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LINGUIST List 25.2652

Fri Jun 20 2014

Review: Semantics; Syntax: Li (2013)

Editor for this issue: Mateja Schuck <mschuckwisc.edu>

Date: 20-Feb-2014
From: Éva Dékány <dekany.evanytud.mta.hu>
Subject: Numeral Classifiers in Chinese
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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/24/24-3329.html

TITLE: Numeral Classifiers in Chinese
SUBTITLE: The Syntax-Semantics Interface
SERIES TITLE: Trends in Linguistics. Studies and Monographs [TiLSM] 250
PUBLISHER: De Gruyter Mouton
YEAR: 2013

REVIEWER: Éva Katalin Dékány, Research Institute for Linguistics, Hungarian Academy of Sciences

This book analyzes the syntax and semantics of Chinese (mostly Mandarin, but
also Cantonese and Wu) numeral classifiers. The primary aim is to “provide the
missing semantic component in previous syntactically oriented works” (p. 1).
The book consists of nine substantive chapters organized into three parts
(plus an introduction). Part I (ch. 2-5) addresses the question of whether
there is a lexical count/mass distinction among nouns in Mandarin, and
concludes that all Mandarin nouns are mass nouns. Part II (ch. 6-8) argues
that classifiers cannot be divided into two lexical groups, count (a.k.a.
sortal or individual) and mass (a.k.a. non-individual) classifiers. Instead,
it is more appropriate to talk about a 'counting function' and a 'measuring
function' of classifiers. Part III (ch. 9-10) analyzes the definite reading of
Chinese nominal phrases containing classifiers, and argues that these
languages project a DP on the definite interpretation of the noun phrase.

Chapter 2 (Defining classifiers) defines numeral classifiers as mediating
elements that syntactically occur contiguous to noun-modifying numerals and
determiners (Num-Cl-N or Det-Cl-N), and semantically provide counting or
measuring units. This definition subsumes individual classifiers (“two Cl
tree”), group classifiers (“a bundle of straws”), partition classifiers (“a
piece of cake”), container classifiers (“a bottle of wine”), temporary
classifiers (“a bodyful of snow”), standard measures (“five meters of cloth”)
as well as kind classifiers (“this kind of animal”). Li argues against
treating classifiers as ordinary nouns in Chinese. He argues that Chinese
classifiers are functional elements. English classifiers (“a head of cabbage,
a herd of animals, all kinds of flowers, one liter of wine”), on the other
hand, are argued to be regular nouns rather than genuine classifiers of the
Chinese type.

Chapter 3 (The count/mass distinction in Chinese revisited) is a critical
assessment of Cheng and Sybesma (1998). C&S argue that Chinese classifiers
fall into two lexical groups: count and mass classifiers (cf. English “a head
of cabbage” vs. “a box of cabbage”). Count classifiers are functional elements
generated in the Cl head, while mass classifiers are lexical elements
undergoing N-to-Cl movement. C&S use two diagnostics to differentiate between
them. First, they suggest that adjectives like “da/xiao” (big/small) may only
precede mass classifiers. Li shows that such adjectives may also precede count
classifiers. Second, C&S claim that the particle “de” can follow only mass
classifiers. Li shows that not all mass classifiers are compatible with “de”
(e.g., group and partition classifiers), and sometimes count classifiers can
also be followed by “de”.

In Chapter 4 (Natural atomicity) Li argues against the view of Doetjes (1997)
and Cheng et al. (2008) that Chinese has a mass/count distinction on the level
of nouns. Doetjes (1997) suggests that only nouns that have inherent minimal
parts can go with the general classifier “ge” and the group classifiers
“dozen” and “flock”, so compatibility with these classifiers is a diagnostics
for differentiating between count and mass nouns. Li argues that these are not
reliable diagnostics. He proposes that countability is a grammatical notion:
nouns that can combine with numerals directly are count nouns, while nouns
that need a classifier in order to be counted are mass nouns. Based on this
criterion, all Chinese nouns are mass nouns. Individuation, as opposed to
countability, is an ontological notion: nouns can be discrete or homogenous at
the ontological level. Mandarin bare nouns have both an individual and a stuff
reading; this stems from genuine ambiguity at the ontological level.

Chapter 5 (Chinese bare nouns) defends the Krifka-Chierchia hypothesis that
Chinese bare nouns are mass nouns and denote kinds by default. Li shows that
bare nouns appear as arguments of kind-level predicates and that in a
postcopular position they function as kind-level predicates themselves.
Further evidence for the Krifka-Chierchia hypothesis comes from the fact that
bare nouns can take kind classifier phrases as appositive modifiers (lit.
“whale, this kind animal”), and that their scope behaviour is different from
that of genuine indefinites. It is proposed that the object-level readings of
Chinese bare nouns (both on the indefinite and the definite interpretations)
are derived from the kind interpretations. The kind interpretation may be
turned into a predicative interpretation by type-shifting. When the
predicative interpretation derived this way is intersected with another,
contextually determined predicate that expresses familiarity, then bare nouns
obtain a definite reading.

