Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Mass and Count Nouns’ Category

Podcast Linkfest

Posted by Neal on March 20, 2012

I’ve been enjoying listening to a couple of language-related podcasts recently. First is one from Slate, called Lexicon Valley, hosted by Mike Vuolo and Bob Garfield. In their six episodes to date, they have talked about:

  1. The history of the proscription against ending a sentence with a preposition
  2. The development of faggot as a slur against male homosexuals, with commentary by Arnold Zwicky
  3. Whether between you and I is a case of hypercorrection, or if another rule can describe its distribution.
  4. Black English, with commentary from Walt Wolfram (which they pronounce as “Wolf-Ram”)
  5. What a controversy the publication of Webster’s Third caused in 1961
  6. What insights Scrabble can and cannot give into the nature of English

The episodes are all about half an hour long, and even the ones I didn’t think I’d be too interested in (the dictionary, Scrabble) have turned out to be quite interesting after all. Furthermore, they’re linguistically sound. With all the complaints at Language Log and other places about how news media just can’t be bothered to fact-check anything related to language, I have yet to hear a piece of bad information here. The only part I don’t care too much for is their “lexiconundrum” puzzlers at the end of each episode.

There are no further episodes of Lexicon Valley yet; apparently, these six episodes were a trial run. So listen to them quick, and if you like them, go say so on iTunes, as I’m about to do now.

The other podcast is Conlangery, “the podcast about constructed languages and the people who create them,” hosted by George Corley, Bianca Richards, and William Anniss (sp?). In each episode, these three talk about some aspect of language — discourse particles, dialects, sound systems — ostensibly with the intent of giving conlangers (i.e. language creators) tips and ideas to use in their conlangs. However, the information and observations they bring in should be interesting to anyone interested in language, even if they have no interest whatsoever in creating one. Each episode also has a featured conlang.

Unlike Lexicon Valley, each episode of Conlangery lasts about a full hour, but unlike Lexicon Valley, Conlangery has more than 40 episodes so far, with no sign of quitting yet. The discussions are unscripted, with George loosely moderating and all three making contributions as the spirit moves them. There are sometimes strange background noises (like a recurring “clac-k-k-k-k-k-k” in one episode), and George’s hesitant speaking style takes a little getting used to, but it’s a fun podcast and I look forward to catching up on the episodes I haven’t listened to yet.

While I’m in a link-loving mood, here are a couple of non-podcast links. First, Jonathon Owen’s two most recent posts. If you thought benefactive datives such as I love me some barbecue brisket sounded strange, you’ll find this construction a little bit stranger. In the other post, he talks about a question I’ve had for a while: If plural -s is pronounced as [z] after a vowel, then why is the plural of die still dice instead of dies?

Lastly, a post from Arnold Zwicky about people who “look their nose down” (not “look down their nose”) at things they disapprove of. It reminded me of my own posts about particles, prepositions, and phrasal verbs.

Posted in Linkfests, Mass and Count Nouns, Phrasal verbs | 11 Comments »

Too Much

Posted by Neal on November 28, 2011

Back in October, I wrote about the opinion that thank you much is ungrammatical. I quoted a comment I left on one website where the issue came up:

“Thank you much” IS a complete sentence, at least if you accept “Thank you” as a complete (albeit noncanonical) sentence in the first place. If you object to “much” instead of “very much”, note that it appears alone in questions and negative sentences, e.g. “he doesn’t talk much”, “Does he talk much?” If you’re objecting to the use of plain “much” outside these “negative polarity contexts”, that’s a different matter, because that does sound odd in present-day English.

In the course of writing the thank you much post, I came across this video for learners of English as a foreign language:

In it, a teacher named Valen explains how to use much, many, and a lot of. Her explicit message is that much goes with mass nouns; many goes with count nouns; and a lot of goes with either. But in her examples, she seems to send the message that unadorned much is a no-no. Valen’s first two examples with much are:

I drank too much water.
Our teacher gave us too much homework.

Then she moves on to an example with many: Many cars are equipped with GPS systems. After that, she illustrates the mistake of putting many with a mass noun:

*I drank many coffee.

