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In a previous thread, BillJ used the term 'quasi-count-noun' to describe what I consider to be a very rare (and fascinating) feature of a very small number of nouns.

Checking in the CGEL conceptual index, I didn't find the term. Google searches turned up another relevant article by Bill on EnglishForums, and an irrelevant nonce usage by myself on WordWizard (that I've now adjusted).

The behaviour of nouns displaying what Bill refers to as quasi-count [usage] is that the nouns involved may be used as count nouns for larger (round) numbers but not for smaller.

Thus

200 cattle [were involved] ...................... *2 cattle

200 police [were present] ...................... *2 police

This usage is certainly met with, but may perhaps be regarded as disputable, or perhaps as headlinese.

Has anyone seen the term 'quasi-count' in an authoritative reference?

Has anyone any information concerning the acceptability of say '200 cattle' rather than '200 head of cattle'?

I'd ask for further examples if I wouldn't feel obliged to close-vote.

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    Another word that seems similar to me is "troops." With large numbers, it can refer to individuals; with small numbers, I feel that it has to refer to groups (e.g. I doubt you'd encounter "2 troops" = "2 people in the military" even in headlinese).
    – herisson
    Apr 18 '17 at 13:17
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    Google Ngrams definitely shows this quasi-count-noun behavior with police/policemen. And it appears early enough on the Ngram that gender-neutral language clearly has nothing to do with it. Apr 18 '17 at 13:31
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    @Robbie Goodwin Are you claiming that 'two persons' would be considered less acceptable than '200 persons' or that or 'two people' would be considered less acceptable than '200 people'? The fact that some nouns are fairly readily used as count but only for largish round numbers is what is at issue here. I've got to answer your question 'No'. 2 police vs 200 police, not 2 / 200 persons vs 2 / 200 people. May 8 '17 at 21:33
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    Other examples in my idiolect include nouns such as Chinese*/*Japanese*/etc., *blacks*/*whites*/etc., and *gays; for example, "Three hundred blacks and whites came together to show support for [...]" is more-or-less fine, but "We asked three blacks and two whites about their support for [...]" is not.
    – ruakh
    Jun 6 '17 at 22:30
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    This reminds me of '200 horse' - but here it's a count noun being used. Is this, then, a remnant of an old usage that required singular nouns after numbers (as in our most closely related Germanic language, Dutch)?
    – Beth
    Sep 24 '17 at 7:02
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CGEL by Pullum does mention the term 'quasi-count noun' (and 'genuine count noun' and 'quantificational noun construction') on page 345 under "(b) Uninflected plural-only nouns":

There are a few plural-only nouns that are not morphologically marked as plural:

[37] i cattle, livestock, police, poultry(1), vermin

ii folk, people(1)

The lack of a singular–plural contrast is seen in such pairs as:

[38] a. These cattle belong to my uncle. b. ∗ This cattle belongs to my uncle.

The items in [37i] cannot be used with low numerals, but are found with high round numerals (and hence might be classified as ‘quasi-count nouns’). Their denotation is thought of en masse, with none of the individuation into atomic entities that the use of a low numeral implies. Genuine count nouns (usually of somewhat more specific meaning) must be substituted in order for this individuation to take place. Compare:

[39] i a thousand cattle, ∗ seven cattle, seven cows

ii two hundred police,∗ four police, four policemen/police officers

An alternative, in the case of cattle, is to use a quantificational noun construction: seven head of cattle. Poultry(1) denotes hens and other fowl; it is distinguished from the noncount singular-only poultry(2), which denotes the meat of these birds (Poultry is cheaper than beef).

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  • Thanks for your research. Better than mine. And I doubt that this analysis would be bettered in any other work. But Huddleston also deserves a mention. Dec 22 '17 at 10:26

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