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6.1. Logical subjects

The term subject can be defined in at least two ways, which has given rise to a distinction between grammatical and logical subjects. The traditional definition of subject is based on the case of the noun phrase: the grammatical subject is the noun phrase that is assigned nominative case like Jan/hij'he' in (3a) and ik in (3b). Although the accusative phrase Jan/hem'him' in (3b) is traditionally called an object (of the verb zien'to see'), it entails an identical thematic relation to the verb lachen as the nominative phrase Jan/hij'he' in (3a); if we were to define the term subject in terms of this thematic relationship, we could say that the phrases Jan/hij and Jan/hem act as (logical) subjects of the verb lachen in both cases. In this work, we use small capitals for the notion of logical subject and lowercase for the notion of grammatical subject. When the two notions refer to the same argument in the clause, as in (3a), we normally simply use the term subject.

Example 3
a. Jan/Hij lacht.
  Jan/he  laughs
b. Ik zag Jan/hem lachen.
  I saw  Jan/him  laugh

      Like (intransitive) verbs, adjectives denote sets of entities; cf. Section 1.3.2. The members of the denotation set of a verb like lachen can be used as the logical subject of the verb: the two examples in (3) both express that Jan is part of the set denoted by lachen. Similarly, it can be said that the examples in (4) express that the noun phrase de hond'the dog' is part of the denotation set of the adjective dood'dead'. Therefore, it seems useful to extend the notion of logical subject such that it also covers the relation between the noun phrase de hond and the predicatively used adjective dood.

Example 4
a. De hond/Hij is dood.
  the dog/he  is dead
b. Marie slaat de hond/hem dood.
  Marie hits  the dog/him  dead

      By assuming that the noun phrases Jan/hem/hij and de hond are subjects of, respectively, the verb lachen and the adjective dood, potential problems arise related to the traditional intuition that these noun phrases also function as the objects of the finite verbs zien'to see' and slaan'to hit' in (3b) and (4b), respectively. First, the noun phrases are assigned accusative case by these verbs, which is especially clear in example (4b): if we passivize the verb slaan, as in (5), the noun phrase de hond appears as the nominative subject of the entire clause. Since we defined the notion of subject by means of the thematic relation the noun phrase entertains with its predicate, this need not be considered a serious problem because case-assignment is not dependent on the thematic relations within the sentence.

Example 5
De hond/Hij is (door Marie) dood geslagen.
  the dog/he  has.been   by Marie  dead  hit
'The dog/it has been hit dead (by Marie).'

Second, and potentially more seriously, the noun phrases in (3b) and (4b) also appear to act as the object of the main verb with respect to their thematic properties: example (3b) implies that we actually see Jan and (4b) implies that the dog is actually hit. It has been claimed, however, that this thematic relation between the accusative object and the main verb is of a secondary nature compared to the predication relation between the accusative object and the adjective; cf. Hoekstra (1984a). An argument in favor of this claim is that comparable examples can be constructed in which the thematic relation between the accusative object and the verb is completely absent. This is very clear in the resultative and vinden-constructions in (6): the accusative noun phrases cannot appear if the adjective is absent, and therefore cannot be seen as the thematic object of the verb: it is clearly an argument of the adjective only. The number signs in (6c&d) indicate that the structures without the adjective are possible under the interpretation “Jan finds Marie/the book", which is irrelevant for our present discussion.

Example 6
a. Jan loopt zijn schoenen *(kapot).
  Jan walks  his shoes    worn.out
  'Jan is wearing his shoes down on one side.'
b. Jan spuit de kinderen *(nat).
  Jan spurts  the children     wet
c. Jan vindt Marie #(aardig).
  Jan considers  Marie    nice
d. Jan vindt dat boek #(te moeilijk).
  Jan considers  that book    too difficult

      The data in (6) are not sufficient to show that there is no thematic relation between the noun phrase de hond'the dog' in (4b) and the verb slaan'to hit', but they do provide sufficient evidence for the claim that adjectives take a subject, that is, that there is a thematic relation of some kind between predicatively used adjectives and the arguments in the clause they are predicated of. This claim is also corroborated by the so-called absolute met-construction in (7): the noun phrase Jan is clearly thematically dependent on the adjective ziek'ill' only.

Example 7
Met Jan ziek krijgen we het werk nooit af.
  with Jan ill  get  we the work  never  finished
'With Jan being ill, weʼll never finish the work.'

      In the examples in (4) and (6), the adjective is an intrinsic part of the predicate expressed by the VP, which is especially clear in (6), given that the adjective is obligatorily present in these examples. For this reason, we will refer to these cases as the complementive use of the adjective. In other cases, the predication expressed by the adjective is of a secondary nature, that is, supplementary to the action expressed by the VP. An example is given in (8a): the secondary nature of the predication relation between the adjective kwaad'angry' and the noun phrase Jan is clear from the fact that the adjective can be dropped without affecting the main proposition expressed by the clause: we only lose the supplementary information that Jan was angry while he performed the action expressed by the VP. We therefore refer to cases like these as the supplementive use of the adjective.

