About this topic
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 1929 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
Related categories

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  1. Don't I Count?Eileen Amari-Vaught & W. Vaught - 1996 - Hastings Center Report 27 (2):23.
  2. The Interpretation of Functional Heads: Using Comparatives to Explore the Mass/Count Distinction.A. C. Bale & D. Barner - 2009 - Journal of Semantics 26 (3):217-252.
    Comparative judgments for mass and count nouns yield two generalizations. First, all words that can be used in both mass and count syntax (e.g. rock, string, apple, water) always denote individuals when used in count syntax but never when used in mass syntax (e.g. too many rocks v. too much rock). Second, some mass nouns denote individuals (e.g. furniture) while others do not (e.g. water). In this article, we show that no current theory of mass–count semantics can capture these two (...)
  3. Predication and Matter.George Bealer - 1975 - Synthese 31 (3-4):493 - 508.
    First, given criteria for identifying universals and particulars, it is shown that stuffs appear to qualify as neither. Second, the standard solutions to the logico-linguistic problem of mass terms are examined and evidence is presented in favor of the view that mass terms are straightforward singular terms and, relatedly, that stuffs indeed belong to a metaphysical category distinct from the categories of universal and particular. Finally, a new theory of the copula is offered: 'The cue is cold', 'The cube is (...)
  4. Different Structures for Concepts of Individuals, Stuffs, and Real Kinds: One Mama, More Milk, and Many Mice.Paul Bloom - 1998 - 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.
  5. The Chemistry of Substances and the Philosophy of Mass Terms.J. Brakel - 1986 - Synthese 69 (3):291 - 324.
  6. Some Remarks About Mass Nouns and Plurality.Helen M. Cartwright - 1975 - Synthese 31 (3-4):395 - 410.
  7. Amounts and Measures of Amount.Helen Morris Cartwright - 1975 - Noûs 9 (2):143-164.
  8. Quantities.Helen Morris Cartwright - 1970 - Philosophical Review 79 (1):25-42.
  9. Heraclitus and the Bath Water.Helen Morris Cartwright - 1965 - Philosophical Review 74 (4):466-485.
  10. Clouds and Blood. More on Vagueness and the Mass/Count Distinction.Gennaro Chierchia - forthcoming - Synthese:1-16.
    A vagueness-based approach to the mass/count distinction was developed in Chierchia. Liebesman argues against Chierchia’s proposal developing four arguments against it. He furthermore tries to make a case that regardless of the details of C’s proposal no vagueness-based account of the distinction is viable. In this paper I show that Liebesman’s arguments against C don’t go through and that a line of investigation on the mass count contrast in terms of vagueness is not only viable but also perhaps a source (...)
  11. On the Usefulness of Quantities.Kathleen C. Cook - 1975 - 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 (...)
  12. Semantics of Number.Carola Eschenbach - 1993 - Journal of Semantics 10 (1):1-31.
    This paper presents an analysis of how number can be represented in a logical framework based on a semi-lattzice universe. The features singular and plural of count nouns are treated in a uniform way, assuming that the meaning of nouns should generally be represented as independent of number. This opposes the assumption, quite common in the current discussion of plural, that plural should be analysed as an operator on the meaning of the singular form of count nouns. Based on a (...)
  13. Plural Logic and Sensitivity to Order.Salvatore Florio & David Nicolas - 2015 - Australasian Journal of Philosophy 93 (3):444-464.
    Sentences that exhibit sensitivity to order (e.g. 'John and Mary arrived at school in that order' and 'Mary and John arrived at school in that order') present a challenge for the standard formulation of plural logic. In response, some authors have advocated new versions of plural logic based on fine-grained notions of plural reference, such as serial reference (Hewitt 2012) and articulated reference (Ben-Yami 2013). The aim of this article is to show that sensitivity to order should be accounted for (...)
  14. Benjamin Thompson—Count Rumford. Count Rumford on the Nature of Heat. [REVIEW]Robert Fox - 1969 - British Journal for the History of Science 4 (3):290-291.
  15. A Piece of Cheese, a Grain ofSand:-The Semantics of Mass Nouns and Unitizers.Cliff Goddard - 2009 - In Francis Jeffry Pelletier (ed.), Kinds, Things, and Stuff: Mass Terms and Generics. Oup Usa. pp. 132.
  16. Influence of Noun Imagery on Speed of Naming Nouns.David A. Grant, Jeffrey A. Kadlac, Michael J. Zajano, Joseph B. Hellige, Louise C. Perry & Kenneth B. Solberg - 1977 - Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society 9 (6):433-434.
  17. Review of Henry Laycock, Words Without Objects: Semantics, Ontology, and Logic for Non-Singularity. [REVIEW]Kathrin Koslicki - 2007 - Australasian Journal of Philosophy 85 (1):160-163.
  18. Talk About Stuffs & Things: The Logic of Mass and Count Nouns.Kathrin Koslicki - 1995 - Dissertation, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
    My thesis examines the mass/count distinction; that is, to illustrate, the distinction between the role of "hair" in "There is hair in my soup" and "There is a hair in my soup". In "hair" has a mass-occurrence; in a count-occurrence. These two kinds of noun-occurrences, I argue, can be marked off from each other largely on syntactic grounds. Along the semantic dimension, I suggest that, in order to account for the intuitive distinction between nouns in their mass-occurrences and their singular (...)
  19. Mass Nouns and Plurals.Peter Lasersohn - 2011 - In Claudia Maienborn, Klaus von Heusinger & Paul Portner (eds.), Semantics: An International Handbook of Natural Language Meaning. De Gruyter Mouton. pp. 2.
  20. Every Sum or Parts Which Are Water is Water.Henry Laycock - 2011 - 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 (...)
  21. Object.Henry Laycock - 2010 - 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. (...)
  22. Variables, Generality and Existence.Henry Laycock - 2006 - In Paulo Valore (ed.), Topics on General and Formal Ontology. Polimetrica. pp. 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', (...)
  23. Words Without Objects.Henry Laycock - 2006 - 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 (...)
  24. Mass Nouns, Count Nouns, and Non-Count Nouns: Philosophical Aspects.Henry Laycock - 2006 - In Keith Brown (ed.), Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics. Elsevier. pp. 534--538.
  25. Mass Nouns, Count Nouns and Non-Count Nouns.Henry Laycock - 2005 - 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. The basic idea is that count nouns are semantically either singular or plural and non-count nouns are neither.
  26. Some Questions of Ontology.Henry Laycock - 1972 - 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.
  27. Does Vagueness Underlie the Mass/Count Distinction?David Liebesman - 2016 - Synthese 193 (1):185-203.
    Does vagueness underlie the mass/count distinction? My answer is no. I motivate this answer in two ways. First, I argue against Chierchia’s recent attempt to explain the distinction in terms of vagueness. Second, I give a more general argument that no such account will succeed.
  28. We Do Not Count by Identity.David Liebesman - 2015 - Australasian Journal of Philosophy 93 (1):21-42.
    It is widely assumed in psychology, philosophy, and linguistics that we count by identity. For example, to count the dogs by identity, we correlate each dog that isn't identical to the rest with a natural number, starting with one and assigning each successive dog the successive natural number. When we run out of distinct dogs, we've yielded a correct count. I argue that this model of counting is incorrect. We do not count by identity.
  29. Counting and Identity: A Reply to Liebesman.Oliver R. Marshall - 2016 - Australasian Journal of Philosophy.
    David Liebesman (AJP, 2015) argues that we never count by identity. He generalizes from an argument that we don’t do so with sentences indicating fractions, or with measurement sentences on their supposed count readings. In response, I argue that measurement sentences aren’t covered by the thesis that we count by identity, in part because they don’t have count readings. Then I use the data to which Liebesman appeals, in his argument that we don’t count by identity using measurement sentences, in (...)
  30. L'étoffe du sensible [Sensible Stuffs].Olivier Massin - 2014 - In J.-M. Chevalier & B. Gaultier (eds.), Connaître, Questions d'épistémologie contemporaine. Paris, France: Ithaque. pp. 201-230.
    The proper sensible criterion of sensory individuation holds that senses are individuated by the special kind of sensibles on which they exclusively bear about (colors for sight, sounds for hearing, etc.). H. P. Grice objected to the proper sensibles criterion that it cannot account for the phenomenal difference between feeling and seeing shapes or other common sensibles. That paper advances a novel answer to Grice's objection. Admittedly, the upholder of the proper sensible criterion must bind the proper sensibles –i.e. colors– (...)
  31. Words Without Objects: Semantics, Ontology, and Logic for Non-Singularity - by Henry Laycock.Stephen K. McLeod - 2008 - Philosophical Books 49 (3):270-272.
  32. Names and the Mass-Count Distinction.Friederike Moltmann - manuscript
    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 (...)
  33. Mass and Count in Linguistics, Philosophy, and Cognitive Science.Friederike Moltmann (ed.) - forthcoming - John Benjamins.
  34. Two Kinds of Universals and Two Kinds of Collections.Friederike Moltmann - 2004 - 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'.
  35. Part Structures, Integrity, and the Mass-Count Distinction.Friederike Moltmann - 1998 - 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 (...)
  36. Parts and Wholes in Semantics (TOC).Friederike Moltmann - 1997 - 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', (...)
  37. Count Nouns, Mass Nouns and Their Acquisition.David Nicolas - manuscript
    'Philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language; it can in the end only describe it. For it cannot give it any foundation either. It leaves everything as it is.' 'We must do away with all explanation, and description alone must take its place.'.
  38. The Logic of Mass Expressions.David Nicolas - 2013 - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  39. Review of J.Pelletier (Ed.), Kinds, Things, and Stuff, 2010. [REVIEW]David Nicolas - 2011 - Language 87.
  40. Towards a Semantics for Mass Expressions Derived From Gradable Expressions.David Nicolas - 2010 - Recherches Linguistiques de Vincennes 39:163-198.
    What semantics should we attribute to mass expressions like "wisdom" and "love", which are derived from gradable expressions? We first examine how these expressions are used, then how they are interpreted in their various uses. We then propose a model to account for these data, in which derived mass nouns denote instances of properties.
  41. Mereological Essentialism, Composition, and Stuff: A Reply to Kristie Miller.David Nicolas - 2009 - Erkenntnis 71 (3):425-429.
    In ‘Essential stuff' (2008) and ‘Stuff' (2009), Kristie Miller argues that two generally accepted theses, often formulated as follows, are incompatible: - (Temporal) mereological essentialism for stuff (or matter), the thesis that any portion of stuff has the same parts at every time it exists. - Stuff composition, the thesis that for any two portions of stuff, there exists a portion of stuff that is their mereological sum (or fusion). She does this by considering competing hypotheses about stuff, trying to (...)
  42. Mass Nouns and Plural Logic.David Nicolas - 2008 - Linguistics and Philosophy 31 (2):211-244.
    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 (...)
  43. Can Mereological Sums Serve as the Semantic Values of Plurals?David Nicolas - manuscript
    Abstract: Friends of plural logic—like Oliver & Smiley (2001), Rayo (2002), Yi (2005), and McKay (2006)—have argued that a semantics of plurals based on mereological sums would be too weak, and they have adduced several examples in favor of their claim. However, they have not considered various possible counter-arguments. So how convincing are their own arguments? We show that several of them are easily answered, while some others are more problematic. Overall, the case against mereological singularism—the idea that mereological sums (...)
  44. Mass Nouns and Plural Logic (Extended Abstract).David Nicolas - 2007 - In Proceedings of the 16th Amsterdam Colloquium. Palteam. pp. 211-244.
    Accepted for publication in Linguistics & Philosophy.
  45. La distinction massif / comptable.David Nicolas - 2006 - Sémanticlopédie : Dictionnaire de Sémantique.
    In D. Godard, L. Roussarie & F. Corblin (eds.), Sémanticlopédie : dictionnaire de sémantique, GDR Sémantique & Modélisation, CNRS, http://www.semantique-gdr.net/dico/.
  46. The Semantics of Nouns Derived From Gradable Adjectives.David Nicolas - 2003 - In Proceedings of Sinn und Bedeutung 8. pp. 197-207.
    What semantics should we attribute to nouns like "wisdom" and "generosity", which are derived from gradable adjectives? We show that, from a morphosyntactic standpoint, these nouns are mass nouns. This leads us to consider and answer the following questions. How are these nouns interpreted in their various uses? What formal representations may one associate with their interpretations? How do these depend on the semantics of the adjective? And where lies the semantic unity of nouns like wisdom and generosity with the (...)
  47. La Catégorisation des Noms Communs: Massifs Et Comptables.David Nicolas - 2002 - In Catégorisation et langage. Hermès.
  48. La distinction entre noms massifs et noms comptables.David Nicolas - 2002 - Editions Peeters.
  49. Conversions of Count Nouns Into Mass Nouns in French.David Nicolas - manuscript
    In many languages, common nouns are divided into two morpho-syntactic subclasses, count nouns and mass nouns. Yet in certain contexts, count nouns can be used as if they were mass nouns. This linguistic phenomenon is called conversion. In this paper, we consider the conversions of count nouns into mass nouns in French. First, we identify a general semantic constraint that must be respected in these conversions, and various cases in which a count noun can be used as a mass noun. (...)
  50. Do Mass Nouns Constitute a Semantically Uniform Class?David Nicolas - 2002 - Kansas Working Papers in Linguistics 26.
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