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Classifiers, counters, partitives, collective nouns and assemblages


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Website warning Issues for learners 1 Counting and classifying things Using partitives Partitive or quantifier Partitive or pre-determiner Noun gradability
Structure of partitives Three types of partitive Assemblage nouns Semantic issues Grammatical issues Pronunciation issues Headedness 1
List of assemblage nouns Classifiers and epithets Three types of classifier Headedness 2 Analysis summaries Problems for learners 2 5-point teaching summary

This is an area where definitions differ (to put the issue as politely as possible), so first off we need a ...


Website warning

There is deep confusion out here on the web about three terms in particular so we'll deal with those first and then we can get on.

  1. Partitive noun vs. collective noun.
    The names give the clue:
    1. a partitive noun refers to a part of something greater so, for example:
          a bar of chocolate
      is a smaller portion of a greater item (an identifiable amount of all the chocolate in the known (and unknown) universe)
    2. a collective noun refers to a larger unit made of smaller parts (it is the reverse of a partitive).  For example:
          an army
      refers to a unit larger than the individuals (soldiers, usually but sometimes ants) making it up.
  2. Collective noun vs. assemblage noun.
    Both types of noun refer to the larger unit made of smaller amounts rather than the other way around.  However:
    1. Collective nouns usually contain semantically the units of which they are made up so we do not need to say what the unit is.  We do not find, therefore:
          an army of soldiers
          a jury of people
          a bench of judges

          a library of books
      etc. because it is tautologous to add the smaller units.  We know what makes up an army, a jury, a bench or a library.
      If we use a collective noun metaphorically, it often takes on the characteristics of an assemblage noun as in, for example:
          an army of schoolgirls
      and we need the unit because it is not what we are expecting.
    2. Assemblage nouns are a subset of collective nouns and usually do need the units to be specified (or understood from context and co-text) so we do not usually find
          Look at that herd
          The pack is over there

      unless we are quite clear that we know what the herd and pack consist of.  We would prefer, therefore:
          a herd of cows (rather than wildebeests, elephants or zebras etc.)
          a pack of dogs (rather than hyenas, jackals, cards or even lies etc.)

For our purposes, classifiers encompass all three types of noun although the term is often used in a specific way to describe a characteristic of certain languages.
So, when you come across a website that claims that a cup of tea is an example of a collective noun, move on rapidly because whoever wrote it has very little idea how English nouns work.



Issues for learners

This is an area that causes problems for learners in three ways:

  1. in understanding that English is, in general, a non-classifying language in that it does not use counter classifiers (although it makes extensive use of other kinds)
  2. in applying the correct partitives, collective and assemblage nouns
  3. in recognising the kinds of classifiers available in English, distinguishing them from standard adjectives and applying the rules

Part of the problem is not being aware of, being misled about or not appreciating the semantic properties of collective vs. partitive nouns that we have looked at in the last section.
Teacher-induced error is quite common in this area.
At the end of the guide, we shall consider in more detail what problems learners face and how we can help.



Counting and classifying things

In general, European languages do not use classifiers for all nouns but other languages are different.  In particular, East Asian languages, including Chinese languages, Japanese, Burmese, Thai and Korean, for example, require a counter or classifier when referring to nouns.  Japanese is our example here but many other languages have similar systems.
These classifiers arguably constitute a closed word class in those languages for which there is no equivalent class in English at all.
Japanese has a very significant number of classifiers (also known as counters) for particular types of noun which must be inserted before the noun:

In English In Japanese
five pencils five (cylindrical-objects classifier) pencils
three dogs three (animal-classifier) dogs
two chickens two (bird-like classifier) chickens
three children three (people classifier) children
six cars six (mechanical-objects classifier) cars
three shirts three (flat-objects classifier) shirts

and so on for literally hundreds of types of objects including buildings of various sorts, time periods etc.

In classifying languages such as Japanese and Cantonese, you cannot say, e.g., five biscuits without inserting the appropriate classifying determiner (in this case, the classifier for flat hard objects).  Native speakers of classifying languages, incidentally, may argue among themselves concerning which classifier is appropriate to which set of nouns.
Speakers of these languages are obliged to consider the qualities of whatever they are counting before they can decide on the appropriate determiner.
Speakers of English do not have to do that but they do have to consider other characteristics, notably whether a noun is a count or mass noun before deciding on an appropriate determiner.  Users of other languages get luckier and need to make no such judgements.

Some languages also change verb structures to include the nature of the thing which is the object of the verb.  In English, which does not do this, the verb give, for example, is unchanged whatever the properties of the object being given.  Some languages might have as many as six different forms of the verb depending on whether one is giving a mass noun (such as sugar), a stick-like object, a liquid, a shirt or something amorphous such as cotton or fluff.
English, in common with most European languages, does not do this and that can cause problems for learners from certain language backgrounds (as well, of course, for learners with European language backgrounds trying to acquire languages which use counters).

Classifiers are particularly important in many African languages.  For example, in Zulu, a Bantu language, there are 13 classes of noun signalled by prefixation including humans, proper names and kinship terms, plurals, lengthy items (such as snakes), abstract concepts and so on.
Swahili, another Bantu language, has no fewer than 22 prefix classes denoting, inter alia, small things, long, thin things, actions, plants and trees, human artefacts, very large things and so on.



