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 1924 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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68 found
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  1. Events and Countability.Friederike Moltmann - manuscript
    There is an emerging view according to which countability is not an integral part of the lexical meaning of singular count nouns, but is ‘added on’ or ‘made available’, whether syntactically, semantically or both. This view has been pursued by Borer and Rothstein among others in order to deal with classifier languages such as Chinese as well as challenges to standard views of the mass-count distinction such as object mass nouns such as furniture. I will discuss a range of data, (...)
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  2. Metaphysics First or Language First: The Notion of a Single Object.Friederike Moltmann - forthcoming - In Richard Gaskin (ed.), The Question of Idealism.
    This paper argues that the notion of a single object or 'being one' does not require worldly or perceived conditions of integrity and even less so concept-relative atomicity. It generally is based on conditions of integrity of some sort, but not strictly so. It rather is imposed by the use of count categories in natural language and thus makes a case for linguistic idealism.
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  3. Reference to singular kinds in Germanic and Romance.Samuel Jambrović - 2023 - Proceedings of the 2023 Annual Conference of the Canadian Linguistic Association.
    The need for the definite article to express a singular kind ("the cat") in the Germanic languages is predicted by Borer's (2005) structural approach to the mass-count distinction. Chierchia's (1998) "down" operator can apply to nPs to derive mass kinds ("rice") and to DivPs to derive plural kinds ("cats"), but there is no determinerless structure that exclusively denotes properties of atomic individuals to which this same operator can apply to derive singular kinds. The only alternative is the process that Chierchia (...)
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  4. Deriving dimensions of comparison.Jeremy Kuhn, David Nicolas & Brian Buccola - 2022 - Snippets 43:1-3.
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  5. Groups versus covers revisited: Structured pluralities and symmetric readings.Brian Buccola, Jeremy Kuhn & David Nicolas - 2021 - Natural Language Semantics 29 (4):509-525.
    A number of natural language constructions seem to provide access to structured pluralities — that is, pluralities of pluralities. A body of semantic work has debated how to model this additional structure and the extent to which it depends on pragmatics. In this article, after controlling for the distinction between ambiguity and underspecification, we present new data showing that structured pluralities are sometimes but not always available, depending on the form of the plural noun phrase used. We show that these (...)
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  6. Levels of Ontology and Natural Language: the Case of the Ontology of Parts and Wholes.Friederike Moltmann - 2021 - In James Miller (ed.), The Language of Ontology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    It is common in contemporary metaphysics to distinguish two levels of ontology: the ontology of ordinary objects and the ontology of fundamental reality. This papers argues that natural language reflects not only the ontology of ordinary objects, but also a language-driven ontology, which is involved in the mass-count distinction and part-structure-sensitive semantic selection, as well as perhaps the light ontology of pleonastic entities. The paper recasts my older theory of situated part structures without situations, making use of a primitive notion (...)
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  7. Mixtures and Mass Terms.David Nicolas - 2021 - Dialectica 75 (1).
    In this article, I show that the semantics one adopts for mass terms constrains the metaphysical claims one can make about mixtures. I first expose why mixtures challenge a singularist approach based on mereological sums. After discussing an alternative, non-singularist approach, I take chemistry into account and explain how it changes our perspective on these issues.
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  8. Plurals and Mereology.Salvatore Florio & David Nicolas - 2020 - Journal of Philosophical Logic 50 (3):415-445.
    In linguistics, the dominant approach to the semantics of plurals appeals to mereology. However, this approach has received strong criticisms from philosophical logicians who subscribe to an alternative framework based on plural logic. In the first part of the article, we offer a precise characterization of the mereological approach and the semantic background in which the debate can be meaningfully reconstructed. In the second part, we deal with the criticisms and assess their logical, linguistic, and philosophical significance. We identify four (...)
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  9. On the Asymmetry Between Names and Count Nouns: Syntactic Arguments Against Predicativism.Junhyo Lee - 2020 - Linguistics and Philosophy 43 (3):277-301.
    The standard versions of predicativism are committed to the following two theses: proper names are count nouns in all their occurrences, and names do not refer to objects but express name-bearing properties. The main motivation for predicativism is to provide a uniform explanation of referential names and predicative names. According to predicativism, predicative names are fundamental and referential names are explained by appealing to a null determiner functioning like “the” or “that.” This paper has two goals. The first is to (...)
