We can think of many things as having types and tokens, for example we can easily separate the idea of a 'number' and all the many quantities that use that number, why do we struggle to separate the idea of a type from a token? For example if I ask someone to tell me how many digits are in the numeral '111' they may say '1' or '3', The word letter is also ambiguous in this way, We have the letter 'A' and the different letter 'B' but yet 'Boot' is still called a 'four letter word'. Why do we not simply define the 'letter' to be the unique symbols 'A', 'B' etc, and refer to each token simply as a 'token' or 'occurrence' of the letter, similarly for digits, it seems strange that Logicians and linguists have not simply make this distinction clear.

  • When we count the letters of a word or the digits of a number we usually consider the number of symbols occurring in them, repetitions included. Thus "111" has four digits (also if it needs only one numeral to be written). The idea of type-token is well reflected into the difference between different typographical ways of writing the symbol "a" in a written text: we read it as "a" irrespective of the fact that is written with Arial or Courier. Commented Aug 23, 2022 at 8:48
  • But in practice the distinction is quite complex: we have an abstract (the symbol) that we identify in multiple (sometimes slightly) different "incarnations" that in turn may occur many time in different part of the text. Commented Aug 23, 2022 at 8:48
  • Why do we have pervasive ambiguity, period, in natural languages? So as not to overload them with words most of which will be rarely, if ever, used, and strictures that most speakers will not observe anyway. Moreover, natural languages constantly evolve by shifting meanings to cover novel situations, which proliferates ambiguities, and context serves just fine to distinguish shades of meaning without exploding the vocabulary, supplemented by clarifications where necessary. Logicians and linguists have no awesome powers to function as word police even if they tried. And they did try, in vain.
    – Conifold
    Commented Aug 23, 2022 at 10:13
  • 1
    @MauroALLEGRANZA did you mean three digits, or am I being stupid?
    – Confused
    Commented Aug 23, 2022 at 16:48

1 Answer 1


"Why do we struggle to separate the idea of a type from a token?"

Well, in ordinary language, there is no such struggle. It is typically clear via context exactly what someone means, and if not, clarification is easily offered, and even if not, there are no weighty matters (ontological import!) hinging on the distinction.

To my knowledge, there is no deep struggle in logic about this distinction, since in fact it is usually perfectly clear what a logician means by letter, typically that very mark on the page. For linguistics the distinction is more important. There are at least two reasons why linguists do not define such notions. First, linguists have not come to agreement on what a type is. In particular, while most linguists (implicitly perhaps) accept phonetic, morphemic, and lexicographic types, it is unclear whether there are semantic types. Secondly it is unclear whether is it their job to- a linguist is typically paid to test empirical hypotheses about language. For more, see https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/types-tokens/#Lin. But perhaps they should be, see Hutton 1990 (referenced in source above).

Further, tokens are not occurences, for that argument, see Can something be both a type and a token?

  • The answer in essence: it makes no difference to anyone, unless you're a weirdo like me who notices these things!
    – Confused
    Commented Aug 23, 2022 at 16:52
  • Well, it isn't that philosophers haven't noticed such a thing. But as @conifold notes, most logicians and linguists simply don't view it as their job to clarify such matters. And since there doesn't appear to be anything resting on the matter (their view), it would be a waste of time to do so
    – emesupap
    Commented Aug 23, 2022 at 17:31
  • I just find it a bit
    – Confused
    Commented Aug 23, 2022 at 21:06

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .