Counting in Context: count/mass variation and restrictions on coercion in collective artifact nouns

Peter Sutton, Hana Filip


A major factor grounding the mass/count distinction is the (non-)resolution of overlap in context. We argue that counting presupposes that nouns be interpreted relative to counting contexts, which are contexts enforcing a resolution of overlap in noun denotations. While, in this respect, we largely follow some suggestions in Rothstein 2010 and Landman 2011, what is novel about our proposal is the role of context in the (non-) resolution of overlap. Lexical entries of mass Ns specify the null context as the context for evaluation, which makes them uncountable. The reason for this is that the null context allows for overlap in noun denotations, because it is the union of the interpretations of the predicate at all counting contexts (i.e. variants). In contrast, lexical entries of count Ns do not specify such a context, and therefore their counting context may vary from utterance to utterance. Adopting this semantics has two major benefits. First, we can predict, on semantic grounds, for a large class of nouns, when we can(not) expect to find mass/count variation cross- and intralinguistically. Second, we are able to explain why ‘collective artifact’ nouns (aka ‘object’ or ‘fake’ mass nouns) resist mass-to-count coercion. 

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