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Singular, Plural und generische Referenz im Polnischen

Imke Mendoza

This paper is concerned with the number of generic noun phrases in Polish. Generally speaking, slavistic scholars have paid little attention to this particular problem. Most studies suggest, albeit in passing, that singular and plural in generic noun phrases are interchangeable. The matter, however, is much more complicated. I found four major criteria which have an impact on the choice of number in generic noun phrases:

  1. Collective predicates: With collectives predicates, both numbers are possible. The plural, however, is generally preferable.
  2. Intensional vs. extensional interpretation of predicates: The object of an intensional predicate can be a singular or a plural noun phrase. With extensional predicates, only the plural can be used.
  3. Creation of a stereotype: If it is possible to form a stereotype of the elements of the denoted class, the singular is acceptable. The plural is always possible.
  4. Internal structure of the denoted class: The more homogeneous the internal structure of the denoted class is, the more acceptable the generic singular becomes. Again, the plural is always acceptable.
  5. Generic comparisons: Generic comparisons differ from the above four criteria in that the singular, not the plural, is more "versatile". The singular can be used if the first member of the comparison is a singular or a plural noun phrase, although the latter sounds slightly odd. The plural, however, is only possible if the first element of the comparison is also a plural noun phrase.

All of the above criteria are similar in that the singular relates to the so-called characteristic, or typical features of the class. The plural indicates mere class membership. To be sure, the numbers are indeed often interchangeable. This does not contradict my thesis. Rather it shows that the context of the sentence often allows both the relation to the typical features and the indication of class membership.

Linguistische Beiträge zur Slavistik. VIII. JungslavistInnen-Treffen München 1999. Hg. Florence Maurice und Imke Mendoza. München: Sagner 2000 (= Specimina Philologiae Slavicae 131), 183–196.