reference corpora for spoken Romance languages. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, pp.1-70. doi: 10.1075/scl.15.03mon
    https://doi.org/10.1075/scl.15.03mon [Google Scholar]
  7. Dancygier, Barbara , and Eve Sweetser
    (2005) Mental spaces in grammar. Conditional constructions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi: 10.1017/CBO9780511486760
    https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511486760 [Google Scholar]
  8. De Cock, Barbara
    (2014) Profiling discourse participants. Forms and functions in Spanish conversation and debates. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company. doi: 10.1075/pbns.246
    https://doi.org/10.1075/pbns.246 [Google Scholar]
  9. de Hoop, Helen , and Sammie Tarenskeen
    (2015) It’s all about you in Dutch. Journal of pragmatics88: 163-175. doi: 10.1016/j.pragma.2014.07.001
    https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pragma.2014.07.001 [Google Scholar]
  10. Duchan, Judith , Gail Bruder , and Lynne Hewitt
    (eds.) (1995) Deixis in narrative. A cognitive science perspective. Hillsdale/NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
    [Google Scholar]
  11. Ehmer, Oliver
    (2011) Imagination und Animation. Die Herstellung mentaler Räume durch animierte Rede. Berlin: de Gruyter. doi: 10.1515/9783110237801
    https://doi.org/10.1515/9783110237801 [Google Scholar]
  12. De Fina, Anna
    (2003) Identity in narrative. A study of immigrant discourse. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company. doi: 10.1075/sin.3
    https://doi.org/10.1075/sin.3 [Google Scholar]
  13. DeMello, George
    (2000) ‘Tú’ impersonal en el habla culta. Nueva Revista de Filología Hispánica48.2: 359-372.
    [Google Scholar]
  14. Du Bois, Inke
    (2009) ‘Wir bleiben Kanzlerin – We are pregnant’? On grammatical, semantic and pragmatic usages of the ‘we’ pronoun. Saarland working papers in linguistics3: 21-34.
    [Google Scholar]
  15. (2010) Discursive constructions of immigrant identity. A sociolinguistic trend study on long-term American immigrants. Frankfurt: Peter Lang.
    [Google Scholar]
  16. Duszak, Anna
    (2002) Us and others. Social identities across languages, discourses and cultures. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company. doi: 10.1075/pbns.98
    https://doi.org/10.1075/pbns.98 [Google Scholar]
  17. Fauconnier, Gilles
    (1979) Mental spaces: A discourse processing approach to natural language logic. Manuscript, University of California, San Diego.
    [Google Scholar]
  18. (1985) Mental spaces: Aspects of meaning construction in natural language. Cambridge/Mass.: The MIT Press. [reprinted 1994 Cambridge: Cambridge University Press].
    [Google Scholar]
  19. Fauconnier, Gilles , and Mark Turner
    (2002) The way we think: Conceptual blending and the mind’s hidden complexities. New York: Basic Books.
    [Google Scholar]
  20. Gregersen, Frans , and Torben Juel Jensen
    (this volume) What do(es) you mean? The pragmatics of generic second person pronouns in modern spoken Danish. Pragmatics26.3: 417-446. doi: 10.1075/prag.26.3.04jen
    https://doi.org/10.1075/prag.26.3.04jen [Google Scholar]
  21. Hummel, Martin , Bettina Kluge , and María Eugenia Vázquez Laslop
    (eds.) (2010) Formas y fórmulas de tratamiento en el mundo hispánico. México DF: El Colegio de México.
    [Google Scholar]
  22. Hyman, Eric
    (2004) The indefinite YOU. English Studies2: 161-176. doi: 10.1076/enst.
    https://doi.org/10.1076/enst. [Google Scholar]
  23. Jensen, Torben Juel
    (2009) Generic variation? Developments in use of generic pronouns in late 20th century spoken Danish. Acta Linguistica Hafniensia41: 1-19. doi: 10.1080/03740460903364128
    https://doi.org/10.1080/03740460903364128 [Google Scholar]
  24. Kitagawa, Chisato , and Adrienne Lehrer
    (1990) Impersonal uses of personal pronouns. Journal of Pragmatics14: 739-759. doi: 10.1016/0378‑2166(90)90004‑W
    https://doi.org/10.1016/0378-2166(90)90004-W [Google Scholar]
  25. Kluge, Bettina
    (2010) El uso de formas de tratamiento en las estrategias de generalización. In Martin Hummel , Bettina Kluge , and María Eugenia Vázquez Laslop (eds.), Formas y fórmulas de tratamiento en el mundo hispánico. México DF: El Colegio de México, pp.1107-1139.
    [Google Scholar]
  26. (2012) Referential ambiguity in discourse. The generic use of the second person singular in the Romance languages. Habilitation thesis, Universität Bielefeld.