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  10. Introduction: Mass and Count in Linguistics, Philosophy, and Cognitive Science.Friederike Moltmann - 2020 - In Mass and Count in Linguistics, Philosophy, and Cognitive Science. Amsterdam:
    The mass-count distinction is a morpho-syntactic distinction among nouns that is generally taken to have semantic content. This content is generally taken to reflect a conceptual, cognitive, or ontological distinction and relates to philosophical and cognitive notions of unity, identity, and counting. The mass-count distinction is certainly one of the most interesting and puzzling topics in syntax and semantics that bears on ontology and cognitive science. This volume aims to contribute to some of the gaps in the research on the (...)
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  11. Introduction to 'Mass and Count in Linguistics, Philosophy, and Cognitive Science'.Friederike Moltmann - 2020 - In Mass and Count in Linguistics, Philosophy, and Cognitive Science. Amsterdam:
    This introduction to 'Mass and Count...' gives an overview of different views of the mass-count distinction as well as an introduction to the papers in the edited volume.
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  12. What counts as "a" sound and how "to count" a sound, the problems of individuating and identifying sounds.Jorge Luis Méndez-Martínez - 2019 - Synthesis Philosophica 1 (67):173-190.
    This paper addresses the problem of sound individuation (SI) and its connection to sound ontology (SO). It is argued that the problems of SI, such as aspatiality, extreme individuation, indexical perplexity and duration puzzles are due to SO’s uncertainties. Besides, I describe the views in SO, including the wave view (WV), the property view (PV), and the event view (EV), as Casey O’Callaghan defends it. According to O’Callaghan, EV offers clear standards to individuate sounds. However, this claim is countered by (...)
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  13. The logic of mass expressions.David Nicolas - 2018 - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
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  14. Clouds and blood. More on vagueness and the mass/count distinction.Gennaro Chierchia - 2017 - Synthese 194 (7):2523-2538.
    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 (...)
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  15. Counting by Identity: A Reply to Liebesman.Oliver R. Marshall - 2017 - Australasian Journal of Philosophy 95 (2):385-390.
    David Liebesman 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 order to (...)
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  16. Matière et mélanges.David Nicolas - 2017 - le Français Moderne 2:246-260.
  17. 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.
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  18. Interprétons-nous de la même manière les expressions 'deux pommes' et 'deux pommes et demie'?David Nicolas - 2016 - Travaux de Linguistique 72 (1):107-119.
    Do we interpret in the same manner the expressions 'deux pommes' and 'deux pommes et demie'? Studying their English equivalents 'two apples' and 'two and a half apples', Liebesman (2015) has recently proposed that the interpretation of both expressions involves a form of measure, distinct from simple counting. I first present Liebesman’s arguments concerning English. Then I analyze the case of French. I defend the following theses: the interpretation of 'deux pommes' does use ordinary counting with natural numbers, while the (...)
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  19. 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 (...)
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  20. 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.
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  21. L'étoffe du sensible [Sensible Stuffs].Olivier Massin - 2014 - In Jean-Marie Chevalier & Benoit Gaultier (eds.), Connaître: Questions d’épistémologie contemporaine. Paris: Editions d'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– (...)
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  22. The Metaphysics of Mass Expressions.Mark Steen - 2012 - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
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  23. 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.
    Survey of issues pertaining to the semantics of mass and plural nouns.
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  24. Any Sum of Parts which are Water is Water.Henry Laycock - 2011 - Humana Mente 4 (19):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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  25. Review of J.Pelletier (ed.), Kinds, Things, and Stuff, 2010. [REVIEW]David Nicolas - 2011 - Language 87.
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  26. More Problems for MaxCon: Contingent Particularity and Stuff-Thing Coincidence.Mark Steen - 2011 - 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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  27. 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. (...)
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  28. 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.
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  29. The Interpretation of Functional Heads: Using Comparatives to Explore the Mass/Count Distinction: Articles.Alan C. Bale & David 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 always denote individuals when used in count syntax but never when used in mass syntax. Second, some mass nouns denote individuals while others do not. In this article, we show that no current theory of mass–count semantics can capture these two facts and argue for an alternative theory that can. We propose that lexical roots are not specified (...)
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  30. 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.
