Countability in the history of English: Evidence from grammars and dictionaries

Ondřej Tichý (Charles University, Prague)




Since at least the mid twentieth century, countability has been a lively topic in many fields of linguistics as well as an important subject in the field of teaching English as a second/foreign language. Yet the development of this category in the history of English has been little researched and never comprehensively described. This paper looks at the current state of the descriptions of the emergence of this category in the history of English. It notes a possible connection between its prominent status in the descriptions of Present-Day English and of English as a global language (studied by many non-native learners as well as linguists). It maps the history of the description of the category in grammars and dictionaries from the fourteenth until the early twentieth century, and prepares the ground for a follow-up corpus-based research of the development of countability in English.


countability, diachrony, grammar, history of English, lexicography




Bain, A. (1863) An English grammar. London: Longman.

Baret, J. (1574) Aluearie or triple dictionarie, in Englishe, Latin, and French. London: Henry Denham.

Bellot, J. (1580) Englishe Scholemaister. London: Thomas Purfoote.

Bertram, C. J. (1753) The royal English-Danish grammar. A.H.G. and L.H.L.

Blount, T. (1656) Glossographia. London: Tho. Newcomb.

Brightland, J. and Gildon, C. (1711) A grammar of the English tongue. London: John Brightlan.

Brown, G. (1825) The institutes of English grammar. New York: S. Wood and Sons.

Bullokar, J. (1616) An English expositor. London: Simon Waterson.

Bullokar, W. (1586) Pamphlet for grammar (2nd ed., Vol. 2, p. 4087). London: Edmund Bollifant.

Cawdrey, R. (1604) A table Alphabeticall. London: T S for Edmund Weauer.

Cooper, C. (1685) Grammatica linguæ Anglicanæ. London: J. Richardson and Benj. Tooke.

Dyche, T., and W. Pardon (1735) A new general English dictionary. London: Richard Ware.

Elyot, T. (1538) The dictionary of syr Thomas Eliot knyght. London: Thomae Bertheleti.

Fell, J. (1784) An essay towards an English grammar. London: C. Dilly.

Fenning, D. (1761) The royal English dictionary. London: S. Crowder, and Co.

Gill, A. (1619) Logonomia Anglica (2nd ed., Vol. 2, pp. 1565–1635). Iohannes Beale.

Greaves, P. (1594) Grammatica Anglicana. Cantabrigiae (Cambridge): Ex officina Iohannis Legatt.

Herrtage, S. J. (ed) (1881). Catholicon Anglicum. (Original work published 1475). London: Published for the Early English Text Society by Trübner.

Johnson, S. (1755) A dictionary of the English language. London: W. Straham.

Kersey, J. (1702) A new English dictionary. London: Henry Bonwicke and Robert Knaplock.

Lowth, R. (1762) A short introduction to English grammar. London: A. Millar and R. and J. Dodsley.

Marriott, R. C. (1780) The New Royal English Dictionary. London: J. Wenman.

Mason, C. P. (1858) English Grammar. London: Bell and Daldy, York Street, Covent Garden.

Mätzner, E. A. F. (1874) An English Grammar: Methodical, Analytical, and Historical. London: J. Murray.

Mauger, C. and P. Festeau (1693) Nouvelle double grammmaire françoise-angloise et angloise-françoise. La Haye: Adrian Moetjens.

Middelborch, H. P. van (1535) Septem linguarum, Latinae, Teutonicae, Gallicae, Hispanicae, Italicae, Anglicae, Almanicae. Antwerp: Henrick Peetersen van Middelborch.

Miége, G. (1685) Nouvelle facile methode pour apprendre l’anglois. London. Thomas Bassett.

Murray, L. (1795) English grammar, adapted to the different classes of learners. London: Wilson, Spence, and Mawman.

Offelen, H. (1687) A Double Grammar for Germans to Learn English, and for English-Men to Learn the German-Tongue. London: Nathaniel Thompson.

Phillips, E. (1658) The new world of English words. London: E. Tyler for Nath. Brooke.

Priestley, J. (1761) The rudiments of English grammar. London: R. Griffiths.

Reed, A., and B. Kellogg (1878) Higher lessons in English. London: Clark and Maynard.

Sewel, W. (1705) Compendious Guide to the English Language. Amsterdam: Weduwe van Steven Swart.

Sutcliffe, J. (1815) A Grammar of the English Language. London.

Sweet, H. (1892) A New English Grammar, Logical and Historical. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Thomson, D. (2019) An Edition of the Middle English Grammatical Texts. London: Routledge.

Wallis, J. (1653) Grammatica linguæ Anglicanæ. Oxford: Leon Lichfield.