Counting the (un)countable: using partitives

a loaf, a pat, a cup, a bunch and a portion  

Clearly, English is not so sophisticated but certain classifiers are used (although we don't usually call them by that name; they are generally analysed as partitives).  There are two types but grammatically and semantically, they differ little.

Mass partitives
A common way to use partitives in English is to make the uncountable countable.  What we do is use a specific or general term (the partitive) + of + the mass noun.  The partitive can then be made plural.
For example:
    An item of furniture (a general partitive)
    Two rashers of bacon (a restricted partitive)
    Three strips of land (a typical partitive)
    Some heaps of junk (a general partitive)
What we call here typical partitives are sometimes referred to as specific partitives because they are specific to the type of nouns they modify.  In that way English parallels languages which use counter classifiers because the selection of the correct partitive depends on consideration of the characteristics of the noun in question:
    Is it soft, solid, flat, thin, liquid etc.?
Count partitives
Count nouns, too, can be used with partitives.  For example:
    A pile of books
    A heap of tables
    A bundle of newspapers
    A row of houses

    Six packets of lentils
    A few boxes of pencils

Count partitives are also often restricted in some way semantically, depending on the nature of the objects to which they can be applied.

Partitives are distinguished from other types of classifications because they denote part of a whole or part of a larger number.  For example, if we say:
    Pass me a slice of that cake
we are referring to part of a cake which is available.
even when we say
    I bought the last carton of milk
we are probably not referring to something of which more is immediately available  We understand that potentially more is available in the world or the vicinity.  It is not necessary for more milk to be physically available at the time of speaking, only that more is potentially available.



Partitive or quantifier?

On this site, quantifiers such as some, any, every, several, a few, little etc. are dealt with in the guide to determiners, linked below.  Technically, partitives are different insofar as they denote a specific amount of something distinctive rather than an amount of just anything.
Another way of expressing that is to think of partitives as semantic categories, dependent on meaning, while quantifiers, because of their particular characteristics in terms of modifying singular, plural and mass nouns fall into grammatical categories.

There exists, however, in a range of languages not including English, something called a partitive article and that is represented in English by the words some and any which act in an article-like way.
French and other Romance languages are good examples.  In French, for example, we encounter a range including du, de l’ de la, de l’ and des and Italian is just as sophisticated with partitive articles including della, delle, dell', del, dei, degli and dello with complex rules in both languages for their correct use which challenge even native speakers at times.
English does not have a partitive article system and all those expressions usually translate with the quantifying determiners some or any.
Finnish, incidentally, manages to have a partitive case.



Partitive or pre-determiner?

Partitives are sometimes analysed as pre-determiners because they can precede a determiner.  They parallel pre-determiners proper.  The structure of pre-determiners + determiners is, e.g.:
    He did half my work for me
    She ate all the cake
    One third of those apples are rotten

and those are parallel constructions to the use of partitives as in, e.g.:
    He did a heap of my work for me
    She ate three slices of the cake
    A whole barrel of the apples were rotten




Apart from measures such as pint, yard, square mile, pound, millilitre and so on which grade for quantity, English essentially only has three common partitive-like expressions which grade for quality: sort, kind and type.
We have, therefore, what looks like a partitive (because the grammar (see below) is parallel) but which is not identifying a quantity or item of something greater:
    This is a new kind of apple
    That's a better sort of bread

    She went to a different type of school
These expressions are not partitives in themselves because they can be preceded by a partitive proper (something partitives don't do because they are mutually exclusive).  We can have, therefore:
    The fruiterer has a box of a new kind of apple
    I got a loaf of this new sort of brown bread
    They ate a plate of a different type of fish

There are a few other expressions which are parallel but much less common, including:
    That's a litter of a new breed of dog
    They discovered a roost of a more interesting
species of bat
    He gave her a bunch of a traditional
variety of roses
    That's a hive of a different
class of bees
    She said it was a collection of a different
category of butterfly
    This is a pane of a new
form of glass
and in all those examples, the quality expression is preceded by a partitive proper.


Classifier use

Many nouns normally used as mass concepts may be used as classifiers.  When this happens, they lose their nominal status and become akin to adjectives (although they are not adjectives, in fact).
So, as an alternative to partitive use, we can find the mass noun converted to a classifier, like this, for example:
    a pane of glass → a glass pane
    an ingot of silver → a silver ingot
    a lump of sugar → a sugar lump
    a grain of rice → a rice grain

    a bar of gold → a gold bar
and so on.
However, these are unreliably acceptable uses because we probably would not accept:
    ?a furniture heap
    ?a coal lump
    ?a paper sheet
    ?a soap bar
    ?a grit grain
    ?an evidence item
and so on.
In particular, any metaphorical or figurative use of the partitive is unlikely to be acceptably converted to a classifier use of the mass noun so, for example:
    *an intelligence flash
    *an honesty scrap
    *a work stack
    *a hope glimmer
    *a confusion cloud
are all disallowed.
What is acceptable is often a matter of opinion and there are no rules to discover the level of acceptability.  The advice for learners, therefore, is to avoid these unless one is sure of their correctness.



