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Beginning with the early works of Aristotle, the interpretation of the verb to be runs through Western linguistic thought like Ariadne's thread. As it unravels, it becomes intertwined with philosophy, metaphysics, logic, and even with mathematics—so much so that Bertrand Russell showed no hesitation in proclaiming that the verb to be was a disgrace to the human race.

In this book, Leonard Talmy proposes that a single linguistic/cognitive system, targeting, underlies two domains of linguistic reference, those termed anaphora (for a referent that is an element of the current discourse) and deixis (for a referent outside the discourse and in the spatiotemporal surroundings). Talmy argues that language engages the same cognitive system to single out referents whether they are speech-internal or speech-external.