Bare Singular NPs as Generic Expressions

Earlier work examining bare singular forms of English count nouns has cursorily suggested that PPs containing these bare NPs (e.g., at school, at camp, in church) are only interpreted by the NP being used to refer to a type of institution, not a specific entity (Christophersen 1939, Hall & Hall 1969, Quirk et al. 1985). While identification of their use in familiarity implicature argues against bare forms having only non-referential uses (Stvan 1993, 1998), I propose that there is, nevertheless, a generic sense that can be conveyed by the use of bare singulars.

Previous analyses of kind-referring NPs have identified generic uses associated with several nominal forms: bare plural count nouns (cats), bare mass nouns (furniture), definite singular count nouns (the cat), indefinite singular nouns (a cat), proper names (Felis catus), and NPs with demonstrative determiners (those alley cats), with each type of kind-referring NP shown to be sensitive to distinct constraints of semantics, pragmatics, and syntactic distribution (Burton-Roberts 1976, Carlson 1977a, b, Declerck 1991, Langacker 1991, Krifka et al. 1995, Bowdle & Ward 1995). Bare singular count nouns as kind-referring NPs have received much less scrutiny.

Though involving identical forms, familiarity and generic uses differ concerning the deictic link between the location referent and the speaker, hearer, or locatum. Used generically, no link is conveyed: in (1), the highlighted NP refers generically to a set of affected locations with no located human specified:

(1)
a. An amendment to the Senate's anti-drug bill would have barred alcohol companies from sponsoring any sort of event on campus.
b. These joint ventures suggest that there are opportunities in prison for many kinds of companies.
The meanings in (1) remain the same when the bare singular form is replaced with another NP form associated with generic reference, such as the bare plural:
(2)
a. An amendment to the Senate's anti-drug bill would have barred alcohol companies from sponsoring any sort of event on campuses.
b. These joint ventures suggest that there are opportunities in prisons for many kinds of companies.

In contrast, the familiarity sense, used in (3) to indicate a particular campus, is only conveyed in situations where the speaker expects the hearer to identify a campus as the one made salient by being attended by one of the discourse participants:
(3)
a. Have you been back to campus lately?
b. Which days will he be on campus?
Here, bare plural substitution would be infelicitous, severing the link between campus and the discourse participant anchor:
(4)
a. #Have you been back to campuses lately?
b. #Which days will he be on campuses?
By examining a corpus of naturally occurring tokens I will show that a generic reading involving locative PPs depends on the specification of an individual locatum. I suggest that the discourse context of bare singular NPs is the source of genericity, not their occurrence in characterizing sentence types. In short, while the NPs used in familiarity implicature are individual-referring expressions, generic uses of bare singular forms are kind-referring NPs.




Return to Laurel's home page.