The structure of partitives

All partitives in English are simple to form and take the structure of:
    Determiner + Partitive + of + Noun phrase
as in, e.g.:
    a stack of jazz records
    that sheet of typing paper

although the noun may itself be modified by a determiner or other modifier so we may have:
    a block of that chocolate
    a pile of those books
    a slice of that delicious cake
and partitives themselves may take determiners (only those which can apply to count nouns), be plural and be modified so we may have:
    three thin slices of fruit cake
    lots of tall panes of glass
    two long rows of expensive cars
    that untidy heap of books
    a hot rasher of bacon
    all the slices of Christmas cake
    both piles of books

However, there are some constraints concerning which determiners can appear in partitive constructions.  Most can, so we allow:
    a slice of a cake
    a rasher of the bacon
    a block of any material
    a pint of both beers
    a glass of either juice
    a cloud of many flies
    a cup of your coffee
    a pile of some stones
    a group of several people
    a loaf of whichever bread you have
    a sliver of that / this / those / these sausage(s)

    a glass of each wine
On the other hand, we do not encounter:
    *a slice of all cakes
    *a bowl of every soup

because these two determiners are universal and do not allow the noun to be conceived as divided.

Here are some more examples of mass partitives (some of which can, more rarely, be used as count partitives, too):
Type of thing Partitive
rectangular blocks bar: chocolate, soap, metals (especially gold) etc.
liquids a range of measures including: pint, cup, glass etc.
thin sections slice, sliver: cake, bread, pizza etc.
cuboids block: ice, concrete, tables, buildings etc.
irregular shapes lump: coal, concrete, metal etc.
thin, flat materials sheet: paper, ice, glass etc.
abstract nouns item: information, advice, work, evidence, news etc.
small things grain: rice, sand, grit etc.
almost anything bit: information, paper, glass, coffee, advice, help etc.



Three sorts of partitives

It is tempting to have a clear distinction between general partitives which can be used for almost any mass noun to make it countable and typical or specific partitives for particular nouns which form memorable chunks in themselves or at least qualify as strong collocations.
Reality is slightly more complicated and we actually have a cline from:

  1. general partitives, usable with almost any mass noun, through
  2. typical partitives which occupy the fuzzy middle area and whose use is constrained mostly by the physical characteristics of the material in question but which can be applied to both mass and count nouns, to
  3. restricted partitives which are confined to a single, or very limited range, of mass or count nouns

It looks like this:

measures (pint, meter, acre etc.)
blade (of grass)
bolt (of cloth)
clove (of garlic)
ear (of cereal crop)
glimmer (of light)
gust (of wind)
loaf (of bread)
lock (of hair)
pane (of glass)
pat (of butter)
peal (of bells or laughter)
rasher (of bacon)
scoop (of ice-cream)
stroke (of luck or genius)

The overlap is between the types of partitives in question and the examples is deliberate.  It is not always clear whether something is acting as a general, typical or restricted partitive in any language which uses them.  For example
    a pair of ...
is only a count partitive and is restricted, obviously, to two objects but can be used in a general way for any two objects (although it also acts as a more restricted count partitive in the case of shoes, socks, scissors and trousers).
    a pile of
is also used informally as a general partitive for countable and mass nouns (work, furniture, books, trouble, problems, paper etc.) but is semantically restricted in the sense that it cannot be used for liquids (*pile of water / milk / beer etc.) or non-tangible nouns such as light, advice, help or sound (but pile of trouble is a common enough metaphorical exception).

In the restricted and typical partitive columns belong a number of metaphorical idioms (clichés, if you prefer) such as:
    pang of hunger / guilt
    torrent of abuse
    scrap of difference
    article of faith
    grain of intelligence
    glimmer of hope / life
    flash of insight
    drop of sympathy
The notorious politician-speak partitive raft of (policies, measures etc.) belongs here, too.

There are further issues to do with mass vs. count noun uses.

  1. General partitives are used to make a huge range mass nouns countable.  We can have, therefore:
        three pieces of information
        two bits of advice
        a touch of irony
        a piece of furniture

    but not:
        *three pieces of facts
        *two bits of apples
        *a touch of raisins
        *a piece of books
  2. Typical partitives, because they refer to the physical properties of matter are often (not invariably) usable with both mass and count nouns.  We get, therefore:
        a ball of string
        a ball of rubber bands
        a jar of cream

        a jar of cherries
        a cloud of dust

        a cloud of insects
  3. Restricted partitives are almost always confined to defining a quantity of a mass noun.  We have, therefore:
        a pane of glass
        a blade of grass
        a scoop of ice cream

    and so on, but none can be used with count nouns so
        *a bolt of cloths
        *a gust of breezes

        *a loaf of bread rolls
    and so on are not allowed.

An advantage for learners is that the general partitives can usually be used to replace the typical or restricted partitives when these are not known so we can have, for example:
    Pass me that, erm, bit of paper
instead of
    Pass me that sheet of paper.