Example 8
a. Jan gooide het bord (kwaad) tegen de muur.
  Jan threw  the plate   angry  against the wall
  'Jan threw the plate against the wall angry.'
b. Het bord werd door Jan (kwaad) tegen de muur gegooid.
  the plate  was  by Jan   angry  against  the wall  thrown
  'The plate was thrown against the wall by Jan, angry.'

      The complementive adjectives in the resultative constructions in (6) are always predicated of the noun phrase that is assigned accusative case, if present; if no such noun phrase is present, the adjective is predicated of the nominative subject of the clause, as shown in the primeless examples in (9). The latter cases always involve unaccusative verbs, as is clear from the use of the auxiliary zijn in the perfect-tense construction in the primed examples and the possibility of using the past/passive participle attributively in the doubly-primed examples (where the complementive cannot be omitted).

Example 9
a. Jan viel dood.
  Jan dropped  dead
  'Jan dropped dead.'
b. De stok trekt krom.
  the stick pulls bent
  'The stick is warping.'
a'. Jan is/*heeft dood gevallen.
  Jan is  dead fallen
  'Jan has dropped dead.'
b'. De stok is/*heeft krom getrokken.
  the stick is  bent  pulled
  'The stick has warped.'
a''. de dood gevallen jongen
  the  dead dropped  boy
  'the boy that has dropped dead.'
b''. de krom getrokken stok
  the  bent  pulled  stick
  'the warped stick'

The supplementive adjective, on the other hand, can be predicated of the subject of the clause if a direct object is present, as is shown in (8a). The noun phrase Jan in (8a) further behaves as a regular subject of the activity verb gooien'to throw': the fact that it may appear in a passive door-phrase in (8b) unambiguously shows that it acts as the agentive argument of this verb.
      Complementive adjectives differ from supplementive adjectives in that only the former can license/introduce a noun phrase that is not selected by the verb. Consider the examples in (10). The primeless examples show that weather verbs such as regenen'to rain' and vriezen'to freeze' do not select a referential noun phrase like de jongen'the boy' as their subject. The singly-primed examples show, however, that such a referential noun phrase becomes possible if a complementive (resultative) adjective is added, which is compatible with the conclusion drawn on the basis of the examples in (6) that the noun phrase de jongen is licensed as the subject of the resultative adjective. The fact that the doubly-primed examples are ungrammatical shows that supplementive adjectives do not license referential noun phrases; the noun phrase de jongen is not an argument of the adjective kwaad and should therefore be selected by the weather verbs, which (10a&b) have already shown to be impossible. We will discuss this more extensively in Section 6.2.1, sub II.

Example 10
a. Het/*De jongen regent.
  it/the boy  rains
b. Het/*De jongen vriest.
  it/the boy  freezes
a'. De jongen regent nat.
  the boy  rains  wet
b'. De jongen vriest dood.
  the boy  freezes  dead
a''. * De jongen regent kwaad.
  the boy  rains  angry
b''. * De jongen vriest kwaad.
  the boy  freezes  angry

As is shown in (11a&b), it is not possible to retain the pronoun het'it' in the resultative constructions in (10a'&b'). This supports the widely accepted idea that the pronoun het is not a thematic argument of the weather verb but acts as a placeholder of the empty subject position. The ungrammaticality of the primed examples, with het interpreted as semantically vacuous weather het is due to the fact that weather het cannot act as the subject of an adjective; the number signs indicate that these examples are acceptable if het is interpreted as a deictic pronoun referring to, e.g., het paard'the horse'.

Example 11
a. * Het regent de jongen nat.
  it  rains  the boy  wet
a'. # Het regent nat.
   it  rains  wet
b. * Het vriest de jongen dood.
  it  freezes  the boy  dead
b'. # Het vriest dood.
   it  freezes  dead

For completeness’ sake note that, in contrast to (12a), example (12b) is fully acceptable under the non-referential interpretation of het. It is not clear, however, whether we are dealing with weather het here, given that the construction seems to imply a location, which can be made explicit by adding a locational constituent like buiten'outside'; Section 6.6, sub III, will argue that het can be seen as an anticipatory pronoun introducing an (implicit) locational subject.

Example 12
a. # Het is dood.
  it  is dead
b. Het is nat (buiten).
  it  is wet   outside

      We still need an explanation for the fact that the supplementive in (8a) is predicated of the noun phrase Jan. One possibility is to assume that the supplementive has a phonetically empty subject, which is called PRO and which is construed as coreferential with the phonetically realized noun phrase Jan. This suggestion correctly accounts for the intuition that the supplementive is a kind of reduced clause, that is, that (8a) can be paraphrased as: Jan gooide het bord tegen de muur, terwijl hij kwaad was'Jan threw the plate against the wall, while he was angry'. Section 6.3 will provide a more extensive and detailed discussion of this.

  • Hoekstra, Teun1984Transitivity. Grammatical relations in government-binding theoryDordrecht/CinnaminsonForis Publications
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