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A reference, or a references point, is the intensional use of one thing, a point of reference or reference state, to indicate something else. When reference is intended, what the reference points to is called the referent.

General Examples
Some general examples are:
  • the name Jane Doe used to identify a particular woman;
  • a traffic sign warning of an upcoming turn-off;
  • a wedding ring indicating a certain kind of relationship; and
  • samples of various musical works being incorporated into a new one.
References are indicated by sounds (like onomatopoeia), pictures (like roadsigns), text (like bibliographies), indexes (by number) and objects (a wedding ring); but endless concrete and abstract methods can be used intentionally. This includes methods that intentionally hide the reference from some observers, as in cryptography.

The following sections give specific usages of reference in different subjects.

Academics and scholarship

In academics and scholarship, an author-title-date information in bibliographies and footnotes, specifying complete works of other people. Copying of material by another author without proper citation or without required permissions is plagiarism.

Keeping a diary allows an individual to use references for personal organization, whether or not anyone else understands the systems of reference used. However, scholars have studied methods of reference because of their key role in communication and co-operation between different people, and also because of misunderstandings that can arise. Modern academic study of reference has been developing since the 19th Century.

Academic writing

In academic literature, a reference is a previously published written work within academic publishing that has been used as a source for theory or claims referred to that are used in the text. References contain complete bibliographic information so the interested reader can find them in a library. References can be added either at the end of the publication or as footnotes.

In publishing, a reference is citation of a work, in a footnote, from which an idea was taken.


In scholarship, a reference may be a citation of a text that has been used in the creation of a piece of work such as an essay, report, or oration. Its primary purpose is to allow people who read such work to examine the author's sources, either for validity or to learn more about the subject. Such items are often listed at the end of an article or book in a section marked "Bibliography" or "References". A bibliographical section often contains works not cited by the author, but used as background reading or listed as potentially useful to the reader. A reference section contains all of the works and only those works cited by the author(s) in the main text.

Languages and linguistics


In semantics, reference is generally construed as the relationships between nouns or pronouns and objects that are named by them. Hence, the word "John" refers to John. The word "it" refers to some previously specified object. The object referred to is called the "referent" of the word. Sometimes the word-object relation is called "denotation"; the word denotes the object. The converse relation, the relation from object to word, is called "exemplification"; the object exemplifies what the word denotes. In syntactic analysis, if a word refers to a previous word, the previous word is called the "antecedent".


Gottlob Frege argued that reference cannot be treated as identical with meaning: "Hesperus" (an ancient Greek name for the evening star) and "Phosphorus" (an ancient Greek name for the morning star) both refer to Venus, but the astronomical fact that '"Hesperus" is "Phosphorus"' can still be informative, even if the "meanings" of "Hesperus" and "Phosphorus" are already known. This problem led Frege to distinguish between the sense and reference of a word. Some cases seem to be too complicated to be classified within this framework; the acceptance of the notion of secondary reference may be necessary to fill the gap.

Absent referent

Words can often be meaningful without having a referent. Fictional and mythological names such as "Bo-Peep" and "Hercules" illustrate this possibility.

For those who argue that one cannot directly experience the divine (e.g. God), the sign "God" can serve as an example of a reference with an absent referent. Additionally, certain sects of Judaism and other religions consider it sinful to write, discard, or deface the name of the divine. To avoid this problem, the signifier G-d is sometimes used, though this could be seen as a sign that refers to another sign with an absent referent.

In mathematics, the absent referent can be seen with the symbol for zero, "0" or the empty set, "{ }".

Linguistic sign

The semantic sign can be considered a subset of a more general concept, the linguistic sign, first elucidated by Ferdinand de Saussure. A sign contains two parts, the signified (a thought that represents an object), and the signifier (the sound or written word). Both have a referent (the actual physical object).

The sign is a building block for texts that supplies sound and meaning. The smallest building block is called a morpheme and may be lexical (or referential, carrying a lexical or encyclopedic meaning, i.e. refer to real-life entities). This kind of extra-linguistic reference is called deixis after a Greek word meaning "to point". In contrast, grammatical morphemes express reference to more abstract categories such as time (tense) or location (locative). Certain parts of speech exist only to express reference, viz. anaphora, i.e., typically pronouns. The subset of reflexives expresses co-reference of agent (actor) and patient (acted on), as in "The man washed himself".

The arts

In Art, a reference is an item from which a work is based. This may include:
  • an existing artwork,
  • a reproduction (i.e., photo),
  • directly observed object (i.e., person), or
  • the artist's memory.
Another example of reference is samples of various musical works being incorporated into a new one.


Work references

In the labour market, potential employers often ask job applicants for references, so that their suitability can be verified independently. The references can be a written letter, but are often just a contact telephone number. Employers can ask for professional references, which are from former employers or for character references, which are from people of distinction, such as doctors or teachers, who are known to the applicant and can vouch for their employability.

Formal sciences

Computer science

In computer science, reference are data types that refer to an object elsewhere in memory and are used to construct a wide variety of data structures, such as linked lists. Generally, a reference is a value that enables a program to directly access the particular data item. Most programming languages support some form of reference.

The C++ programming language has a specific type of reference also referred to as a "reference"; see reference .



A reference point is a location used to describe another one, by giving the relative position. Similarly there is the concept of frame of reference (both in physics and figuratively) and benchmark (in surveying and figuratively).


In law, references are documents or people providing witness to character. This connotation is also used in employment.

Patent law

In patent law, a reference is a document that can be used to show the state of knowledge at a given time and that therefore may make a claim invention obvious or anticipated. Examples of references are patents of any country, magazine articles, Ph.D. theses that are indexed and thus accessible to those interested in finding information about the subject matter, and to some extent Internet material that is similarly accessible.

Canadian law

A reference question is a procedure through which the government of Canadamarker can submit legal questions to the Supreme Court of Canadamarker and provincial governments to the provincial courts of appeal.

Library and museum studies

Library science

In a library, "reference" may refer to a dictionary, an encyclopedia or other reference work, that contains many brief articles that cover a broad scope of knowledge in one book, or a set of books. However, the word reference is also used to mean a book that cannot be taken from the room, or from the building. Many of the books in the reference department of a library are reference works, but some are books that are simply too large or valuable to loan out. Conversely, selected reference works may be shelved with other circulating books, and may be loaned out.

References to many types of printed matter may come in an electronic or machine-readable form. For books, there exists the ISBN and for journal articles, the Digital object identifier is gaining relevance. Information on the Internet may be referred to by a Uniform Resource Identifier .

Librarians also conduct reference interviews at library reference desks, to help people find the information they seek. Help may also be available outside the library though virtual reference and digital reference services.

See also


External links

  • – a multi-source encyclopedia search service, and language reference products provider
  • – a directory of multidisciplinary reference resources on the web
  • Reference Resources – reference related websites in the Yahoo! Directory
  • REF. Museum - The online museum of references

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