The problem for learners is obvious.  Apart from the general partitives which can be used with almost any mass noun:

as in this list of common typical and restricted partitives:

Partitive + Nouns
act mass nouns for abstract behaviours: kindness, stupidity, meanness, war etc.
ball mass or count nouns which come in lines: string, wool, thread, elastic bands etc.
bar mass nouns which come in regular blocks: soap, chocolate etc.
barrel mass nouns for liquids: beer, wine, oil etc.
bolt mass textiles: essentially only cloth but material is possible and specific types of material such as silk etc.
bottle mass nouns for liquid stored in tall, thin, glass containers: milk, beer, lemonade, olive oil etc.
bowl mass or count nouns, usually mass, for liquid or semi-liquids, often foodstuffs: soup, cereal, porridge etc.
box mass and count nouns for materials kept in cubic or cylindrical containers: jewellery, cereal, chocolates etc.
can mass or count nouns for items stored in a particular type of metal container: soup, beans, beer, oil, paint, petrol etc. AmE for all such items, BrE also tin of (cf.)
case mass nouns for abstract actions: forgetfulness, dishonesty, mistaken identity etc.
cloud mass nouns for gases, chemicals, small insects etc.: dust, smoke, perfume, mosquitos, poison, fumes etc.
cluster count nouns for item held together or in close proximity: stars, consonants, cottages, cases (disease), customers etc.
coat mass nouns for coverings: paint, cement, varnish etc.
crate count nouns for glass containers: bottles, wine, beer etc.
dab mass nouns for viscous liquids: perfume, oil, paint, glue, grease etc.
drop mass nouns for free-flowing liquids: water, alcohol, blood, rain etc.
fit mass nouns for sudden emotions: anger, generosity, pique etc.
flash mass nouns for lights and colours: light, green, lightning etc.  Also metaphorically: inspiration, genius etc.
heap mass or count nouns for objects in unorganised groups: books, sand, earth, papers, chairs etc.
game games and sports (usually mass nouns): chess, cricket, tennis etc.
grain mass nouns for small pieces of material: dust, salt, sand, sugar etc.
jar mass and count nouns kept in glass containers: jam, cream, onions, marmalade, pickles etc.
lump mass nouns for irregularly shaped materials: coal, concrete, iron etc.
measures specific ones for length, square measures, liquids etc.: gallon, mile, hectare etc.
packet mass or usually count nouns for dry foodstuffs etc.: raisins, biscuits, sweets etc.
pile mass or count nouns for tangible objects which can be placed in vertical series: sand, furniture, books, ash etc.
pinch mass nouns for small pieces of material held between thumb and finger: salt, spice, dust etc.
plate mass nouns for thin stiff materials and foods: vegetables, glass, steel etc.
portion all types of food (count and mass): vegetables, meat, fish etc.
punnet count nouns for soft berry fruit: strawberries, raspberries etc.
reel mass nouns for long, thin materials wound on a cylinder: cotton, string, tape etc.
roll flexible materials (mass and count) which can be made cylindrical: wallpaper, labels, sticky tape, leather etc.
row usually count nouns denoting items which are arranged horizontally: books, cars, houses, huts, chairs etc.
scrap mass nouns for small, flexible materials usually insignificant: paper, cardboard, cloth etc.  Metaphorically also difference
sheet mass nouns for thin materials: glass, paper, ice etc.
slice mass or count nouns for certain types of food: cake, pizza, bread, sausage, banana etc.
speck very small amounts of mass nouns for materials: dust, dirt, ink, pain etc.
stack flat or cuboid count and (rarely) mass nouns which can be vertically arranged: books, tiles, cards, paper, bricks, dice, files etc.
tin mass or count nouns kept in a specific type of metal container: paint, beans, soup, fruit etc.  BrE usually (cf. can of).
torrent fast flowing mass nouns for liquids: water, sewage, oil etc.  Metaphorically also abuse, curses
work cultural mass nouns: literature, art, fiction, genius etc.

This is not an easy area for learners of the language by any means.

The list of partitives here is also available as a PDF document, linked at the end of the guide.



Things in groups: collective and assemblage nouns

a herd of wildebeest  

In many analyses no distinction is made between collective nouns and assemblage nouns.  So, for example:
     jury, flock, herd, family, litter, army, crew
and so on are all treated as different sorts of collective nouns.  That is a defendable position but, because there are obvious differences within the general term collective, we will take a slightly more precise route and distinguish between collective nouns and assemblage nouns.
They both refer to groups.

The two categories discussed in this section denote the reverse relationships to partitives.

  1. Partitives refer to a part (hence the name) of a whole.
  2. Group nouns refer to the whole made up of the parts.



Semantic issues

Group nouns come in two sorts which are semantically distinguished:



Grammatical issues

There are clear grammatical similarities shared by partitives, collective nouns and assemblage nouns.  The form of the phrase in which they occur is simple and predictable in all three cases:

Type determiner noun of noun phrase
Partitive the / that / this / a(n) etc. pane of stained glass
Assemblage the / that / this / a(n) etc. flock of summer birds
Collective the / that / this / a(n) etc. army (of) (ants)

but in the case of collectives, the of-phrase is optional or determined by the fact that the collective noun is being used metaphorically as here, hence the brackets.  Metaphorical use of collective nouns converts the noun to an assemblage noun.
For teaching purposes, therefore, it is useful to treat group and partitive expressions together when considering form but equally useful to distinguish them when considering meaning.