The heart of the book is Chapter 6 (Counting and measure functions of
classifiers), which proposes that the basic distinction in the Chinese
classifier system is the distinction between the counting use and the measure
use of classifiers. These uses can be teased apart by syntactic tests. Bare
Cl+N phrases and reduplicated classifiers allow only the counting
interpretation, while Cl-”duo”(more)-N and Num-Cl-”de”-N allow only the
measure reading. Li suggests that the structure of the counting reading is
[NumP Num [ClP Cl N]], while the structure of the measure reading is [NP [ClP
Num Cl] N]. It is suggested that classifiers are characterized by two
features: +/- C(ounting) and +/- M(easure). Individual (a.k.a. sortal) Cls are
+C -M. They have the counting reading by default, but they can be coerced into
the measure interpretation under the right conditions. Standard measures (eg.
“pound”) are -C +M Cls, but they can be coerced into a count reading in the
appropriate context. Container, group, and partition classifiers are +C and
+M, and they naturally occur in both counting and measure functions. Finally,
kind Cls are -C and -M; as they denote predicates of subkinds rather than
individuals, they can be used neither for counting individuals nor for
measuring quantities.

Adjectives flanked by numerals and classifiers (Num-Adj-Cl-N) are scrutinized
in Chapter 7 (Adjectival modification in classifier phrases: pre-classifier
adjectives). In this position only dimensional adjectives like “big” and
“small” may occur, and they have a special meaning: they are expressives in
the sense of Potts (2007) and Schlenker (2007). “Yi da ge xigua” (one big Cl
watermelon), for instance, does not mean that the melon is big. The melon
could be small, but i) it is a big quantity for a given eater in view of their
consumption ability, or ii) it is big for the container it is in, or iii) it
is significant or has high value in a given context. Pre-classifier adjectives
are possible only in counting contexts. Li argues that these adjectives sit in
spec, ClP and modify the Cl+N constituent. As Cl and N do not form a
constituent on the measure reading, this reading does not accommodate such

The modification marker “de”, whose function is to make or mark predicate
modifiers, is the topic of Chapter 8 (Modification marker “de” in classifier
phrases). Li shows that “de” can follow both non-individual and individual
classifiers, and argues that it appears with a measure reading in both cases.
This is because “de” takes a Num+Cl constituent as its complement, and such a
constituent is found in the measure structure but not in the counting

Chapter 9 (Definite classifiers in southern Chinese languages) accounts for
the use of classifiers without numerals (bare Cl+N) in Mandarin, Cantonese,
and Wu. On the indefinite reading Cl+N is argued to be a ClP without a NumP or
DP. Cl+N is predicative; the indefinite reading arises as a result of
existential closure over the VP. On the definite reading Cl+N projects up to
DP, and the classifier undergoes Cl-to-D movement. Definiteness in Chinese is
shown to correspond to Roberts' (2003) weak definiteness, i.e. familiarity
rather than uniqueness. This interpretation arises when the predicate
interpretation of Cl+N undergoes existential closure and a weak familiarity

Wu definite classifiers (Cl+N on the definite reading) modified by adjectives,
relative clauses, possessors, and demonstratives are treated in Chapter 10
(Definite classifiers and their modifiers). Of the examined modifiers,
demonstratives are linearly closest to the classifier, and unlike the other
modifiers, they cannot take the modification marker “kǝ” (the equivalent of
Mandarin “de”). Li proposes that demonstratives sit in the specifier of DP,
and on the definite reading the classifier raises higher than Num, possibly to
D. Adjectives and relative clauses must, while possessors may take the “kǝ”
marker, and they are on the left edge of the DP preceding both demonstratives
and classifiers. Li argues that these adjectives, relative clauses, and
possessors are DP modifiers.

Li's goal is to “provide the missing semantic component in previous
syntactically oriented works” (p. 1). There is no doubt that the book achieves
this goal. The author's own proposals are presented from chapter 5 onwards.
Each begins with a syntactic analysis, and ends with a formal semantic
analysis that builds on the results of the syntactic discussion. The result is
a valuable contribution to the semantic literature on bare nouns and
classifiers in Chinese (especially so because as Li points out, apart from
Krifka 1995 and the present book, there is no explicit discussion of the
semantics of Chinese classifiers). The book, however, does much more than what
it sets out to do in the above quote. It also provides careful syntactic
analyses of bare nouns, classifiers, definite noun phrases, and NP-modifiers.
It is rare to see syntactic discussion and semantic discussion go hand in hand
in such a balanced way as in this book, and Li's work will be useful for both
syntacticians and semanticists interested in nominal expressions in the
Chinese languages.

