, Volume 31, Issue 2, pp 211-244
Date: 18 Jul 2008

Mass nouns and plural logic

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A dilemma put forward by Schein (1993, Plurals and events. Cambridge MIT Press) and Rayo (2002, Noûs, 36, 436–464) suggests that, in order to characterize the semantics of plurals, we should not use predicate logic, but plural logic, a formal language whose terms may refer to several things at once. We show that a similar dilemma applies to mass nouns. If we use predicate logic and sets when characterizing their semantics, we arrive at a Russellian paradox. And if we use predicate logic and mereological sums, the semantics turns out to be too weak. We then develop an account where mass nouns are treated as non-singular terms. This semantics is faithful to the intuition that, if there are eight pieces of silverware on a table, the speaker refers to eight things at once when he says: The silverware that is on the table comes from Italy. We show that this account provides a satisfactory semantics for a wide range of sentences.

I dedicate this paper to the memory of John Macnamara, psychologist and philosopher. Through his spoken words and written work, John made me discover, a long time ago, the fascinating topic of mass nouns and count nouns. (See La Palme-Reyes et al. 1994, 1999 for some of his last, collaborative work on the subject.) For discussion, I would like to thank Nicholas Asher, Francis Corblin, Steven Davis, Paul Egré, Randall Holmes, Paul Hovda, Kathrin Koslicki, Øystein Linnebo, Alex Oliver, Charles Parsons, Agustín Rayo, Barry Schein, Philippe Schlenker, Roger Schwarzschild, Lucia Tovena, Gabriel Uzquiano, Peter van Inwagen, and Sebastian Watzl, as well audiences at SOPHA 2006, Jean Nicod Colloquium 2006, Formal Semantics in Moscow 3, 16th Amsterdam Colloquium, and Journées de Sémantique et Modélisation 2008. Special thanks to Brendan Gillon for his comments and encouragements over the years, and to Denis Bonnay and two anonymous referees for their very detailed and useful criticisms.