    [Google Scholar]
  27. Laberge, Suzanne , and Gillian Sankoff
    (1979) Anything you can do. In Talmy Givón (ed.), Syntax and semantics, vol. 12: Discourse and syntax. New York: Academic Press, pp.419-440.
    [Google Scholar]
  28. Lakoff, George
    (1987) Women, fire and dangerous things: What categories reveal about the mind. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. doi: 10.7208/chicago/9780226471013.001.0001
    https://doi.org/10.7208/chicago/9780226471013.001.0001 [Google Scholar]
  29. Locher, Miriam , and Richard Watts
    (2005) Politeness Theory and Relational Work. Journal of politeness research, 1.1: 9–33. doi: 10.1515/jplr.2005.1.1.9
    https://doi.org/10.1515/jplr.2005.1.1.9 [Google Scholar]
  30. Malchukov, Andrej , and Anna Siewierska
    (2011) Introduction. In Andrej Malchukov , and Anna Siewierska (eds.), Impersonal constructions. A cross-linguistic perspective. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, pp.1-15. doi: 10.1075/slcs.124.01mal
    https://doi.org/10.1075/slcs.124.01mal [Google Scholar]
  31. Rubba, Jo
    (1996) Alternate Grounds in the interpretation of deictic expressions. In Gilles Fauconnier , and Eve Sweetser (eds.), Spaces, worlds and grammars. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, pp.227-261.
    [Google Scholar]
  32. Sacks, Harvey , Emanuel Schegloff , and Gail Jefferson
    (1974) A simplest systematics for the organization of turn-taking for conversation. Language50.4: 696-735. doi: 10.1353/lan.1974.0010
    https://doi.org/10.1353/lan.1974.0010 [Google Scholar]
  33. Schegloff, Emanuel
    (1992) Repair after next turn. The last structurally provided defense of intersubjectivity in conversation. American Journal of Sociology97.5: 1295-1345. doi: 10.1086/229903
    https://doi.org/10.1086/229903 [Google Scholar]
  34. Siewierska, Anna
    (2004) Person. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi: 10.1017/CBO9780511812729
    https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511812729 [Google Scholar]
  35. Spencer-Oatey, Helen
    (2005) (Im) Politeness, face and perceptions of rapport: Unpackaging their bases and interrelationships. Journal of politeness research1.1: 95-119. doi: 10.1515/jplr.2005.1.1.95
    https://doi.org/10.1515/jplr.2005.1.1.95 [Google Scholar]
  36. (2007) Theories of identity and the analysis of face. Journal of Pragmatics39.4: 639-656. doi: 10.1016/j.pragma.2006.12.004
    https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pragma.2006.12.004 [Google Scholar]
  37. Stewart, Miranda
    (1992) Personal reference and politeness strategies in French and Spanish: A corpus-based approach. Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Edinburgh: Heriot-Watt University, Department of Modern Languages.
    [Google Scholar]
  38. (1995) Personally speaking … or not? The strategic value of on in face-to-face negotiation. French Language Studies5: 203-223. doi: 10.1017/S0959269500002763
    https://doi.org/10.1017/S0959269500002763 [Google Scholar]
  39. Sweetser, Eve , and Gilles Fauconnier
    (1989) Cognitive links and domains: Basic aspects of mental space theory. In Gilles Fauconnier , and Eve Sweetser (eds.), Spaces, worlds, and grammar. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, pp.1-28.
    [Google Scholar]
  40. Tarenskeen, Sammie
    (2010) From you to me (and back). The flexible meaning of the second person pronoun in Dutch. Unpublished Master’s thesis in General Linguistics, Radboud University Nijmegen. (URL: www.ru.nl/publish/pages/518697/sammie_scriptie_definitief.pdf, 29.62011).
    [Google Scholar]
  41. Temmerman, Martina
    (2008) ‘Today, we’re all Danes.’ Argumentative meaning of the 1st and 2nd person pronouns in newspaper editorials on the Muhammad cartoons. L’analisis linguistica e letteraria16: 289-303 (= Special issue: Proceedings of the IADA Workshop Word Meaning in Argumentative Dialogue, Homage to Sorin Stati, Milan 15-17 May, 2008).
    [Google Scholar]
  42. Wales, Katie
    (1996) Personal pronouns in present-day English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
    [Google Scholar]
  43. Wedgwood, Daniel
    (2011) The individual in interaction: Why cognitive and discourse-level pragmatics need not conflict. Intercultural Pragmatics8.4: 517-542. doi: 10.1515/iprg.2011.024
    https://doi.org/10.1515/iprg.2011.024 [Google Scholar]
  44. Zobel, Sarah
    (this volume) A pragmatic analysis of German impersonally used first person singular ‘ich’. Pragmatics26.3: 379-416. doi: 10.1075/prag.26.3.03zob
    https://doi.org/10.1075/prag.26.3.03zob [Google Scholar]
This is a required field
Please enter a valid email address
Approval was successful
Invalid data
An Error Occurred
Approval was partially successful, following selected items could not be processed due to error