Webster, N. (1828) An American dictionary of the English language. New York: S. Converse.

Withals, J. (1553) A short dictionarie for yonge beginners Gathered of good authours, specially of Columell, Grapald, and Plini. London: Ihon Kingstun.

Wright, T. (1857) A volume of vocabularies : illustrating the condition and manners of our forefathers, as well as the history of the forms of elementary education and of the languages spoken in this island from the tenth century to the fifteenth. London: Privately printed.

Wright, T. and R. P. Wülcker (1884) Anglo-Saxon and Old English vocabularies. London: Trübner and Co.

Zhdanov, P. I. (1772) Angliska Grammatika. St. Petersburg: Naval Cadet Academy


Allan, K. (1980) Nouns and Countability. Language 56/3, 541–567.

Alston, R. C. (1965) English grammars written in English and English grammars written in Latin by native speakers. Printed for the author by E. J. Arnold.

Antes, T. A. (2019) Countability versus lexibility: Rethinking vocabulary and determiner instruction. TESL-EJ, 24(2).

Bale, A. and B. Gillon (2020) Re-examining the mass-count distinction. In: F. Moltmann (ed), Mass and Count in linguistics, philosophy and cognitive science, 13–36. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Barner, D. and J. Snedeker (2005) Quantity judgments and individuation: evidence that mass nouns count. Cognition 97/1, 41–66.

Biber, D., K. M. Broussard, S. Johansson, G. Leech, S. Conrad and E. Finegan (2000) Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English. Longman.

Bloomfield, L. (1933) Language. Holt. Chierchia, G. (2015) How universal is the mass/count distinction? Three grammars of counting. In: Li, A., A. Simpson, and W. D. Tsai (eds) Chinese Syntax in a Cross-linguistic Perspective. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Available at Oxford Scholarship Online DOI:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199945658.003.0006.

Cowie, A. P. (2009) The Oxford History of English Lexicography: Volume I: General-Purpose Dictionaries; Volume II: Specialized Dictionaries. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cowie, A. P. (2011) Learners’ dictionaries in a historical and a theoretical perspective. In Herbst, T. and K. Popp (eds) The Perfect Learners’ Dictionary. 3–14. Berlin: De Gruyter.

Denison, D. (1998) Syntax. In: Romaine, S. (ed), The Cambridge history of the English language. Vol. 4, 1776–1997. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Doetjes, J. (2012) Count/mass distinctions across languages. In: Maienborn, C., K. von Heusinger and P. Portner (eds) Semantics: An International Handbook of Natural Language Meaning Vol. 3, 2559–2580. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton.

Dryer, M. S. (2013) Indefinite Articles. In: Dryer, M. S. and M. Haspelmath (eds) The World Atlas of Language Structures Online. Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

Filip, H. (ed) (2021) Countability in Natural Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Fischer, O. (1992) Syntax. In: Blake, N. (ed), The Cambridge History of the English Language. Volume II. 1066–1476, 207–408. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gil, D. (1987) Definiteness, noun phrase configurationality, and the count-mass distinction. In Reuland, E. and A. ter Meulen (eds) The Representation of (in)definiteness, 254–269. Cambridge (MA): The MIT Press.

Gil, D. (2013) Numeral Classifiers. In: Dryer, M. S. and M. Haspelmath (eds) The World Atlas of Language Structures Online. Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

Gordon, P. (1985) Evaluating the semantic categories hypothesis: the case of the count/mass distinction. Cognition 20/3, 209–242.

Görlach, M. (1991) Introduction to Early Modern English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Görlach, M. and I. Michael (1998) An Annotated Bibliography of Nineteenth-century Grammars of English. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Grimm, S. and Wahlang, A. (2021) Determining Countability Classes. In: Kiss, T., F. J. Pelletier and H. Husić (eds) Things and Stuff: The Semantics of the Count-Mass Distinction, 357–376. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gwosdek, H. (1993) Subject matter and its arrangement in the accedence manuscripts and in the early printed long accidence and short accidence grammars. Leeds Studies in English, 133–153.

Healey, A. D., J. P. Wilkin, and X. Xiang (eds) (2009) Dictionary of Old English Web Corpus. Dictionary of Old English Project.

Hornby, A. S., E. V. Gatenby and A. H. Wakefield (1948) Idiomatic and syntactic English dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hornby, A. S., D. Lea and J. Bradbery (2020) Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Howatt, A. P. R. (1984) A History of English Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hüllen, W. (2006) English Dictionaries, 800–1700: The Topical Tradition. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Jespersen, O. (1924) The philosophy of grammar (1st publ.). London: Allen and Unwin.