To my mind, the book has three main strengths. The first is the
complementation of the syntactic proposals with semantic structures throughout
the volume. The second is the critical evaluation of the existing literature
on Ns and Cls in Chinese. Doetjes (1997) and Cheng and Sybesma (1998) have
been very influential, and DP-researchers who are not native speakers of
Mandarin or other Chinese languages often cite them and base their own
analyses on the data and diagnostics in these works. Li systematically shows
where their generalizations and diagnostics fail, and proposes new empirical
generalizations and diagnostics instead. The third strength is the detailed
empirical justification of the Krifka-Chierchia hypothesis. The
Krifka-Chierchia hypothesis holds that “Chinese bare nouns are mass
expressions that denote kinds as default” (p. 88). This hypothesis has been
very significant in the literature, but has not been argued for in depth on
the basis of empirical data. Chapter 5 of the book provides this missing

Notwithstanding all these merits, there are a few questions and problems that
the analyses raise at specific points. One such question is the syntactic
representation of kind classifiers. Chapter 6 argues that +C -M classifiers
(roughly corresponding to individual Cls) are used in counting contexts by
default, and hence the default structure associated with them is [NumP Num
[ClP Cl [NP N ]]] (though they may have a measure reading and concomitantly a
different structure in the appropriate contexts). +C +M classifiers
(container, group, and partition classifiers), on the other hand, are used
equally easily in both counting and measure contexts, and the structure
associated with them in the measure reading is [NP [ClP Num Cl] N]. Kind
classifiers are argued to be -C -M classifiers, as they “neither count nor
measure individuals” (p. 151). One wonders, then, what sort of syntactic
structure they are associated with. [NumP Num [ClP Cl [NP N ]]] is strictly
for the counting reading, which kind Cls do not have, and [NP [ClP Num Cl] N]
is strictly for the measure reading, which kind Cls also do not have. So based
on the logic of the argumentation in the book, kind Cls have a third
structure. What should that be?

In Chapter 10, there is some inconsistency in the discussion of definite Wu
noun phrases containing a Cl. These noun phrases can contain a demonstrative,
and it is not possible to insert the numeral “one” between the demonstrative
and the Cl on the definite reading: Dem (*one) Cl book (ex. 13b). The proposal
is that demonstratives are in spec DP, and in the definite reading the
classifier raises from Cl to D across the empty Num head. While not spelled
out explicitly, the idea is probably that “one” sits in the Num head, and
would block the required movement, hence “Dem Cl book” is OK but “*Dem one Cl
book” is not. In the next example, however, we see that numerals higher than
“one” are perfectly OK between the demonstrative and the Cl: “that three Cl
book” (ex. 14a) is grammatical. If numerals are heads, as implied by the
blocking account of *Dem one Cl book, then “that three Cl book” should never
arise, as “three” in the Num head should block the movement. On the other
hand, if “three” is a NumP specifier, then Cl-to-D movement predicts “Dem Cl
Num N” order, but in (14a) we clearly get “Dem Num Cl N”. To tackle this
problem, Li suggests that making a functional head visible is a last resort
(Giusti 2002), and that “the D head … has to be visible only when we want to
express singularity” (p. 283). That is, the classifier raises to D only in
this case. On the one hand, it would have been nice to see the technical
details of this account spelled out explicitly (as it stands, the proposal
remains fairly stipulative). On the other hand, if this analysis is to be
maintained, then the statement that “definite classifiers always act as the
head of DP” on the previous page should have been less categorical.

The title of section 2.2.3 in Chapter 10 is “Adjs/RCs as [Spec DP]”. This
promises an analysis that is never spelled out. The relevant section does
propose that “those modifiers are DP modifiers” (p. 285), but this is
compatible with these modifiers being DP-adjuncts, too, and does not
necessarily mean that they are DP specifiers. Indeed, it is difficult to see
how they could be DP specifiers. The previous section argues that
demonstratives are always closer to the numeral than Adjs and RCs, and argues
that demonstratives sit in spec DP. So if Adjs and RCs are also DP
specifiers, then the theory has to allow multiple specifiers, and also has to
make sure that Adjs and RCs always occupy higher specifier positions than
demonstratives. It is unclear how this could be achieved in an explanatorily
adequate way. (Indeed, the discussion on p. 282 states that “demonstratives
are specifiers to the DP and the other modifiers are simply DP modifiers”.)
Given that the specifier analysis of Adjs and RCs is never spelled out in the
book, it is possible that the title of this section is simply the result of a
copy-paste error (the title of the previous section is “Dems as [Spec DP]”).

