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Glossary of Literary Theory
by Greig E. Henderson and Christopher Brown

Reference / referent:

The object in the external world to which a sign may or may not point. As a signifier, "cat" must be differentiated from all other signifiers which are similar ("bat," "cab" and so forth); as a signified, it must be linked with a concept ("a carnivorous mammal . . ."); as a referent, it must correspond to a real existent in the world. Unlike "cat," "unicorn" is a sign that has no referent. Structural linguistics, phenomenology, structuralism, and poststructuralism deliberately banish any consideration of the referent.

© Greig E. Henderson and Christopher Brown,
University of Toronto
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University of Toronto English Library
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Last modified: March 31, 1997