David Nicolas
École Normale Supérieure
In English, some common nouns, like 'dog', can combine with determiners like 'a' and 'many', but not with 'much', while other nouns, like 'water', can be used together with 'much', but not with 'a' and 'many'. These common nouns have been respectively called count nouns (CNs) and mass nouns (MNs). How do children learn to use CNs and MNs in the appropriate contexts? Gaining a better understanding of this is the goal of this paper. To do so, it is important to first get clear on the nature of the distinction between CNs and MNs. Is it a grammatical distinction? Does the distinction apply to nouns, to their senses, or only to their occurrences within noun phrases (NPs)? Showing that the count-mass distinction really is grammatical and applies to nouns is the matter of my first part. Then the question occurs as to whether the distinction corresponds to a systematic difference in the sense of count and mass expressions. If it does, children's acquisition of the distinction may simply follow from their ability to learn the senses of these expressions and determiners. In a second part, I thus discuss various semantic characterizations that have been proposed, and make explicit the exceptions from which they suffer. Now, understanding the sense of an expression is interpreting it correctly as it occurs in an utterance. Formal characterizations of our interpretations help to clarify what is involved in learning and understanding these expressions. In my third part, I examine several formal characterizations with the purpose to specify what would be an adequate representation of the interpretations of mass and count nominal expressions. The understanding gained in these first three parts is used to identify what abilities are exercised by children when they acquire the count-mass distinction. The picture that emerges differs from earlier views of the acquisition in several respects. I thus describe these views and highlight the differences between them and my own proposal. In a final, fifth part, I critically examine the experimental evidence that proponents of some of the accounts of the acquisition of the count-mass distinction have cited in their favor.
Keywords count noun  mass noun  semantics  acquisition
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Parts: A Study in Ontology.Peter Simons - 1987 - Oxford University Press.
Identity.Peter T. Geach - 1967 - Review of Metaphysics 21 (1):3 - 12.
Relative Identity.Nicholas Griffin - 1977 - Clarendon Press.

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