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Summary The mass / count dichotomy is ill-defined and contested, having been first introduced by Jespersen as both a semantic and, at one and the same time, an ontic contrast. Many writers have noted that these two contrasts in fact diverge substantially, and have often emphasized one contrast at the expense of the other. However, if and when intended as a mutually exclusive and (virtually) exhaustive contrast of two types of nouns, or occurrences or uses of nouns, the dichotomy is properly conceived as semantic, and is equivalent to the dichotomy of count and non-count nouns. The question then arises as to just what the semantic analyses of these two classes might involve. And here, among philosophers and linguists alike, the standard view posits a contrast between count nouns, as capable both of semantically singular and plural occurrences, and mass nouns, as capable of singular occurrences exclusively. Nevertheless, this view is contradicted by Jespersen’s assertion that ‘Mass-words are totally different, logically they are neither singular nor plural, because what they stand for is not countable’. And an account of precisely this non-standard form has been recently defended in detail by Laycock, and also endorsed by others. Moving beyond the semantic question now, metaphysical interest is generally directed to a specific subset of concrete mass nouns – presumed  'core' mass nouns such as 'sugar', 'gold' and 'water' that figure as words for kinds of material stuff. Within the framework of the standard semantically singularist account, these nouns are held to denote individual ‘parcels’ or ‘quantities’ of stuff and subjected to various mereological treatments. The question then has to be addressed of what to do about a wide range of ‘collective’ concrete non-count nouns, such as 'furniture' and 'footwear', which typically range, not over materials or kinds of stuff, but over individual objects referred to en masse. Again, and entirely distinct from concrete mass nouns, there are the abstract non-count nouns (not always classified as ‘mass’) which include such nouns as ‘tension’, ‘sorrow’, and ‘mercy’. These nouns have received less attention, and are commonly deployed metaphorically, as in ‘The tension gradually evaporated’, ‘Their hearts were filled with sorrow’, and the quality of mercy ‘falleth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath’.  But in all of this, the purely semantic (including model-theoretic) issues are common ground for linguists and philosophers alike, while the narrower range of metaphysical issues (see now the entry under Stuff) remain the preserve of philosophy.
Key works Jespersen's original semantic / metaphysical discussion of Jespersen 1965 sets the stage for most subsequent writing and is brought into prominence by Quine 1960. The work of Cartwright 1965 and Cartwright 1970 aims to provide a logico-semantic analysis of a range of concrete mass nouns that conforms to Quine's well-known ontic maxims. Hacker 1979 attempts a useful synthesis of much previous work. Laycock 2005 is a brief if contentious analytical summary of the semantic count / non-count contrast, and to date, Laycock 2006 is the only book-length philosophical treatment of the topic. McKay 2008 endorses that book's central claim - also made much earlier by Jespersen - that mass nouns are semantically neither singular nor plural.
Introductions Pelletier 1974, Koslicki 1999, Laycock 2005, Steen 2012
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  1. Paul Bloom (1998). Different Structures for Concepts of Individuals, Stuffs, and Real Kinds: One Mama, More Milk, and Many Mice. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 21 (1):66-67.
    Although our concepts of “Mama,” “milk,” and “mice” have much in common, the suggestion that they are identical in structure in the mind of the prelinguistic child is mistaken. Even infants think about objects as different from substances and appreciate the distinction between kinds (e.g., mice) and individuals (e.g., Mama). Such cognitive capacities exist in other animals as well, and have important adaptive consequences.
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  2. J. Brakel (1986). The Chemistry of Substances and the Philosophy of Mass Terms. Synthese 69 (3):291 - 324.
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  3. Helen M. Cartwright (1975). Some Remarks About Mass Nouns and Plurality. Synthese 31 (3-4):395 - 410.
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  4. Helen Morris Cartwright (1975). Amounts and Measures of Amount. Noûs 9 (2):143-164.
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  5. Helen Morris Cartwright (1970). Quantities. Philosophical Review 79 (1):25-42.
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  6. Helen Morris Cartwright (1965). Heraclitus and the Bath Water. Philosophical Review 74 (4):466-485.
  7. Kathleen C. Cook (1975). On the Usefulness of Quantities. Synthese 31 (3-4):443 - 457.
    I have argued that there is a philosophical problem posed by a need to determine the reference of expressions which seem to refer to kinds of stuff or matter and to make identity claims about it (e.g., ‘the gold’, ‘the same clay’). Ordinary sortal expressions such as ‘lump’, and ‘piece’ have been shown to be inadequate to the task of providing reference for the expressions in question. What is necessary is an expression which does not have an ordinary sortal use (...)
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  8. Peter Lasersohn (2011). Mass Nouns and Plurals. In Claudia Maienborn, Klaus von Heusinger & Paul Portner (eds.), Semantics: An International Handbook of Natural Language Meaning. De Gruyter Mouton. 2.
  9. Henry Laycock (2011). Every Sum or Parts Which Are Water is Water. Humana.Mente 19 (1):41-55.
    Mereological entities often seem to violate ‘ordinary’ ideas of what a concrete object can be like, behaving more like sets than like Aristotelian substances. However, the mereological notions of ‘part’, ‘composition’, and ‘sum’ or ‘fusion’ appear to find concrete realisation in the actual semantics of mass nouns. Quine notes that ‘any sum of parts which are water is water’; and the wine from a single barrel can be distributed around the globe without affecting its identity. Is there here, as some (...)