There is one obvious grammatical difference to do with concord, too:

This grammatical inconsistency in British English is not present in many other varieties so American usage will almost always settle on singular verb and pronoun forms for singular subjects.
Most other languages will do the same when a parallel structure exists.



Pronunciation issues

There are few of these but two issues are worth noting:

  1. The of construction may be missed altogether when learners hear the phrase because it is often very severely reduced either to /əv/, /ə/ or to /v/.  So, for example:
        a herd of cows
    will sound like
    Learners may also fail, of course, to produce the weakened form of the preposition.
  2. Usually, both the partitive, collective or assemblage noun will carry some stress but the main stress will fall on the main noun, as one would expect so, for example:
        a rasher of bacon
        a pane of glass
    will usually be pronounced as:ˌˈ
    Speakers may of course, use special stress to mark some elements, especially when the use is metaphorical in, e.g.:
        There was a huge army of caterpillars on my vegetables
    when the pronunciation, stressing the assemblage noun for effect, might be:
    but that is not the canonical form.



Headedness 1

There is one final difference between partitives and assemblages or collective nouns which should be mentioned although there are disagreements in this area:

  1. Partitives follow the general rule in English of being right headed (or head final) in terms of meaning and word class.
    Just as
        a taxi driver
    is a kind of driver not a kind of taxi and
        a hill walker
    is a kind of walker not a kind of hill so, for example
        a coat of paint
        a dab of paint
        a smear of paint
        a drop of paint

    are all ways essentially to describe the paint, not the coat, dab, drop or smear.
  2. Assemblage and collective nouns can be seen to break the right-headed rule in English and that can confuse.  For example:
        a jury of schoolchildren
        a jury of old women
        a jury of your equals

    etc. all describe the type of jury, not the individuals in it.
        a herd of cows
        a herd of antelopes
        a herd of elephants

    etc. all describe the type of herd, not the animals in it.

Those who disagree will take one of two positions:

  1. All partitives, collective and assemblage nouns break the right-headed convention so
        a rasher of bacon
    describes the rasher
        an army of robots
    describes the army and
        a flock of sheep
    describes the flock.
  2. None breaks the rules so:
        a rasher of bacon
    describes the bacon
        an army of robots
    describes the robots and
        a flock of sheep
    describes the sheep.

The safest position to take is probably to say that partitives usually abide by the right-headed rule and assemblage and collective nouns often appear to break it.  This is not a topic to which much classroom time needs to be devoted providing the meaning is clear and represents the mental picture a learner has or needs to have of something.

There is more on headedness in the discussion of classifiers, below.



A selection of assemblage nouns

a fleet of fishing boats  

We saw above that there are many fanciful names for assemblages of animals in particular which are usually worth avoiding because of their obscurity and dubious reliability.  Many of the more fanciful terms are metaphorical allusions to the presumed behaviour of animals such as a murder of crows, a charm of finches, an exaltation of larks and so on.
Here, however, is a short list of common assemblage nouns which do have some utility and can be taught effectively providing they are sensibly categorised.

Assembly + Typical nouns
flock + birds although there are fanciful names for particular types of birds.  However, also a flock of sheep.
herd mainly large animals: antelopes, horses, kangaroos, cattle, deer, oxen etc.
litter young animals: kittens, puppies, cubs etc.  For birds, especially unhatched eggs, a clutch of is conventional.
pack social carnivores: dogs, wolves, hyenas etc.  However, a pride of lions.
pod cetaceans: whales, dolphins, porpoises
shoal fish
swarm small animals and insects in particular: ants, flies, bees, wasps, termites etc.  Metaphorically this also applies to numerous things which look small and undifferentiated from a distance (a swarm of people, school children etc.)
batch + items dealt with at the same time: loaves, cakes, examination papers, letters, emails, reports, surveys etc The term is also used to apply to people dealt with in groups, children, patients, students, applicants etc.
bunch fruit which hangs from the plant or something which looks very similar: grapes, bananas, flowers, keys etc.  This is also used metaphorically for any unorganised group of items or people (bunch of clubbers, customers, students, papers, trees, rags etc.)
fleet ships, boats and cars
flight aircraft, steps or stairs
pack cards, cigarettes, lies, batteries etc.  Often with reference to how things are sold.
set matching items: cutlery, crockery, plates, (golf) clubs, teeth, jewellery, furniture, chess pieces etc.
band + musicians and criminals: orchestra players, thieves, robbers, highwaymen etc.
company performers: actors, dancers, players, singers etc.
field individual, competing sports people: runners, athletes, riders, players etc.  (Also crops.)
gang hand workers: workmen, labourers, builders etc.  (A crew of is also used, especially, but not solely, for seamen and others working on the water (rowers, yachters, fishers, sailors etc.)
horde aggressive people: savages, attackers, hooligans, rioters etc.
team sports people and workers: footballers, cricketers, baseball players, workers, designers, doctors, programmers etc.

There is a similar, though less easily represented, cline in this table like the one above for partitives from the more generalised expressions such as gang, band, batch and bunch through more restricted but typical items such as company, team and horde to very restricted terms like pod, shoal, fleet and flight.
The list of assemblage nouns is also available as part of the PDF document linked at the end of the guide.



