Concepts of objects and substances in language

  • Lance J. RipsEmail author
  • Susan J. Hespos
Theoretical Review


People distinguish objects from the substances that constitute them. Many languages also distinguish count nouns and mass nouns. What is the relation between these two distinctions? The connection between them is complicated by the facts that (a) some mass nouns (e.g., toast) seem to name countable objects; (b) some count and mass nouns (e.g., pots and pottery) seem to name the same objects; (c) nouns for seemingly the same things can be count in one language (English: dishes) but mass in another (French: la vaisselle); (d) count nouns can be used to name substances (There is carrot in the soup) and mass nouns to name portions (She drank three whiskeys); and (e) some languages (e.g., Mandarin) appear to have no count nouns, whereas others (e.g., Yudja) appear to have no mass nouns. All these cases counter a simple object-to-count-noun and substance-to-mass-noun relation, but they provide opportunities to see whether the grammatical distinction affects the referential one. We examine evidence from such cases and find continuity through development: Infants appear to have the conceptual OBJECT/SUBSTANCE distinction very early on. Although this distinction may change with development, the acquisition of count/mass syntax does not appear to be an effective factor for change.


Concepts Mass and count nouns Substance concepts Object concepts 



We thank Erin Anderson, David Barner, Britta Biedermann, Yin-Juei Chang, Andrei Cimpian, Jacob Dink, Michelle Ellefson, John Glines, Samuel Johnson, Joshua Knobe, Sandy LaTourrette, Nick Leonard, Sandeep Prasada, Susan Rothstein, and Alexis Wellwood for their helpful comments on earlier versions of this article.


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© The Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Psychology DepartmentNorthwestern UniversityEvanstonUSA

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