She then reiterates that since coffee is a mass noun, it can’t go with many, but can go with much. She erases many from the sentence, and replaces it not with much, as she seemed to be getting ready to do, but with too much:

I drank too much coffee.

Never a word of explanation why she’s doing this. (Also noted: She pronounces /str/ as [ʃtr], at least in the word abstract.)

Since that post last month, I’ve been thinking more about whether much is becoming (or has become) a negative polarity item (NPI). Whatever its status, it’s certainly not purely an NPI, since there are so many positive polarity contexts in which it sounds OK; for example, in the company of modifiers such as very (as in Thank you ~ much) and too (as in the video), much doesn’t sound bad at all.

As it turns out, Ji Won Lee at SUNY Buffalo has been looking into the question of NPI much, using an arsenal of corpora to find out. On her web page are handouts from several presentations on this topic. Her findings include that the development of much as an NPI was followed by the rise of a lot of/lots of, and that the shift to mostly-NPI much (and to some extent many, too) happened pretty quickly, between the late 1890s and 1940.

UPDATE, Nov. 29, 2011: Joe Kessler (in the comments) and JillianP (via Twitter) and Ji Won herself (in a polite email) have made me aware that I chose the wrong gendered pronouns to refer to Ji Won in the post. I have made the corrections, and apologize for the error. I’m also embarrassed that I didn’t remember meeting Ji Won at LSA 2011; she reminded me that she had come to look at my poster, and I see in my notes that indeed she did.

Posted in Language learning, Mass and Count Nouns, Morphology, Negative polarity items, Prescriptive grammar | 11 Comments »

Buckets, Boxes, and Bags

Posted by Neal on July 1, 2009

Not a bucket of failure. That would be ridiculous!A recent discussion on the American Dialect Society email list concerned the conversion of fail from a verb to a noun. Grant Barrett mentioned that he had included it in a December 2008 article that he and Mark Leibovich wrote for the New York Times Week in Review. They had said:

Largely used online, this is a verb turned into a mass noun, as in “A bucket of fail.” Common forms include epic fail, meaning a huge overall tendency toward failure or a great example of failure, and FAIL! as an interjection or derogation. Often an antonym of win, seen online in forms like “Full of win!” which means, “It’s good!” (Mark Leibovich and Grant Barrett, Dec. 21, 2008, “The Buzzwords of 2008”, NYT Week in Review

Arnold Zwicky wrote about the topic on his blog a little later, noting that in addition to the usage of fail as a mass noun, there were also some uses as a count noun (as in an epic fail). It’s the conversion of fail (and also win) to a mass noun that I’m interested in.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Diachronic, Mass and Count Nouns | 20 Comments »

Pears and Pineapple

Posted by Neal on May 12, 2008

“Best by May 2008,” I read on the bottom of the can of pears. Did that mean best by May 1, I wondered, or best by May 31? Probably May 31, I decided. In any case, even if it meant by May 1, that didn’t mean the pears were actually bad, did it? Just not at their peak of flavor, right? After all, best by wasn’t the same as use by, or even sell by. All the same, I knew if my wife saw that label, she’d throw the pears out. So I did what needed to be done: I opened the can and served those pears to Doug and Adam for breakfast.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Food-related, Lexical semantics, Mass and Count Nouns | 12 Comments »

Where, When, and How Many?

Posted by Neal on November 8, 2007

I saved a section of the newspaper a year ago because there was a sentence in it I wanted to write about. But I didn’t get around to it right away, and it was of topical interest, so I ended up never doing it. It’s topical again, though, so I picked up the article off my desktop where it’s been sitting all that time, and looked at the sentence again:

They’re all violating ordinances that regulate where, when and how many campaign signs can dot the local landscape.

