Mass nouns and non-singular logic

A dilemma put forward by Schein (1993) and Rayo (2002) suggests that, in order to characterize the semantics of plurals, we should not use predicate logic, but non-singular logic, a formal language whose terms may refer to several things at once. We show that a similar dilemma applies to mass nouns. If we use predicate logic and sets, we arrive at a Russellian paradox when characterizing the semantics of mass nouns. Likewise, a semantics of mass nouns based upon predicate logic and mereological sums is too weak, since it cannot characterize the “intermediary” construals that sentences containing mass nouns may receive. We then develop an account where mass nouns are treated as non-singular terms, which may refer to several things at once. This semantics is faithful to the intuition that, if there are eight pieces of silverware on a table, the speaker refers to eight things at once when he says: “The silverware that is on the table comes from Italy”. We show that this account provides a satisfactory semantics for a wide range of sentences, including cases often seen as difficult, like “The gold on the table weighs seven ounces” (Bunt 1985) and “All phosphorus is either red or black” (Roeper 1983).
Keywords Mass nouns  Singular terms  Plurals  Plural logic  Mereology
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Brendan S. Gillon (2012). Mass Terms. Philosophy Compass 7 (10):712-730.
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