Classifiers and epithets

a solitary oak tree  

If you have followed the guide to either adjectives or pre-modification of noun phrases, you have encountered the distinction between an adjective proper (an epithet) and a classifying pre-modifier.
An adjective, whether gradable or not, describes the noun; a classifier categorises it.
Classifiers which are often nouns are also known as noun adjuncts, incidentally.
This use of the term classifier is different from the use above of a counter token (as exemplified by Japanese) and does refer to English and other European languages.
For example:

Classifiers are, therefore, indications of a subclass of the thing in question.  If you are familiar with the term hyponymy, this is superficially straightforward.  For example, there are no prizes for spotting the odd one out in this diagram:


It is simple to tell that fast car is not a type of car; it is a description of a car.  Fast is an adjective, the others are classifiers.  The simple test is to try to modify the word with an adverb or make a comparative form.  If that can be done, we are dealing with an adjective and if it cannot, we are dealing with a classifier.
We can have, therefore:
    an amazingly fast car
    a sadly solitary tree
    a more solitary tree
    a very lonely man

but not
    *a very sports car
    *a slightly oak tree

    *an oaker tree
and so on.
Unfortunately, some adjectives also resist modification and here the test loses its validity and we are left with a grey area.  For example, is the word dead in
    a dead tree
a classifier or an adjective?  It is clear that we cannot have
    *a slightly dead tree
    *a deader tree

etc. because the adjective resists grading, but if we accept
    a very dead tree
    a completely dead tree
then we are dealing with an adjective proper.  Similar considerations apply to adjectives such as unique, and more unique is regularly heard.
A supplementary test is to use the word predicatively.  We can have
    the tree was solitary
    the man appeared very lonely

but clearly not
    *the car was sports
    *the tree seemed oak

Even this test is not completely secure because words like flightless and waterproof are used both ways with subtle differences in meaning:
    a flightless bird (classifier)
    the bird is flightless (adjective describing this particular bird)
    a waterproof coat (classifying the type of coat)
    the coat was waterproof (describing the coat's quality)



Three types of classifiers

adjectives as classifiers
Some words can perform both the adjective and the classifying functions depending on the meaning intended.  For example:
    a senior officer
has the word senior acting as a simple adjective.  We can have more senior, very senior, most senior etc.
but in
    a senior teacher
the word is a classifier, categorising the teacher by job title and function and it makes no sense to refer to a more senior teacher, unless we are referring to the teacher's age or experience.
Equally, the word rural can perform both functions:
    a very rural setting (adjective)
    a rural issue (classifier)
participles as classifiers
Many adjectives are actually verb participles in disguise and act quite normally as adjectives.  For example:
    a very boring landscape
    an extremely frightened child
    a well educated teacher
    the most compelling film

and in these cases we can modify them and produce comparative or superlative forms so they are adjectives.
However, in
    a boring tool
    printed matter
    printing ink
    a framed picture

    typing paper
all the participles are classifiers.
Whether the participles are adjectives or classifiers, the meaning distinction between the forms comes down to one of two factors:
  1. -ing participles refer to role of the noun in effecting a process
        a boring speaker
        printing ink
    but -ed participles refer to the noun being affected by the action
        a bored listener
        printed paper
  2. -ing participles refer to an action in progress
        manufacturing industry
        welding torch
    but -ed participles refer to a finished action
        a manufactured artefact
        a welded pipe
nouns as classifiers (also known as noun adjuncts, attributive nouns, qualifying nouns, noun (pre)modifiers or apposite nouns)
These are the most frequent forms but they have their own issues:
  1. They are less predictable in meaning: a spider web refers to something made by a spider but a paper airplane refers to something consisting of paper.  Some knowledge of the world is required to understand what is meant in many cases.
  2. Noun classifier + Noun structures blur imperceptibly into compound nouns:
    It is clear that, e.g., earthquake is a true compound with the subject as its head (it is the earth that quakes).  Other examples are less clear:
    town planner is often seen as a compound but garden planner seems more easily analysed as a Noun classifier + Noun.  In these cases, it is the object which forms the head (the town is planned, the garden is planned).
    The fuzziness of the borderline between Noun classifier + Noun and true compounds causes problems of course, not least because compound nouns are usually stressed on the first item and the Noun classifier + Noun structure is variably stressed.  There is a guide to compounding on this site, linked in the list of related guides, below.
  3. Noun classifiers are irregularly marked for number: we have
        a saloon car
        a sports car
        a sports bag
        a camera bag
        a complaint form
        a complaints department
    and so on.
    The way to bet is that they are singular so we have
        model car collection
        portrait gallery
        landscape photography

    and so on.
    Learners who do not have parallel structures in their first languages will often be tempted to make all noun classifiers plural.



Headedness 2

English is a right-headed language in the formation of noun phrases.  The headword in the compound lies to the right as in, e.g., taxi driver where taxi classifies the type of driver.  In that phrase, driver is the Head.  Many related, especially Germanic, languages follow the same pattern of right-headedness as does, e.g., Basque (taxi gidaria), Turkish (taksi sürücüsü), Dutch (taxi chauffeur), Danish (taxachauffør), Swedish (taxichaufför) and many other languages.
Some right-headed languages also agglutinate, forming words by affixation, so in Finnish, a taxi driver is a taksikuski and in German, a Taxifahrer.

