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Let's consider the following sentence:

He drank [a glass of hot milk].

Here the brackated element is a Noun Phrase (NP). The head noun is glass. My question is can it be classified as a quantifier?

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  • In "one kilo of sugar", "kilo" is also a noun.
    – fev
    Commented Aug 1, 2021 at 15:07
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    For what purpose?
    – tchrist
    Commented Aug 1, 2021 at 15:07
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    I wouldn't put hot milk in a glass. Commented Aug 1, 2021 at 15:48
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    He only drank a glass of milk, not the whole bottle. Obviously it's a "quantifier" there, in that it specifies the actual amount. But generally speaking, "weights and measures" words (a pint of beer, three fingers of bourbon) aren't what grammarians have in mind when they talk about "quantifiers" (which to them are words like a lot, some, many,...). Commented Aug 1, 2021 at 17:03
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    Most quantifiers are nouns in origin. They grade from a lot of, which is just barely nouny, to extremely nouny phrases like a big frosted mug of. Commented Aug 1, 2021 at 17:06

1 Answer 1

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This type of string is often called a pseudo-partitive construction. (A true partitive looks the same, but shows a partition, a subset: a half of the money, a piece of the cake.)

From an article by in linguistics by Ilja A. Seržant:

Definition of pseudo-partitive constructions

A pseudo-partitive construction (abbreviated: a pseudo-partitive) is a partitive construction with no specific superset in the restrictor.

While the true-partitive relation implies proportional quantification, pseudo-partitives denote plain quantification such as

  • amounts (a group of people),
  • measures (a cup of tea) or
  • quantities (a lot of people, a majority of people)

of particular kinds (people, tea). Therefore, pseudo-partitives are sometimes referred to as quantitative partitives (e.g., Ihsane 2013).

Van Eynde (2022) has more recently written a valuable article with a refined analysis of pseudo-partitives:

Pseudo-partitives are strings of the form [N1 – of – N2], in which N1 denotes a quantity or amount of whatever it is that N2 denotes. Keizer (2007) distinguishes between five types, adapting a classification proposed for Dutch in Vos (1999):

        (a)  Quantifier-noun constructions: a number of people

        (b)  Measure-noun constructions: a pint of beer

        (c)  Container-noun constructions: a box of chocolates

        (d)  Part-noun constructions: a piece of cake

        (e)  Collection-noun constructions: a herd of elephants

Characteristic of pseudo-partitives is that N2 is a bare nominal. It is in this respect that it differs from genuine partitives, in which N2 is introduced by a definite determiner. Compare the pseudo-partitive a piece of cake with the partitive a piece of the cake.

So there is obviously a grading into collective nouns. The Seržant article strongly suggests that all pseudo-partitives are quantifiers. But I'd separate out definite measure phrases (a kilogram of sugar, a litre of blood). Interestingly, 'a spoonful of caster sugar' in a recipe book is more likely to be a measure phrase, 'spoonful' being a defined quantity (ill-defined, as there are various conflicting definitions). But used loosely, often deleted to 'two sugars, please' say, it's a quantifier [+ noun], with 'spoonful [of]' being used in a rough, quantifier way.

...........................

I've come up with a less lumped, more split classification of the an X of Y strings; I just offer it without authoritative support hoping that others may find it as useful as I do. Obviously, associatives (an alderman of Manchester, a Balrog of Morgoth, a day of reckoning ...) are not included here.

(1) Partitive constructions: showing a partition, a subset: a half of the money; a piece of the cake. [usually notional agreement: a majority of the villagers have their electricity back on]

(2) Pseudo-partitives involving container + contents: a box of chocolates; a can of soup; a field of tents. [agreement usually dependent on first noun, unless the quantificational role is in play: a can of soup was found in the pantry / two cans of soup were found in the pantry / two cans of soup is too much for anyone]

Note that the container may be discounted: He's eaten a whole box of chocolates!

(3) [relatively precise] Measure phrases: a milligram of radium bromide; a half of bitter [agreement dependent on first noun; note that 'half' here is a unit rather than a direct synonym of 50%]

(4) [central] [compound] Quantifiers: a lot of people dislike Zormite; there's a modicum of truth in what he says; a number of people disagree [agreement notional after 'a lot of'; true also of 'a number of', where plural agreement is forced]

(5) [Semantically loaded] [compound] Quantifiers (some of especially the less formal sometimes dubbed 'vague'): a bunch of flowers; a smorgasbord of art from around the world; a raft / tsunami of ideas; a wide variety of animals; a range of fairground attractions; a mountain of homework; a soupçon of intrigue; a handful of bathers; a shedload of money [agreement often notional, but this can be tricky].

Central collective nouns can be included here; they carry the additional sense of a closed set under consideration: a pride of lions; a bevy of beauties; a flight of geese; a team of scientists [agreement often notional].

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