The coordination of where, when, and how many is like a couple of coordinations I wrote about back in 2005. What’s interesting is that campaign signs is doing two jobs. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Coordinated WH words, Mass and Count Nouns | 1 Comment »

What and How, More and Faster

Posted by Neal on August 6, 2007

Two posts back, I talked about how coordinations like when and what could force verbs that are transitive or intransitive to be both at once, and that coordinations such as more and more often could do the same thing. There’s a similar pair of syntactic structures that will force a double parsing on certain kinds of nouns. The first one is another coordination of wh-words, but this time, instead of a wh-noun and a wh-adverb, it’s a wh-determiner and a wh-adverb.

First, some background. In English, plain old nouns can’t usually function as subjects or objects in a sentence: *Cat came to the door or *I saw dentist today are ungrammatical. You have to put the noun with a determiner, such as a, the, every or your, to form a noun phrase: My cat came to the door; I saw a dentist. Some nouns, however, can act as plain nouns, combining with a determiner to form a noun phrase; or they can go without a determiner and act as noun phrases all by themselves. These are teh mass singular nouns and the plural nouns: (The) slime covered the floor; (some) squirrels keep robbing the bird feeder. With that out of the way, here’s the example I used in a January 2005 post:

Every company has its own idea of what and how information should appear….

What is the wh-determiner; put together with the noun information, it would make the noun phrase what information. But since information is a mass noun, it can also serve as an entire noun phrase without a determiner, which is exactly what it does in the phrase ideas of how information should appear. When what and when are coordinated, then (in an indirect question that doesn’t have subject-auxiliary inversion, with a mass or plural noun functioning as the subject), the noun that follows can be both a plain old noun and a full noun phrase. Here’s another example that I found more recently:

…Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) satellite, the only space-based instrument that can measure where and how much rain forms deep inside a hurricane.
Laura Allen, “Endangered Robots,” Popular Science, August 2007, p. 65

In this one, the order of wh-adverb and wh-determiner are reversed, and the determiner isn’t just a simple what; it’s the more complex how much.

It turns out that for noun-vs.-noun-phrase ambiguity, just as for transitive-vs.-intransitive ambiguity, both wh-coordinations and the kind of more and… coordinations discussed earlier can flush it out into the open. It happens when the first more is a determiner (instead of a noun phrase like in the other post), and the other word is an adjective (instead of an adverb like in the other post). An example I used in a later comment sa more and faster, with more as a noun phrase and faster as an adverb. But here’s an example with more as a determiner and faster as an adjective:

We need more and faster processors.

Processors is an ordinary noun when it combines with more, but it’s a full noun phrase when it combines with the adjective faster (under the standard analysis in which adjectives form phrases of the same category as the thing they modify).

Posted in Coordinated WH words, Mass and Count Nouns, Other weird coordinations | Leave a Comment »

When Less is Fewer

Posted by Neal on April 5, 2005

The Tensor has noticed something that I’ve wondered about now and then. I’ll have said something like, “That’s one less thing to worry about,” and then spent the next few minutes thinking along these lines: Hey, wait, thing is a count noun, so I should use fewer instead of less. But that can’t be right: one fewer thing to worry about is no good, either. Oh, OK, fewer needs a plural noun, so it’d be one fewer things to worry about. No, that’s still no good. The only thing that sounds right is one less thing to worry about. Weird.

If you’re writing, there are two ways to go at this point. One way is to say, “Well, OK, the rules are the rules. Fewer it is.” You throw out the only phrasing that sounded right, and replace it with something that sounds horribly wrong, but which must be right because the rule says so.

The second way is to weenie out and write something like, “One more thing not to worry about,” or “Fewer things to worry about.”

The third way is–Three ways! There are three ways to go here!–is to go with what sounds right, and conclude that the rule writers just didn’t get around to considering all the complications that might come up. This is what the Tensor has done, and he’s issued a patch for the less/fewer rule. Or more precisely, he’s formulated the rule to accurately reflect the grammar of English as spoken by him, but his judgments are shared by most of his commentators (and by me). As he puts it:

… [F]ewer goes with bare plural count nouns and count nouns with numbers greater than one, and less goes with mass nouns and count nouns with number one. In all cases, though, there is agreement between the number and the plurality of the noun.

That’s a nice description. It ain’t pretty, but it gets the facts right.