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  10. Henry Laycock, Object. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
    In The Principles of Mathematics, Russell writes: Whatever may be an object of thought, or may occur in any true or false proposition, or can be counted as one, I call a term. This, then, is the widest word in the philosophical vocabulary. I shall use as synonymous with it the words unit, individual and entity. The first two emphasize the fact that every term is one, while the third is derived from the fact that every term has being, i.e. (...)
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  11. Henry Laycock (2006). Variables, Generality and Existence. In Paulo Valore (ed.), Topics on General and Formal Ontology. Polimetrica. 27.
    So-called mass nouns, however precisely they are defined, are in any case a subset of non-count nouns. Count nouns are either singular or plural; to be non-count is hence to be neither singular nor plural. This is not, as such, a metaphysically significant contrast: 'pieces of furniture' is plural whereas 'furniture' itself is non-count. This contrast is simply between 'the many / few' and 'the much / little' - between counting and measuring. However not all non-count nouns are, like 'furniture', (...)
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  12. Henry Laycock (2006). Words Without Objects. Clarendon Press Oxford.
    A picture of the world as chiefly one of discrete objects, distributed in space and time, has sometimes seemed compelling. It is however one of two main targets of this work; for it is seriously incomplete. The picture leaves no space for stuff like air and water. With discrete objects, we may always ask "how many?," but with stuff the question has to be "how much?" Within philosophy, stuff of certain basic kinds is central to the ancient pre-Socratic world-view; but (...)
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  13. Henry Laycock (2005). 'Mass Nouns, Count Nouns and Non-Count Nouns'. In Alex Barber (ed.), Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics. Elsevier.
    I present a high-level account of the semantical distinction between count nouns and non-count nouns (concrete non-count nouns sometimes being dubbed 'mass nouns'). The basic idea is that count nouns are semantically either singular (one-one semantic correlation) or plural (one-many semantic correlation) and non-count nouns (one-much semantic correlation) are neither.
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  14. Henry Laycock (1972). Some Questions of Ontology. Philosophical Review 81 (1):3-42.
    The views of Quine and Strawson on the significance of 'mass terms' are rehearsed, and the metaphysical status of substances, in the chemist's sense, is considered. It is urged that the ontological dichotomy of particulars and universals is not adequate to accommodate such substances, which are in a sense to be explicated concrete but non-particular.
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  15. Friederike Moltmann, Proper Names, Sortals, and the Mass-Count Distinction.
    This paper reviews the role of sortals in the syntax and semantics of proper names and the related question of a mass-count distinction among proper names. The paper argues that sortals play a significant role with proper names and that that role matches individuating or ‘sortal’ classifiers in languages lacking a mass-count distinction. Proper names do not themselves classify as count, but may classify as mass or rather number-neutral. This also holds for other expressions or uses of expressions that lack (...)
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  16. Friederike Moltmann (2005). Two Kinds of Universals and Two Kinds of Collections. Linguistics and Philosophy 27 (6):739 - 776.
    This paper argues for an ontological distinction between two kinds of universals, 'kinds of tropes' such as 'wisdom' and properties such as 'the property of being wise'. It argues that the distinction is parallel to that between two kinds of collections, pluralities such as 'the students' and collective objects such as 'the class'. The paper argues for the priortity of distributive readings with pluralities on the basis of predicates of extent or shape, such 'large' or 'long'.
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  17. Friederike Moltmann (1998). Part Structures, Integrity, and the Mass-Count Distinction. Synthese 116 (1):75 - 111.
    The notions of part and whole play an important role for ontology and in many areas of the semantics of natural language. Both in philosophy and linguistic semantics, usually a particular notion of part structure is used, that of extensional mereology. This paper argues that such a notion is insufficient for ontology and, especially, for the semantic analysis of the relevant constructionsof natural language. What is needed for the notion of part structure,in addition to an ordering among parts, is the (...)
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  18. Friederike Moltmann (1997). Parts and Wholes in Semantics (Preprint). Oxford University Press.
    This book present a unified semantic theory of expressions involving the notions of part and whole. It develops a theory of part structures which differs from traditional (extensional) mereological theories in that the notion of an integrated whole plays a central role and in that the part structure of an entity is allowed to vary across different situations, perspectives, and dimensions. The book presents a great range of empirical generalizations involving plurals, mass nouns, adnominal and adverbial modifiers such as 'whole', (...)
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  19. Friederike Moltmann & Lucia Tovena (eds.) (forthcoming). Mass and Count in Linguistics, Philosophy, and Cognitive Science. John Benjamins.
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  20. Peter Roeper (2004). First- and Second-Order Logic of Mass Terms. Journal of Philosophical Logic 33 (3):261-297.
    Provided here is an account, both syntactic and semantic, of first-order and monadic second-order quantification theory for domains that may be non-atomic. Although the rules of inference largely parallel those of classical logic, there are important differences in connection with the identification of argument places and the significance of the identity relation.
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  21. Mark Steen, The Metaphysics of Mass Expressions. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
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  22. Mark Steen (2011). More Problems for MaxCon: Contingent Particularity and Stuff-Thing Coincidence. [REVIEW] Acta Analytica 26 (2):135-154.
    Ned Markosian argues (Australasian Journal of Philosophy 76:213-228, 1998a; Australasian Journal of Philosophy 82:332-340, 2004a, The Monist 87:405-428, 2004b) that simples are ‘maximally continuous’ entities. This leads him to conclude that there could be non-particular ‘stuff’ in addition to things. I first show how an ensuing debate on this issue McDaniel (Australasian Journal of Philosophy 81(2):265-275, 2003); Markosian (Australasian Journal of Philosophy 82:332-340, 2004a) ended in deadlock. I attempt to break the deadlock. Markosian’s view entails stuff-thing coincidence, which I show (...)
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