Bare nominals (also called “bare nouns”) are nominal structures without an overt article or other determiner. The distinction between a bare noun and a noun that is part of a larger nominal structure must be made in context: Milk is a bare nominal in I bought milk, but not in I bought the milk. Bare nouns have a limited distribution: In subject or object position, English allows bare mass nouns and bare plurals, but not bare singular count nouns (*I bought table). Bare singular count nouns only appear in special configurations, such as coordination (I bought table and chairs for £182). From a semantic perspective, it is noteworthy that bare nouns achieve reference without the support of a determiner. A full noun phrase like the cookies refers to the maximal sum of cookies in the context, because of the definite article the. English bare plurals have two main interpretations: In generic sentences they refer to the kind (Cookies are sweet), in episodic sentences they refer to some exemplars of the kind (Cookies are in the cabinet). Bare nouns typically take narrow scope with respect to other scope-bearing operators like negation. The typology of bare nouns reveals substantial variation, and bare nouns in languages other than English may have different distributions and meanings. But genericity and narrow scope are recurring features in the cross-linguistic study of bare nominals.
Bert Le Bruyn, Henriëtte de Swart, and Joost Zwarts
Generics are sentences such as Birds fly, which express generalizations. They are prevalent in speech, and as far as is known, no human language lacks generics. Yet, it is very far from clear what they mean. After all, not all birds fly—penguins don’t! There are two general views about the meaning of generics in the literature, and each view encompasses many specific theories. According to the inductivist view, a generic states that a sufficient number of individuals satisfy a certain property—in the example above, it says that sufficiently many birds fly. This view faces the complicated problem of spelling out exactly how many is “sufficiently many” in a way that correctly captures the intuitive truth conditions of generics. An alternative, the rules and regulations view, despairs from this project and proposes instead that generics directly express rules in the world. Rules are taken to be abstract objects, which are not related to the properties of specific individuals. This view faces the difficult problem of explaining how people come to know of such rules when judging the truth of falsity of generics, and accounting for the strong intuition that a sentence such as Birds fly talks about birds, not abstract objects. What seems to be beyond dispute is that generics, even if they do not express rules, are lawlike: they state non-accidental generalizations. Many scholars have taken this fact to indicate that generics are parametric on possible worlds: they refer to worlds other than the actual world. This, again, raises the problem of how people come to know about what happens in these other worlds. However, a rigorous application of standard tests for intensionality shows that generics are not, in fact, parametric on possible worlds, but only on time. This unusual property may explain much of the mystery surrounding generics. Another mysterious property of generics is that although there is no language without them, there is no linguistic construction that is devoted to the expression of genericity. Rather, generics can be expressed in a variety of ways, each of which can also express nongenerics. Yet, each manifestation of generics differs subtly (or sometimes not so subtly) in its meaning from the others. Even when these and other puzzles of genericity are solved, one mystery would remain: Why are generics, which are so easy to produce and understand in conversation, so difficult to analyze?
Chinese nominal phrases are typologically distinct from their English counterparts in many aspects. Most strikingly, Chinese is featured with a general classifier system, which not only helps to categorize nouns but also has to do with the issue of quantification. Moreover, it has neither noncontroversial plural markers nor (in)definite markers. Its bare nouns are allowed in various argument positions. As a consequence, Chinese is sometimes characterized as a classifier language, as an argumental language, or as an article-less language. One of the questions arising is whether these apparently different but related properties underscore a single issue: that it is the semantics of nouns that is responsible for all these peculiarities of Mandarin nominal phrases. It has been claimed that Chinese nouns are born as kind terms, from which the object-level readings can be derived, being either existential or definite. Nevertheless, the existence of classifiers in Chinese is claimed to be independent of the kind denotation of its bare nouns. Within the general area of noun semantics, a number of other semantic issues have generated much interest. One is concerned with the availability of the mass/count distinction in Mandarin nominal phrases. Another issue has to do with the semantics of classifiers. Are classifiers required by the noun semantics or the numeral semantics, when occurring in the syntactic context of Numeral/Quantifier-Classifier-Noun? Finally, how is the semantic notion of definiteness understood in article-less languages like Mandarin Chinese? Should its denotation be characterized with uniqueness or familiarity?