The book is well-organized and reads easily. At the same time, it lacks a
summary or conclusions chapter. The first two parts are tightly connected to
one another, but the last part is much more loosely related to the previous
discussion, and so a summary collecting the different threads and presenting
the big picture emerging from the analyses is badly needed. There are also no
conclusions at the end of Part I, Part II, or Part III. In absence of a final
conclusion (or rather in addition to it), summaries at these points would have
helped the reader to see again the whole arc of the argumentation within each

There are also some potentially confusing errors in the text. Firstly, on p.
140, Li writes that “What came out of the discussion of the different contexts
in the previous section is that on the counting readings, Num and Cl behave
like a single constituent, while they do not, on the measure reading.” But as
it turns out from ex. 22, immediately following this statement, and the rest
of chapter 6, this is exactly the other way around: Num and Cl form a
constituent on the measure reading [NP [ClP Num Cl] N], and not on the
counting reading [NumP Num [ClP Cl [NP]]]. The intended sentence is probalby
“What came out of the discussion of the different contexts in the previous
section is that on the counting readings, Cl and N behave like a single
constituent, while they do not, on the measure reading.” Secondly, all of
chapter 7 is about pre-classifier (dimensional) adjectives, and the fact that
adjectives between Num and Cl do not comment on the actual size or quantity of
N's denotatum. However, (33b)'s “one big Cl old-style wooden bed” is commented
on as follows: “The pre-classifier adjective does comment on the bed's actual
size” (p. 193). This was most likely intended to be “The pre-classifier
adjective does not comment on the bed's actual size”. The third and most
confusing error is in the discussion of the modification marker “de” on p.
217. Li writes that container classifiers “(with low and precise numbers) can
be followed by “de” when they denote measure units but not when they denote
counting units”. In (29a) we see the counting reading of “three Cl(bottle)
wine”, but in contrast to the above quote, “de” is shown to be optional, and
the following discussion states that on the counting reading “it is possible
to insert “de””. In (29b) we see the measure reading of “three Cl.bottle
wine”, with “de” being grammatical between Cl and N, in accordance with the
above quote. However, the following discussion states if “bottle” has the
measure reading, it “cannot be followed by “de””. The volume would also have
benefitted from a more conscientious copy-editor: there are many small grammar
mistakes in the book, and there are also a good number of typos and
typesetting errors.

Overall, however, the merits of the book outweigh the minor problems. It is
rich in detail and makes a valuable contribution to the study of the Chinese
NP. It also yields new insights into the counting vs. measure readings of
classifiers, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in these topics.

Abney, Steven. 1987. The English noun phrase in its sentential aspect. PhD.
dissertation, Department of Linguistics, MIT.

Cheng, Lai-Shen Lisa and Rint Sybesma. 1998. Yi-wangtang, yi-getang:
classifiers and massifiers. Tsing-Hua Journal of Chinese Studies. New Series.
XXVIII (3). 385-412.

Cheng, Lai-Shen Lisa, Jenny Doetjes, and Rint Sybesma. 2008. How universal is
the universal grinder. Linguistics in the Netherlands 2008. 50-62.

Chiercia, Gennaro. Reference to kinds across languages. Natural Language
Semantics 6. 339-405.

Doetjes, Jenny. 1997. Quantifiers and selection. PhD. Dissertation,
Rijksuniversiteit Leiden.

Giusti, Giuliana. 2002. The functional structure of noun phrases: a bare
phrase structure approach. In Guglielmo Cinque (ed.), Functional structure in
DP and IP, Vol. 1, 54-90. New York: Oxford University Press.

Krifka, Manfred. 1995. Common nouns: a contrastive analysis of English and
Chinese. In Greg N. Carlson and Jeff F. Pelletier (eds), The Generic book,
398-411. University of Chicago Press.

Potts, Chris. 2007. The expressive dimension. Theoretical Linguistics 33(2).

Roberts, Craige. 2003. Uniqueness in definite noun phrases. Linguistics and
Philosophy 26. 287-350.

Schlenker, Philippe. 2007. Expressive presuppositions. Theoretical Linguistics
33(2). 237-245.

Éva Dékány is a post-doctoral researcher at the Research Institute for
Linguistics of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Her research interests lie
in the structure of nominal expressions, classifiers, case, adpositions, the
morphosyntax of Hungarian, and agreement in natural language.
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