Other languages do things differently.
In left-headed languages someone who drives a taxi is not a taxi chauffeur but a chauffeur de taxi (French) or a shofer taksie (Albanian), řidič taxíku (Czech), водитель такси (Russian), sewwieq tat-taxi (Maltese, a Semitic language), sofer de taxi (Romanian) etc.  In French, a postage stamp is a timbre-poste, in Polish a znaczek Pocztowy and in Romanian a timbru poștal (stamp postage in all cases).  Other left-headed languages include Vietnamese, Thai and Welsh, in which taxi driver translates as gyrrwr tacsi, and postage stamp as stamp post, incidentally.
To complicate matters, some languages, particularly Slavic ones such as Polish and Russian, will place the adjective before the noun but choose to place a classifier after the noun.  So we have, e.g., big house but old player record.  In Polish, for example, large postage stamp translates as duża znaczka pocztowa (literally large stamp postage).

Many languages avoid classifiers and will use a kind of genitive structure (a driver of buses, a stamp of postage etc.) or simply supply a different ending for someone who does something (as English can with gardener, teacher etc.) but, instead of deriving the person from the verb (as English does with taxi driver, classifying the noun driver and adding -r to the verb to make the doer of the action), they will derive the person from the noun and have taxista (Spanish, Catalan, Portuguese, Galician etc.) or tassista (Italian).


Summaries of the analysis

The overall analysis presented here can be summarised like this:

summary 1 

The distinctions between classifiers and partitives can be summarised like this:

summary 2

There's a short matching test to see if you have remembered this classification and can match the terms to examples.



Problems for learners

All of the above should have convinced you that this is not at all an easy area for learners.
Using the wrong partitive, group noun or classifier or failing to recognise right-headedness will rarely result in communicative breakdown because a sympathetic native speaker will be able mentally to correct the utterance but learners who cannot handle partitives, group nouns and classifiers will often sound unnatural and what they say will be recognisably non-English.
For example, the following, while not all grammatically wrong or overtly flawed are unnatural to most people's ears:
    a lump of information
    a sliver of bacon
    a chair of the office
    the airport of the city
    a block of coal
    a pane of plastic

    a herd of sheep
    a group of birds

If natural production is the aim, especially above early levels, this area needs attention.
Here are some more ideas of what the problems might stem from and some simple ways to deal with them:

  1. Confusions caused by poor analysis or incomplete teaching
    1. Collective vs. partitive nouns
      There are some websites, purportedly helping people to learn English or about English, which will suggest that something like
          a box of chocolates
      is a collective noun.
      In the sense that box of refers to a collection of chocolates, they are right, of course, but a moment's thought will reveal that we are referring here to a limited number of items from an almost limitless potential supply.  The term is, therefore, a partitive, not a collective noun.
      We need to get a semantic issue right from the beginning because without it, confusion will be caused:
      1. a partitive is a noun representing a smaller unit of a larger unit
      2. a collective noun is a noun representing a larger unit made up of smaller units
    2. Collective vs. assemblage nouns
      If learners are not made aware of this difference, some of what they say will, at the least, be unnatural.
      1. Collective nouns do not usually need the units to be expressed so terms such as army, jury, government, board, committee and so on are rarely used (if the use is literal) with the xxxx of structure.
        Including the units produces unnatural and sometimes tautological language such as:
            a committee of people
            an army of soldiers
      2. Assemblage nouns usually need the units to be explicit so we get a pride of lions, pod of whales, flock of starlings, clump of trees and so on.
        Leaving out the units causes comprehension failure sometimes and almost always sounds unnatural.  For example:
            ?Can we see a pod?
            ?Look at that huge flock
            ?He has a clump at the end of his garden
  2. Partitives:
    1. Learners from certain language backgrounds may expect to be able to translate the counter classifiers from their first languages and be confused that English does not have separate classifiers for the same categories (animals, people, flat things etc.) that their first language uses.
      Simply making them aware of this with a little comparative language work can usually solve the problem and these learners will, of course, not be strangers to the idea of typical partitives.
    2. Learners with a European first language may have difficulty applying the right partitives because languages differ in the categories which are applied.  Many languages have far fewer of these and rely on general partitives such as piece, item or bit.  Learners from these language backgrounds may well over-generalise and apply the wrong partitives, producing, for example, *a lump of paint when speck or dab is meant.
    3. Teaching the general partitives will help, especially at the beginning but as they progress learners will need to apply the typical partitives for substances they know or they might not realise that there is a difference between a bit of glass and a pane of glass.
    4. Teaching the restricted items as lexical chunks helps (because there are no easily acquired rules) and, when introducing the terms for substances or dealing with mass nouns, providing the collocating partitive then and there will be useful because it is more difficult to apply the categories later.
    5. Problematizing the issue helps because learners may not be aware that there is something worth learning in this respect.  For example, getting learners to make a sketch of
          a bit of glass
          a pane of glass
          a lump of cake
          a slice of cake
          a bit of string
          a ball of string

