"Do you do Taco Hell?" / "bus" as non-count n.

Arnold M. Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Sat Dec 16 17:01:55 UTC 2006

On Dec 9, 2006, at 11:54 AM, Charlie Doyle wrote:

> Re. "bus":
> And then we have such "non-count" uses as "go (travel) by bus (car/
> train/boat/plane/mule/foot)."  Or "jump ship" (though I reckon
> that's pretty much just an idiom now).

i'm not sure that it's right to see "bus" in "travel by bus" etc. as
non-count.  i'm more inclined to say that these are idiomatic uses of
nouns in their bare forms, and to suggest that we shouldn't have to
assign the nouns *in these idioms* to either C or M.

that might also be the thing to say about the nouns in prepositional
location idioms like "at/to/in school".

there are, by the way, a huge number of idioms like "jump ship":
"give chase", "take charge", "take part", "set sail" etc.  (alongside
idioms with articles in them, like "take a gander" and "take the fall").

bare nouns appear productively in several places in english grammar,
for example as the first N in N+N compounds: "bird sanctuary" has
what looks like a singular C noun "bird" as its first element, but
it's understood as a plural ('sanctuary for birds') and doesn't have
the determiners that are normally required by singular C words.  the
thing to say about this is that "bird" in "bird sanctuary" is indeed
a C noun, but that it's in its bare form.  (M nouns can also occur as
the first elements of compounds, as in "sand castle" -- also in their
bare forms, but these look like ordinary singulars at first glance.)

moving from the morphology-syntax boundary land to just plain syntax:
there are several contexts in which bare NPs can occur.  some of
these have the NPs integrated into the syntax of sentences --
   Famous linguist that I am,... [fronted predicative]
   Kim is chair of the committee. [predicative in predicate]
   Distinguished linguist Joan Bresnan will speak. [adnominal modifier]
but most are isolated, syntactically and prosodically:
   vocative: Hey, lady, you dropped your piano.
   epithet: Idiot!  You've ruined the whole thing!
   hot news exclamative: Distinguished linguist!  Just to your left!
some further details available at:

if particular constructions can require bare nominals, then we'd
expect idioms to be able to do the same.  but in idioms it can be
hard to tell whether you're looking at a C or M noun, and maybe
there's no need to decide.

there are, of course, ways to convert C to M (and vice versa),
sometimes even in idiomatic expressions.  example:
"cock"/"dick"/"pussy" in
   I really need cock/dick/pussy.
these can be seen to be M uses of normally C nouns, since they occur
with characteristic M determiners:
   I wasn't getting much cock/dick/pussy.

> By the way, Arnold: Despite my most ardent effort, I'm not wholly
> persuaded that "prom" (as in "Who are you taking to prom?" or "I
> wish our schools had prom on different nights") functions like a
> proper noun,

i didn't say that "prom" etc. *were* proper nouns, only that they
were in some way like them; that's why i called them "pseudo-proper
nouns".    what they share with proper nouns is their determiner
syntax.  you might think of them as being like mass nouns (since they
refer to extents, and are singular), but they don't occur with mass
   *Much prom was boring. 'Much of prom was boring'
and this is true of event-denoting proper nouns as well:
   *Much Christmas was boring. 'Much of Christmas was boring'
they can of course occur with count determiners, but then we're
probably looking at the ordinary count common nouns "prom" etc.

> unless we regard "proper noun" in a way that includes such words
> (as they occur in certain phrases) as "(back from) vacation" or
> "(on) leave" or "(at) rest"--which I suppose is possible: a
> special, nonroutine time or occasion.

i don't how what to say about "at rest", which is fixed in form.  but
"vacation" and "leave" have uses outside the prepositional idioms,
uses that suggest these are like "prom" etc.:
   Vacation lasts only two weeks and is over before you know it.
   Leave lasts only until Sunday.
similarly, "nap" and various other event nouns:
   Nap will be in ten minutes.

> Until pretty recently, "He's on break now" sounded odd to me.  And
> there's the unAmerican "Where did you go for holiday?"

i'm fine with "break", and it's like "nap" for me:
   Break will be in ten minutes.
but "holiday" doesn't work for me at all like "vacation":
   *Holiday lasts only two weeks and is over before you know it.
suggesting that "on holiday" is just another prepositional idiom with
the bare form of a noun in it.


The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

More information about the Ads-l mailing list