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7.1. The structure of the partitive genitive construction

The internal structure of the partitive genitive construction is still subject to debate, concerning not only the question of what should be considered the head of the construction, but also the question of what the status of the -s ending on the adjective is. The following subsections discuss three proposals that have been given in the literature.

[+]  I.  Nominalization

Haeseryn et al. (1997:413) suggest that the -s ending functions as a nominalization affix, and the adjective in the partitive genitive construction is consequently seen as a deadjectival noun; cf. also Van Marle (1996). Deadjectival nouns ending in -s do indeed occur in Dutch. Some examples are: moois'beautiful-s', nieuws'new-s', lekkers'tasty-s', and fraais'beautiful-s'. Unlike the adjectives in (1a&b), however, these nouns have undergone idiosyncratic meaning changes. This is quite clear in the case of nieuws and lekkers: the English translations show that the partitive genitives in (2a&b) retain their full meaning, whereas the corresponding nominalizations in the primed examples have undergone meaning specialization.

Example 2
a. Ik heb iets nieuws.
  'I have something new.'
a'. Ik heb nieuws.
  'I have news.'
b. Hij eet iets lekkers.
  'Heʼs eating something tasty.'
b'. Hij eet lekkers.
  'Heʼs eating candy.'

The deadjectival nouns in the primed examples in (2) exhibit various typical properties of ordinary nouns: (3a) shows that they can appear with or without a determiner, with the concomitant definite and indefinite interpretation; (3b) shows that they can be combined with a demonstrative; and (3c), finally, shows that modification by an adjective is possible.

Example 3
a. Opa gaf het kind ∅/het lekkers.
  grandpa  gave  the child  ∅/the candy
b. Waar komt dat lekkers vandaan?
  where  comes  that candy  from
  'Where are those candies coming from?'
c. Het kind keek gretig naar het verleidelijke lekkers.
  the child  looked.at  eagerly  to the tempting candy
  'The child was looking eagerly at the tempting candy.'

      The claim that partitive genitives are nouns is problematic for various reasons. First, we would expect that all adjectives ending in -s could be used without the preceding quantificational pronoun iets, whereas the examples in (4) show that they generally require that the pronoun be present.

Example 4
a. Ik heb *(iets) vreselijks gezien.
  I   have    something  terrible  seen
  'Iʼve seen something terrible.'
b. Ik heb *(iets) fijns meegemaakt.
  I   have    something  nice  experienced
  'Iʼve experienced something nice.'

Second, the partitive genitives and the deadjectival nouns in (2) behave differently with respect to modification by means of an intensifier: the examples in (5) show that such modification is possible with the partitive genitives, but excluded with the nominalizations. This strongly suggests that the partitive genitives are adjectives, whereas the other forms are truly nominal; cf. also the discussion of (3).

Example 5
a. Ik heb iets heel nieuws.
  have  something  very new
a'. * Ik heb heel nieuws.
b. Hij eet iets zeer lekkers.
  he  eats  something  very tasty
b'. * Hij eet zeer lekkers.

Finally, the claim that the partitive genitive is a noun leads to the conclusion that the quantificational pronoun iets can be combined with a noun, a pattern that normally leads to an ungrammatical result; cf. (6).

Example 6
* iets water/boeken
  something  water/books
[+]  II.  Empty noun analysis

Kester (1996) has proposed that the partitive genitive is in fact a common attributively used adjective that modifies a phonetically empty noun [ e], the presence of which is indicated by the -s ending on the adjective. According to this proposal, the structure of the partitive genitive construction is as given in (7).

Example 7
iets [NP nieuw-s [e]]

This proposal is supported by the fact that the partitive genitives resemble attributively used adjectives with respect to the internal structure of the AP. Section 5.3, sub IB, has shown, for example, that an attributively used adjective must be preceded by its PP-complement and (8) illustrates that the same thing holds for the partitive genitive; note that we give the clause in (8b) in embedded order to avoid the interference of PP-extraposition.