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  31. Kinds, Things, and Stuff: Mass Terms and Generics.Francis Jeffry Pelletier (ed.) - 2009 - New York, US: Oxford University Press USA.
    A generic statement is a type of generalization that is made by asserting that a "kind" has a certain property. For example we might hear that marshmallows are sweet. Here, we are talking about the "kind" marshmallow and assert that individual instances of this kind have the property of being sweet. Almost all of our common sense knowledge about the everyday world is put in terms of generic statements. What can make these generic sentences be true even when there are (...)
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  32. 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 (...)
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  33. Are All Generics Created Equal?Francis Jeffry Pelletier - 2009 - In Kinds, Things, and Stuff: Mass Terms and Generics. Oup Usa.
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  34. Partialhood.David Liebesman - 2008 - In Dean W. Zimmerman (ed.), Oxford Studies in Metaphysics. Oxford University Press.
    My bedroom window is a part of my house, but it is not a partial house. A half-built house is a partial house, but there is no house it is a part of. Being a part of something—parthood—is a familiar topic of philosophical inquiry. Being a partial something—partialhood—is not. The neglect of partialhood is a shame because it is intrinsically interesting as well as metaphysically and semantically important. After using fractions and counting constructions to identify partialhood in §1, I give (...)
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  35. Words Without Objects: Semantics, Ontology, and Logic for Non‐Singularity ‐ By Henry Laycock. [REVIEW]Stephen K. Mcleod - 2008 - Philosophical Books 49 (3):270-272.
  36. 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 (...)
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  37. 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.
  38. Mass nouns and plural logic (extended abstract).David Nicolas - 2007 - In Mass nouns and plural logic (extended abstract). Hal Ccsd. pp. 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 plural 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 when characterizing their semantics, we arrive at a Russellian paradox. And if we use predicate logic and mereoogical ums, the semantics turns out (...)
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  39. 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', (...)
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  40. Words without objects: semantics, ontology, and logic for non-singularity.Henry Laycock - 2006 - New York: Oxford University Press.
    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 the main targets of Henry Laycock's book; for it is seriously incomplete. The picture, he argues, 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?" Laycock's fascinating exploration also addresses key logical and linguistic questions about the (...)
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  41. 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.
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  42. 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/.
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  43. 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.
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  44. 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'.
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  45. The semantics of nouns derived from gradable adjectives.David Nicolas - 2004 - 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 (...)
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  46. First- and second-order logic of mass terms.Peter Roeper - 2004 - 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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  47. Do mass nouns constitute a semantically uniform class?David Nicolas - 2002 - Kansas Working Papers in Linguistics 26.
    Research on mass nouns has focused on concrete terms. So, are there semantic properties shared by all mass terms? We first consider concrete nouns like milk and furniture. Contra Cheng (1973), we show that they can be held to refer distributively (i.e. to apply to any part of what they apply to) only if this property is understood with a new part-relation, that of N-part. In addition, they refer cumulatively: when they apply to each of two things, they also apply (...)
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  48. Is there anything characteristic about the meaning of a count noun?David Nicolas - 2002 - Revue de la Lexicologie 18.
    In English, some common nouns, like "cat", can be used in the singular and in the plural, while others, like "wate"r, are invariable. Moreover, nouns like "cat" can be employed with numerals like "one" and "two" and determiners like "a", "many" and "few", but neither with "much" nor "little". On the contrary, nouns like "milk" can be used with determiners like "much" and "little", but neither with "a", "one" nor "many". These two types of nouns constitute two morphosyntactic sub-classes of (...)
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  49. La catégorisation des noms communs: massifs et comptables.David Nicolas - 2002 - In Catégorisation et langage. Hermès.
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  50. La distinction entre noms massifs et noms comptables.David Nicolas - 2002 - Editions Peeters.
    Cet ouvrage est consacre a l'etude de la distinction linguistique entre noms massifs (lait, mobilier, desordre, amour...) et noms comptables (chat, equipe, combat, chose...). Les premiers sont normalement invariables, tandis que les seconds s'emploient librement au singulier et au pluriel. Apres avoir etabli qu'il s'agit bien d'une distinction morpho-syntaxique, l'ouvrage discute la possibilite de caracteriser semantiquement cette distinction. Les recherches existantes ne tiennent compte, essentiellement, que des noms s'appliquant au domaine materiel. Ce travail, au contraire, examine en detail aussi bien (...)
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