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Cognition. 2005 Aug;97(1):41-66. Epub 2004 Dec 24.

Quantity judgments and individuation: evidence that mass nouns count.

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Laboratory for Developmental Studies, Harvard University, Shannon Hall, 25 Francis Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA.


Three experiments explored the semantics of the mass-count distinction in young children and adults. In Experiments 1 and 2, the quantity judgments of participants provided evidence that some mass nouns refer to individuals, as such. Participants judged one large portion of stuff to be "more" than three tiny portions for substance-mass nouns (e.g. mustard, ketchup), but chose according to number for count nouns (e.g. shoes, candles) and object-mass nouns (e.g. furniture, jewelry). These results suggest that some mass nouns quantify over individuals, and that therefore reference to individuals does not distinguish count nouns from mass nouns. Thus, Experiments 1 and 2 failed to support the hypothesis that there exist one-to-one mappings between mass-count syntax and semantics for either adults or young children. In Experiment 3, it was found that for mass-count flexible terms (e.g. string, stone) participants based quantity judgments on number when the terms were used with count syntax, but on total amount of stuff when used with mass syntax. Apparently, the presence of discrete physical objects in a scene (e.g. stones) is not sufficient to permit quantity judgments based on number. It is proposed that object-mass nouns (e.g. furniture) can be used to refer to individuals due to lexically specified grammatical features that normally occur in count syntax. Also, we suggest that children learning language parse words that refer to individuals as count nouns unless given morpho-syntactic and referential evidence to the contrary, in which case object-mass nouns are acquired.

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