Subcategorization of nouns: formal classification

March 6th, 201210:30 am


Subcategorization of nouns: formal classification

There may also be a subcategorization of common nouns that uses the grammatical category of number as a criterion. This subcategorization is also called a formal subcategorization. This approach divides common nouns into count nouns (or countables) and mass nouns (or uncountables). This differentiation is intrinsically oriented to extralingual reality as countables, as a rule, denote discrete things and, on the whole, there is a predictable correspondence between actual “discreteness” of entities and the ability of the nouns to have the opposition “singular vs plural”. Never­theless, some nouns present stumbling blocks for this classification. It turns out that a number of nouns, naming structurally similar entities, entities, have different linguistic properties:

uncountable countable






The noun oats appears to be special in that, despite its plural form, it agrees with verbs like nouns in singular, as it does not collocate with numer­als (the collocation *five oats is impossible in English). It is also used with much instead of many, e.g. much oats.

There have been a number of attempts to explain discrepancies in the use of grammatical forms of nouns denoting food. Anna Wierzbicka, for instance, divides objects into three classes: small (rice, wheat), medium (cu­cumbers, apples), and big (cabbage, lettuce). The boundary of these classes is described by the phrase “handful”, or “eating whole”. For example, one may hold in the hand many small objects and only one medium, whereas big objects are too big to hold them on the palm, so they are usually cut into pieces (slices, etc.). As a result, the names of small-size food (cereals, etc.) are represented in the language by uncountables, as well as names of big food products. Nouns denoting medium-size objects are, as a rule, countable and have both singular and plural forms (Wierzbicka, 1988).

Lyashevskaya, in her analysis of the number category in Russian, puts forward a different hypothesis. She considers that the grammatical form of number results from homogeneity of a food product (Ляшевская, 2004). The linguist points out that such edible roots as морковка, свёкла (usually eaten chopped and cooked (boiled), e.i. eaten as a shapeless substance) be­long to the class different from that of the nouns similar to яблоки. In culi­nary contexts, these nouns are usually uncountable: я съел много морковки/ свёклы (compare Ukr. я з'”їв багато моркви/буряку, Engl. Put some apple in the salad). Thus, the speaker perceives these food products as a homo­geneous whole but not as separate items. However, Lyashevskaya admits that, besides the factor of homogeneity, there are a number of other factors that influence the ability of nouns to be used as countables or uncountables.

These factors may be shape (names of shapeless foods are usually uncount­able, e.g. jam, meat, curry, whereas names of foods with some covering or shell are countable, e.g. dumplings, sausages); stereotypic ways of gather­ing certain food products may also contribute to grammatical properties of corresponding nouns (e.g. mushrooms – picked up one by one, as discrete objects). Obviously the final and complete explanation of all these nuances is yet to come.

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