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  • Kinds, things, and stuff: Mass terms and generics
  • David Nicolas
Kinds, things, and stuff: Mass terms and generics. Ed. by Francis Jeffry Pelletier . New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. Pp. 248. ISBN 9780195382891. $74 (Hb).

Kinds, things, and stuff: Mass terms and generics is the edited proceedings of a 2006 international conference on the cognitive aspects of generics and mass terms. The general topic is the connection between psychological and linguistic studies. How are generics and mass terms represented in the mind? What concepts and psychological mechanisms are invoked in the comprehension and production of sentences containing them? How do children acquire these concepts? Some chapters also consider what psychological studies can tell us about the proper linguistic and semantic analyses of generics and mass terms. The book is divided into two parts, the first on generics, and the second on mass terms. Each part begins with a philosophical introduction by the editor Pelletier, which provides a clear picture of the key issues in each field. This is followed by several chapters in which the authors present their own research in a clear and engaging fashion.

The term 'generics' covers two main types of phenomena: (i) cases in which a noun phrase refers to kinds, as in The dodo is extinct, and (ii) cases where the sentence expresses a statement of generality, as in Fred drinks whisky after dinner. Both types often cooccur, as in Potatoes contain vitamin C, which expresses a general truth about the kind POTATO, which the bare plural potatoes refers to.

Now, psychological studies try to uncover the concepts and psychological mechanisms invoked in thinking and talking. By contrast, natural language semantics studies only under what objective conditions sentences are true or false. The perspectives and the object of investigations of the two disciplines are thus different. GREG CARLSON, in 'Generics and concepts', discusses whether the gap between them can be narrowed in the case of generics. As he shows, there are some interesting cases where natural language data seem to correlate well with a psychologically motivated distinction, namely the distinction between kind properties and statistical properties put forward by Prasada and Dillingham (2005). Compare the following sentences.

  1. 1.

    1. a. Dogs have four legs.

    2. b. A dog has four legs.

  2. 2.

    1. a. #Madrigals are popular.

    2. b. #A madrigal is popular.

While both sentences in 1 can express a general truth, only the first sentence in 2 can. Working on the formal semantics of generics, Greenberg (2003) has suggested that in a generic sentence with a singular indefinite subject, there must be a 'principled connection' between the kind denoted by the subject and the property ascribed to it. The notion of 'principled connection' she uses seems to be much the same as that put forward by Prasada and Dillingham (2005). Moreover, Carlson suggests that this very notion is also involved in the work on generics by some other semanticists.

Presenting his experimental work with Dillingham, SANDEEP PRASADA, in 'Conceptual representation and some forms of genericity', suggests that people represent a principled connection between the type of thing that something is and some of its properties, which they call 'principled' or 'k(ind)-properties'. Thus, the property of a dog having four legs is a principled property of dogs, which then enters into explanations (Fido has four legs because it is a dog) and into normative judgments (since Fido is a dog, it should have four legs). By contrast, other properties, such as the property of a barn being red, which are called 'statistical' or 't-properties', do not enter into such explanations and judgments. The chapter further includes a discussion of the ASPECT HYPOTHESIS, according to which representing a principled connection between a kind and a property requires representing the property as one aspect of being that kind of thing. I must confess that as a nonspecialist of the work referred to in this chapter, I had some problems understanding what the aspect hypothesis really meant and hence following the discussion in detail.

In 'Are all generics created equal?', FRANCIS JEFFRY PELLETIER considers generic sentences such as Birds fly, Most birds fly, and Birds usually fly. He examines...


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