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When we 'mention' a word in a sentence e.g:

'Car' has three letters.

We denote it by writing it in apostrophes or quotation marks, however, we still write the word to specify the word, is it in some sense denoting itself? There are often apostrophes or speech marks however if John is a man then " 'John' " can easily denote him as 'John' does.

Is it a case that either:

A. " 'Car' " is the string that denotes the word.

B. To 'denote' is in the object language, I.E. a word cannot 'denote' itself.

C. Writing the word to 'denote' itself is not correct but must be done for convenience so as not to come up with a name for every word.

Or can all three be correct?

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  • 4
    Old paradox. If an adjective refers to itself, call it homogeneous. If it doesn't, call it heterogeneous. Question: Is heterogeneous heterogeneous? If it is, it isn't; and if it isn't, it is. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grelling%E2%80%93Nelson_paradox
    – user4894
    Jan 26, 2023 at 22:24
  • It's what comes after that's important.
    – Hudjefa
    Mar 9, 2023 at 18:18

5 Answers 5

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In everyday speech a written word such as car can be taken to refer to the spoken word car or to the idea of a car or to a particular car, and it can be used to denote itself.

When the word is being used to denote itself, you will often find it enclosed in quotation marks. If you wanted to be pedantic, you could take the view that the string consisting of the word in quotes is what is denoting the word, so the word does not have to denote itself- but that would overlook the fact that people might not bother to use quotes when using the word to denote itself.

So, referring explicitly to the final part of your question: A is correct, B is clearly not true in everyday speech, and nor is C. There is no absolute 'correctness' in everyday language, and we can avoid having to come up with a name for every word by using the tactic of enclosing the word in quotes when we want to refer to it as a word.

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I believe you are asking whether the string of letters which form a word “denotes” the meaning of the word as commonly defined.

I would say yes. A word denotes itself, while the letters connote the word they comprise. Many languages are phonic systems. So “Car” is not just a random string of letters, the letters indicate sounds. A lexicon of words confer meaning to a specified sound, and then its written form. In its written for, “car”, denotes itself (i.e. the meaning of the word, which is then added into the context of the communication).

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All words can denote themselves if put between apostrophes or quotation marks. (As someone above pointed out, technically it's not just the word but the word plus the enclosing apostrophes or quotation marks that denotes the word.) Without apostrophes or quotation marks, no word should be taken to denote itself, unless there is a word the referent of which is that word itself. I'm not sure whether there is such a word. I don't think the word "word" even satisfies this, since it refers to any word, not just this particular word. (Maybe it does in the sentence "This word has four letters.")

Everyday speech is rife with ambiguities. Philosophers prescribe conventions to mark distinctions that are implicit in everyday speech, in order to minimize misunderstandings in their discussions. So in everyday speech people might not mark the distinction between "John is the guy's name" and "'John' is the guy's name," but in philosophical discussions the former is as incorrect as the claim "Love is just a four-letter word." (Dan Dennett uses this as an example of what he calls "deepities.")

Your discussion of the title question seems to waver between asking whether it's the case in some sense or whether it's the case strictly speaking. Strictly speaking, words do not denote themselves; words plus the enclosing apostrophes or quotation marks denote themselves. So A is true and B is true. As for C, the first conjunct ("Writing the word to 'denote' itself is not correct") is true, but the second conjunct ("but must be done for convenience as not to come up with a name for every word") is false. So C is false. The second conjunct is false because the aforementioned punctuation conventions allow us to refer to words without inventing new words for them; so there is no pragmatic necessity for using words without the punctuation conventions to refer to the words themselves. Of course, everyday language does it all the time, but there's no need to. So in some sense any word can self-denote, but strictly speaking no word can self-denote (unless, as noted above, some special counterexamples qualify, like "word" or "noun" or "portmanteau").

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  • Okay, you are claiming that usage in the use-mention distinction is self-denoting. But isn't the convention of using delimiters merely akin to indexing or dichotomizing as a psychological operation. That is, 'use' and use are simply use_1 and use_2 indicated without literal indexes? Is the operation of denotation broader than conforming, in the general case, to criteria of sufficiency and necessity?
    – J D
    Feb 5, 2023 at 19:44
  • I'm not claiming that the use of a word is (ordinarily) self-denoting; I'm claiming that the mention of a word (i.e. by putting it in apostrophes or quotation marks) denotes the word itself (i.e. is self-denoting, if we set aside the technicality raised in the second sentence of my answer). I agree that the punctuation convention is a marker of a psychological operation; as I said, the point of the convention is to make explicit a distinction that is often left implicit in everyday language.
    – Dayv87
    Feb 6, 2023 at 22:27
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The simple answer is no. All words are not self-denoting. You seem to confusing denoting with use-mention distinction. Let's walk through it.

In linguistics and philosophy, the denotation of an expression is its literal meaning. For instance, the English word "warm" denotes the property of being warm.strong text

Thus, if a word doesn't have the properties itself that it denotes, it is not self-denoting. Words that are self-denoting are autological.

For example, 'hot' has a denotation that something is not cold, is capable of burning flesh, has a certain temperature, and so on. Is the word 'hot' itself hot? As a general rule no. You could create the word 'hot' in iron, put in the fire, and then when it's glowing pull it out and say, 'hot' is now hot! There'd be an argument whether the word 'hot' consists of the medium in which it is created or not, and so on, but the important thing to remember, is that denotation is satisifed by meeting the criteria of the definition. Hence, 'no' is a word that is not very sesquipedalian (MW), but 'sesquipedalian' is sequipedalian! Thus, 'sesquipedalian' is self-denoting, but hot is not.

The apostrophes you mention are not a syntactical mechanism to express self-denotation, but rather are to differentiate between use and mention. For instance, 'the snow is white' is true if the snow is white, is a famous philosophical claim regarding the relationship between words and objects and is part of a theory of metalanguage. There is a difference between 'John' and John means that there is a difference between the name John and the person John. Linguists will often use subscripts to express the same idea; so again, there is a difference between JOHN1 and JOHN2 where JOHN1 is the name John and JOHN2 is the person John. (Note, that one can use appositives, which is the traditional mechanism in English grammar.)

So it's important to understand that denotation and use-mention distinction are distinct concepts, and not to confuse the two, even though when writing about self-denotation, use-mention distinction is used.

References:

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Based on the dictionary definitions of "denotation" I would say that no words are self denoting. Denoting in that context is a verb. Words are symbols, some of which are called verbs, but words have no capacity to act, and therefore cannot denote themselves.

Consider two denotations (dictionary definitions) of the word 'denotation':

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/denotation

  1. An act or process of denoting

  2. : MEANING especially : a direct specific meaning as distinct from an implied or associated idea

I remember being taught at an early age that we should avoid circular definitions. However, denotation (1) as the act or process of denoting is circular on the root word 'denote'!

'Car' - to me this means an act or process of denoting, that is, in a non-circular definition, it is an act or process or using the symbols c-a-r to evoke meaning.

Car - this word evokes the denotations (explicitly defined meanings) and connotations (implied or non-defined meanings) which are all denoted (1) as 'car'.

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