Portions and countability: A crosslinguistic investigation

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We examine three constructions across several languages in which a mass noun is embedded in what appears to be a count environment, but the construction as a whole remains mass. We argue that the discussed phenomena—“Q-noun” constructions like lots of water, bare measure constructions like kilos of sugar, and pluralised mass nouns in languages like Greek and Persian—all involve portioning-out of the embedded mass denotation. We provide a structural account of portioning out and propose structures that derive both mass and count portioning out. Adopting an overlap-based approach to the mass/count distinction (e.g. Landman 2011; Rothstein 2011; Khrizman et al. 2015; Landman 2016) we provide a compositional semantics for the proposed structures.

The examined phenomena all share an inference of large quantity or abundance that, we argue, cannot be reduced to the lexical meaning of the portioning-out expression, nor to a multiplicity inference contributed by plural morphology. We show that our cases of mass portioning-out involve a total order ≤ on portion size and propose to analyse the abundance inference in terms of an uninformativity-based Quantity implicature, following the analysis of the positive form (Mary is tall) in Rett’s (2015) approach to adjectival gradability.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages53
JournalNatural Language & Linguistic Theory
Publication statusPublished - 23 May 2023

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