Nouns are both mass and count: Evidence from unclassified nouns in adult and child Mandarin Chinese

Jing Lin, Jeannette Schaeffer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


This paper examines the interpretation of unclassified nouns in Mandarin Chinese from the perspective of three theoretical approaches to the mass-count distinction in Mandarin: a lexico-syntactic approach (Doetjes 1997; Cheng & Sybesma 1998), a syntax-driven approach (Borer 2005), and a hybrid approach (Pelletier 2012). Employing a Quantity Judgment Task (Barner & Snedeker 2005), we examined the interpretation of unclassified nouns of different ontological types (count, mass, flexible, object-mass) in both adult and child Mandarin. In order to explain possible interpretational preferences, we also analysed the distributions of the tested nouns in the Chinese Internet Corpus (Sharoff 2006). The results of 27 adults and 55 children (2;11-5;09), together with the corpus data provide strong support for Pelletier. We therefore conclude that Mandarin nouns are semantically both count and mass, and receive a number-based or a volume-based interpretation according to the type of classifier they appear with. However, we argue for one exception in this respect: following Bale & Barner (2009) we assume that nouns of the object-mass type (e.g., furniture) are marked for individualization in the lexicon. Finally, the emergence of adultlike preferences for number-based or volume-based interpretations in child Mandarin is argued to be linked to the acquisition of the classifier system.

Original languageEnglish
Article number54
Issue number1
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2019
Externally publishedYes


  • Child language acquisition
  • Classifier languages
  • Mandarin Chinese
  • Mass-count distinction
  • Syntax-semantics interface
  • Unclassified nouns

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language


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