Jespersen, O. (1942) A modern English grammar on historical principles. Part VI, Morphology. Copenhagen: Munksgaard.

Jespersen, O. (1948) A modern English grammar on historical principles. Pt. 2, Syntax. Vol. 1. Copenhagen: Munksgaard (Original work published 1914).

Jespersen, O. and N. Haislund (1949) A modern English grammar on historical principles. Pt. 7, Syntax. Copenhagen: Munksgaard.

Karlsson, F. (2018) Finnish: A comprehensive grammar. London: Routledge.

Kharlamenko, O. (2020) The expression of nonindividual in some Old English Nouns. In: Lorido, R. P., C. P. Alonso, and P. RodríguezPuente (eds) Of ye Olde Englisch Langage and Textes: New Perspectives on Old and Middle English Language and Literature, 25–50. Bern: Peter Lang Verlag.

Kiss, T., F. J. Pelletier and H. Husić (2021) Things and stuff: The semantics of the count-mass distinction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kiss, T., F. J. Pelletier, H. Husić, R. N. Simunic, and J. M. Poppek (2016) A sense-based lexicon of count and mass expressions: The Bochum English Countability Lexicon. Proceedings of the Tenth International Conference on Language Resources and Evaluation (LREC’16), 2810–2814.

Kulkarni, R., S. Rothstein and A. Treves (2013) A Statistical Investigation into the CrossLinguistic Distribution of Mass and Count Nouns: Morphosyntactic and Semantic Perspectives. BIOLINGUISTICS 7, 132–168.

Lass, R. (ed) (1992) The Cambridge History of the English Language Volume III: 1476–1776. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lievers, F. S., M. Bolognesi and B. Winter (2021) The linguistic dimensions of concrete and abstract concepts: lexical category, morphological structure, countability, and etymology. Cognitive Linguistics. https://doi.org/10.1515/cog-2021-0007.

Linn, A. R. (2020) English grammar writing. In: Aarts, B., A. McMahon and L. Hinrichs (eds) The Handbook of English Linguistics 63–80. London: Wiley.

Lyons, J. (1977) Semantics (Vol. 1). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Marckwardt, A. H. (1970) Much and Many: The Historical Development of a Modern English Distributional Pattern. In: Rosier, J. L. (ed) Philological Essays, 50–54. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton.

Michael, I. (1987) The Teaching of English: From the Sixteenth Century to 1870. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Michael, I. (2010) English Grammatical Categories: And the Tradition to 1800. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Moltmann, F. (2020) Mass and Count in Linguistics, Philosophy, and Cognitive Science. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Palmer, H. E. (1938) A Grammar of English Words. London: Longman.

Quine, W. V. O. (1960) Word and object. Cambridge (MA): The MIT Press.

Quirk, R., S. Greenbaum, G. Leech and J. A. Svartvik (1985) Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. London: Longman.

Rozumko, A. (2002) Countable, uncountable and collective nouns in the early eighteenth century English–an overview. (Linguistics). Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: International Review of English Studies, 131–160.

Sinkko-Latvala, S. (2009) A Study of the Countability of Some Usually Uncountable Nouns in British English from the 16th Century to the Present Day. MA Thesis, University of Tampere. Available at https://trepo.tuni.fi/handle/10024/80976.

Skeat, W. W. (1906) Nominale Sive verbale. Transactions of the Philological Society. Philological Society 25/3, 1–26.

Srinivasan, M. and D. Barner (2020) Lexical, syntactic, and pragmatic sources of countability. Mass and Count in Linguistics, Philosophy, and Cognitive Science, 16, 159.

Stark, E. (2005) Explaining article grammaticalization in Old Italian. In: Pusch, C. D., J. Kabatek and W. Raible (eds) Romanistische Korpuslinguistik II: Korpora und diachrone Sprachwissenschaft, 455–468. Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag.

Starnes, D. T. and G. E. Noyes (1991) The English Dictionary from Cawdrey to Johnson, 1604–1755. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Stein, G. (1989) The Emerging Role of English in the Dictionaries of Renaissance Europe. Folia Linguistica Historica 22 (Historica-vol-9-1), 29–138.

Stein, G. (2014) The English Dictionary before Cawdrey. Berlin: De Gruyter.

Strang, B. M. (1970) A History of English. London: Methuen.

Toyota, J. (2009) When the Mass Was Counted: English as Classifier and Non-Classifier Language. Skase Journal of Theoretical Linguistics, 6(1). http://www.skase.sk/Volumes/JTL13/pdf_doc/07.pdf

van Kemenade, A. and N. Vincent (1997) Parameters of morphosyntactic change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wierzbicka, A. (1988) The semantics of grammar. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Úvod > 2022.1.3