Posted in Mass and Count Nouns, Syntax | 9 Comments »

20 Pounds of Lego

Posted by Neal on March 29, 2005

I’ve always liked playing with Legos (which, by the way, I pronounce /lεgoz/, not /legoz/), so I was naturally drawn to this article in one of the alternative newspapers last week. It’s about professor Paul Janssen of Ohio State University, who has on the order of 2 million Legos, and has used them to create scale models of buildings in downtown Columbus. What’s the linguistic point of all this? This paragraph, where Janssen talks about his childhood:

“By myself, in my room, with my 20 pounds of Lego, I would build until I used every single brick I had,” said Janssen, who cringes when he hears people casually refer to the pieces as “Legos.”

Well, first things first: I like Legos. Legos are fun. Doug and Adam like playing with Legos, too. Legos, Legos, Legos!

OK, now that I’ve had my fun, I’ll stipulate that Lego is a brand name, and that not just anything should be referred to as Legos. I myself don’t like hearing Tyco blocks or MegaBlocks called Legos. They’re imitators, not bad to play with, but definitely not the real thing. But why is it bad to use Lego as a count noun? Is it because Lego is supposed to be used only as a brand name, as in Lego building bricks? If that’s what’s going on, then Janssen should get off his high horse, because turning Lego into a mass noun, as in 20 pounds of Lego, is a violation, too. And I bet I cringed more when I read 20 pounds of Lego than Janssen does when he hears two million Legos. He made it sound as if there’d been a fire and all his Legos had melted into one big goopy mass.

So what is the Lego company’s official policy on the word? From their website:

Please help us to protect our brand name:

  • The word LEGO must not be used generically–nor should it be used in the plural form or the possessive, e.g. “LEGO’s.”
  • When the LEGO brand name is used as a noun, it must never stand alone. It must always be accompanied by another noun. For example: LEGO set, LEGO products, LEGO company, LEGO play materials, LEGO bricks, LEGO universe, etc.

Just as I thought. Not that I’m going to follow any of it. They also want me to write Lego in all caps, but offer no reason for doing so. Lego isn’t an acronym (as they admit in their company history), so it just seems to be their personal preference. And as for forbidding any building bricks, even their own, to be called Legos, that just seems to be overkill. I wonder if they’re asking this knowing that nobody will do it, but hoping that they will at least keep Lego identified with their own product–kind of like asking your chronically late lunch date to meet you 20 minutes earlier than you actually plan on eating (see Glen’s post for more on that). But in any case, if you actually want to follow this corporate line, Lego as a mass noun and Lego as a count noun are equally bad.

UPDATE: Perhaps I have been too harsh on Prof. Janssen. His use of Lego as a mass noun sounded so bad to me that I assumed it must be the affectation of a Lego-elitist who was (first of all) taking the whole brand-name protection policy much too seriously and (second) not even understanding how the Lego corporation actually wanted the word to be used. “The Lego corporation says I mustn’t call these things Legos,” I imagined him thinking. “I hear and obey. I will refer to them only as Lego!” But to my surprise, it turns out that there are at least two speakers (commentators ACW and Rachel) for whom Lego is just as natural as a mass noun as it is for me as a count noun. So maybe Janssen is just one of these speakers, and his adverse reaction to hearing Lego as a count noun is comparable to the reaction of someone who doesn’t like hearing this data is instead of these data are. Even if that’s the case, the writer of the article implies that the complaint goes deeper than that. Earlier, the article talks about Janssen’s views on the “ethics” of building with Legos (no glueing allowed, no filing down pieces to fit where they’re not designed to fit), and the paragraph I quoted seems to be in the same vein.

Posted in Lexical semantics, Mass and Count Nouns, Ohioana, Prescriptive grammar | 12 Comments »

The What and How of Self-Promotion

Posted by Neal on January 27, 2005

I know, I know: You’ve been wanting to read my dissertation, but didn’t want to download it and have to print it out or view it on a computer screen. Well, the wait is over. It has been published by Routledge, and a handsomely bound, hardcover edition of my contribution to the literature can now be yours. It’s available here (discounted), here, or from the publisher itself. It’s tastefully done, too–the f-word appears on only one page (215), and even there it’s in a quoted title.