      etc. may alert them to the need to notice the language and the notions it encodes.
      Abstract ideas are trickier to deal with but providing or eliciting examples of the differences between, e.g.:
          a bit of kindness
          an act of kindness
          a stroke of genius
          a work of genius
          a case of dishonesty
          a bit of dishonesty

      etc. will pay dividends in alerting the learners to the shades of meaning.
  3. Assemblage and collective nouns:
    1. As we saw, collective nouns proper do not usually require the of-phrase so it is a mistake to speak of
          a family of relations
          a jury of people
          a committee of members

      and so on.
      This is not always mirrored in other languages and that may lead to the unnecessary inclusion of the of-phrase.
      In other cases, a collective noun will have added meanings in other languages, so, for example, congregation in German translates by a term which can also mean community or municipality and in French by a word which can also mean religion.
    2. Assemblage nouns are almost wholly unpredictable and rarely translate across languages.
      In French, for example, a herd of cows and a flock of sheep will both take the assemblage noun troupeau whereas flock of birds will translate as vol d'oiseaux.
      In German, the same word is also used for flock and herds but a flock of birds uses schwarm which is cognate with the English word reserved for insects (swarm).
      Similar considerations apply to Spanish, Italian and other Romance languages.
      Greek distinguishes herd from flock with different words but has a separate word when flock is applied to birds.
      Many language may have a single collective noun to translate the English assemblage expression and some will simply compound the animal with a generalised word for group.
      Words such as batch are equally obscure and, for example, a different word would be applied in German for students, papers and applicants although French has an equally generalisable expression (lot).
      In sum, it is very unlikely indeed that languages other than English use assemblage nouns in anything like parallel ways.  Some assemblage terms in English will simply not have any equivalents in other languages and their speakers will rely on generalised words such as group or collection.  The reverse may also apply.
  4. Classifiers vs. epithets:
    1. Again, languages differ and many will avoid the use of a pre-modifying classifier and use a genitive structure instead as we saw above.  Speakers of Greek or French, for example, may be tempted to say the driver of the bus or the bus's driver which, while not obviously wrong, are much less natural than the bus driver.  Because such expressions are unnatural rather than patently wrong, there is a temptation to ignore them.  That's a mistake.
      This needs careful handling and some comparative language work can pay dividends in getting learners to notice the differences between their language(s) and English.
    2. Headedness is another issue which can be handled with comparative language work but to be able to do that well, you need to be aware of the characteristic(s) of your learners' language(s).  Headedness applies to more than classifiers and adjectives of course but the forms are parallel.
      To help:
      Right headed Left headed
      English and most Germanic languages
      Scandinavian languages
      Japanese, Korean, Mandarin and Cantonese
      Turkish, Basque
      Most Indian languages
      Romance languages (French, Italian, Spanish etc.)
      Slavic languages, Greek and Albanian
      South-East Asian languages (Thai, Burmese, Vietnamese etc.)
      Celtic languages
      Most African languages
    3. Selecting an adjective or a noun classifier is almost wholly idiomatic in English and, like other idioms, they are best treated as chunks.  There are no overt rules to follow.  For example, we can have:
      1. urban expansion but not *town expansion
      2. the art exhibition but not *the artistic exhibition, artistic talent but not *art talent
      3. a grammatical mistake and a grammar mistake, a grammar book but not *a grammatical book
      4. a science journal, a scientific journal but not *a science conference, a science teacher but not *a scientific teacher (unless a very different meaning is intended)
      5. economic growth and political crisis but not *economy growth or *politics crisis
      6. country dancing but countryside management but not *country management or *countryside dancing



The 5-point summary

  1. Raise awareness of the non-classifying nature of English at early stages.
  2. Teach general partitives such as piece, item and bit of early along with quantifying terms such as a little of ..., lots of ..., some etc.
  3. Make sure you introduce the appropriate general, typical or restricted partitive(s) when your learners encounter a new mass noun.
  4. Teach restricted partitives along with the noun as a language chunk: you can't have a pane of anything but glass, for example, so a pane of glass can be treated as a single lexeme.
    The same applies to some of the more common assemblage nouns.
  5. Allow learners to notice the commonalities of typical partitives with the notions of flatness, shape, size, containers etc. by explicitly focusing on them, problematizing the issue and presenting language in an orderly fashion.
    Be orderly, too, in presenting assemblage nouns so learners can classify things, people and animals appropriately.
    Do not confuse collective nouns with partitives, they are semantically opposites.

Related guides
PDF document for a list of partitives and assemblage nouns in PDF format
adjectives a guide to the word class with more on epithets vs. classifiers
nouns a guide which also considers collective and assemblage nouns
determiners a guide which also considers quantifiers of various sorts
concord for some consideration of the use of plural and singular forms with group nouns
pre- and post-determiners for a guide which also, in passing, considers the relationship between these and partitives
compounding a guide to a related area
collocation another related area especially concerning noun + noun collocations
In the learners' section of this site, there are:
general partitives a short lesson at B1 / B2 level
restricted partitives an exercise at C1 / C2 level
common partitives a short lesson at A1 / A2 level