In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Mass-Count Distinction

  • Introduction
  • Edited Collections
  • Reference Resources
  • Foundational Works
  • Semantic Tests
  • Verbs and Adjectives
  • Cross-Linguistic Variation (Classifier Languages)
  • Psycholinguistics
  • Neuroscience
  • Nonlinguistic Foundations

Linguistics Mass-Count Distinction
Alan Bale, David Barner
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 October 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0028


The mass-count distinction is reflected in the syntax and semantics of nouns, verbs, adjectives, and quantifiers. Sometimes called by other names (e.g., countable vs. uncountable), the distinction was first made in modern times by O. Jespersen and L. Bloomfield and has since been discussed by linguists, philosophers of language, and psychologists alike. The distinction is of broad interest because it offers a tractable problem for natural language semantics but also because it relates clearly to important topics in cognitive development (e.g., object permanence) and is subject to significant cross-linguistic variation, raising questions about the relationship between linguistic diversity and its effects on nonlinguistic thought. Recently, work on the topic has extended into psycholinguistics and the neurosciences as a fundamental case study for exploring the psychological representations that underlie natural language syntax and semantics.

Edited Collections

There are two influential collections on the mass-count distinction, both edited by F. Jeffry Pelletier. Pelletier 1979 is a collection of mostly philosophically oriented essays exploring the empirical and ontological implications of mass terms. Pelletier 2010 contains not only philosophical and linguistic works on kind-denoting terms and mass nouns but also papers that attempt to link this work to the experimental and acquisitional literature.

  • Pelletier, F. Jeffry, ed. 1979. Mass terms: Some philosophical problems. Synthese Language Library 6. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Reidel.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-4020-4110-5

    A collection of philosophical essays that explore both the empirical landscape of mass terms and the ontological requirements involved in theoretical accounts of such terms.

  • Pelletier, F. Jeffry, ed. 2010. Kinds, things, and stuff: Mass terms and generics. New Directions in Cognitive Science. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A collection of philosophical, linguistic, and psychological essays on mass terms and kind-denoting terms. The philosophical and linguistic papers discuss the semantics of such terms through a model-theoretical perspective. The psychological papers discuss how these theoretical accounts are connected to the experimental and acquisitional literature.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.