This seems like a good time to do a post or two about some of the topics I covered in my dissertation. One of them came up just last week in a book I was reading, specifically in this sentence:

Every company has its own idea of what and how information should appear….
Richard Curtis, How to Be Your Own Literary Agent, p. 116.

Is that sentence a little odd for you? It is for me, in the coordination of what and how. I’ll expand out the coordination so that each of these words heads up its own question:

Every company has its own idea of:

  • what information should appear

  • how information should appear

In the what question, information is used as a noun. You can substitute other nouns for it and still have a syntactically well-formed sentence: what person should appear, what item should appear, etc.

In the how question, however, information draws on its powers as a mass noun (see previous post) to function not as a mere noun, but as a complete noun phrase! If you try to substitute an ordinary noun into this question, it won’t work: *how person should appear, *how item should appear, etc. By contrast, if you substitute a noun phrase for information, it works just fine: how the report should appear, how Kim should appear, etc.

Therefore, in the coordinated what-and-how sentence earlier, information is used simultaneously as a noun and a noun phrase. That’s pretty weird, especially being as how nouns and noun phrases are typically viewed as having different semantic types (predicates and individuals, respectively). Conventional wisdom has been that words (or phrases) can’t be used with more than one semantic type at a time–at least, not outside of puns. So is the quotation from Richard Curtis a mistake, or is it actually generated in his (and maybe other people’s) grammar? Corpus linguistic and experimental research on this kind (and other kinds) of “mixed-wh interrogative” is presented in Chapter 3 of my dissertation. Own it today!

Posted in Coordinated WH words, Mass and Count Nouns, Self-promotion, Semantics | 3 Comments »

A Snake(-)Eating Cake

Posted by Neal on January 26, 2005

And while I’m on the subject of kids’ books…

One that Adam has been enjoying recently is A Giraffe and a Half, by Shel Silverstein. It’s one of those poems that gets longer and longer, with a new verse appended to the end each time. At one point, Silverstein introduces a snake that’s eating a piece of cake, and adds the phrase “a snake eating cake” to the end of the lengthening poem.

With every turn of the page, each time I read “a snake eating cake”, I kept thinking, “A snake eating cake. Not a snake-eating cake, but a snake, eating cake. Whoa…”

On the printed page, it’s not ambiguous. For the adults, there’s the absence of a hyphen between snake and eating, and for the kids, there’s Silverstein’s picture of a snake with its mouth wrapped around a tall slice of cake. But spoken, it’s ambiguous. You could disambiguate it by putting a pause between snake and eating. Or you could give a little bit of extra stress to the eating, to distinguish it from the destressed eating in participial compounds like man-eating or kite-eating. I couldn’t rest until I had nailed down the precise source of this ambiguity between a snake that eats cake and a cake that eats snakes. It all came down to the fact that cake is a mass noun. Here’s how:

The phrase a guy reading a book is unambiguous with respect to who’s doing the reading and what’s getting read. But *a guy reading book is just plain wrong. As a countable noun, book has to have a determiner before it, such as a in the previous example. The only way *a guy reading book could be grammatical would be to let book grab the a way at the beginning of the phrase, and interpret the phrase to mean a book that habitually reads guys (i.e., a guy-reading book).

So if *a guy reading book is no good, why is a snake eating cake OK? It’s that cake (like water, information, and snot) is a mass noun, and mass nouns in English don’t have to have a determiner. On the other hand, cake doesn’t have to go without a determiner, and if it latches on to the a at the beginning of the phrase, then you get the meaning of a cake of the snake-eating variety.

There, that’s all sorted out. Now I can sleep.


Oh, no! After all this thinking about snakes and cakes, I can’t get these song lyrics to stop running through my head!

Did you ever see a snake
Eating a cake
Down by the bay?

Posted in Ambiguity, Kids' entertainment, Mass and Count Nouns, Syntax | 4 Comments »