Example 8
a. het voor dit karwei geschikte gereedschap
  the  for this job  suitable  tools
  'the tools that are suitable for this job'
a'. * het geschikte voor dit karwei gereedschap
b. ? dat dit iets voor dit karwei geschikts is.
  that  this  something  for this job  suitable  is
b'. * dat dit iets geschikts voor dit karwei is.

That partitive genitives resemble attributively used adjectives is also shown by the examples in (9); if the adjective does not permit the order PP-A, the adjective is excluded both in attributive position and in the partitive genitive construction.

Example 9
a. ?? de/een voor dit karwei handige hamer
  the/a  for this job  handy  hammer
b. * iets voor dit karwei handigs
  something  for this job  handy

Note in passing that examples such as (10) are only apparent counterexamples to the claim that the PP must occur pre-adjectivally in the partitive genitive construction: the fact that the partitive adjectives can be omitted in the primeless examples suggests that the PP is not directly related to the adjective, but functions as a modifier of the complete noun phrase.

Example 10
a. iets (leuks) voor ʼs avonds
  something   nice  for the evening
a'. * iets voor ʼs avonds leuks
b. iets (lekkers) voor bij de thee
  something   tasty  for  with the tea
  'something tasty to eat with oneʼs tea'
b'. * iets voor bij de thee lekkers

      A second reason to draw a parallel between attributively used and partitive genitive adjectives is that there is a similarity between the distribution of the -e inflection on the attributive and the -s ending on the partitive genitive: if adjectives are coordinated in attributive position, the inflectional -e ending appears on all of them; similarly, if adjectives are coordinated in the partitive genitive construction, the -s ending appears on all adjectives. This is illustrated in (11).

Example 11
a. Ik heb goedkopere en modernere studieboeken nodig.
  have  cheaper  and  more.modern  text.books  need
  'I need cheaper and more modern text-books.'
a'. Ik heb iets goedkopers en moderners nodig.
  have  something  cheaper  and  more.modern  need
  'I need something cheaper and more modern.'
b. Er gebeurden vreemde maar intrigerende dingen in dat huis.
  there  happened  strange  but  intriguing  things  in that house
  'Strange but intriguing things happened in that house.'
b'. Er gebeurde iets vreemds maar intrigerends.
  there  happened  something  strange  but  intriguing
  'Something strange but intriguing happened.'

This does not apply, of course, to the complex adjectives in example (12). Like the attributive - e ending, the partitive genitive -s suffix is expressed on the final adjective only.

Example 12
a. een kant-en-klare maaltijd
  an  instant  meal
a'. iets kant-en-klaars
  something  instant
b. de rood-wit-blauwe vlag
  the  red-white-blue  flag
b'. iets rood-wit-blauws
  something  red-white-blue

      A third argument Kester puts forward in favor of this analysis is based on the examples in (13), in which the element specifiek'specifically' acts as the modifier of the adjective christelijk'Christian'. According to some speakers, the modifier may bear the attributive -e ending, as in (13a'), and it has also been claimed that it can have the partitive genitive -s ending, as in (13b').

Example 13
a. een specifiek christelijke doelstelling
  specifically  Christian  goal
a'. % een specifieke christelijke doelstelling
b. iets specifiek christelijks
  something  specifically  Christian
b'. % iets specifieks christelijks

There may be a flaw in this argument, however, given that the modifiers heel/erg'very', which are accepted by most speakers with the inflectional -e ending in examples such as (14a) (cf. Section 3.1.2, sub I), never occur with the partitive genitive -s ending in examples such as (14b).

Example 14
a. een heel/hele grappige voorstelling
  very  funny  performance
b. iets heel/*heels grappigs
  something  very  funny

Furthermore, the claim that (13a') involves modification of the adjective may actually be wrong; according to our informants that (marginally) accept it, this example has a stacked instead of a modification reading; cf. the discussion of example (17b) in the next subsection.
      The fact that (14b) is unacceptable if heel is inflected in fact constitutes an argument against the analysis in (7) according to which the partitive genitive functions as an attributive adjective. Another problem for this proposal is that it leads to the same conclusion as the nominalization approach, namely that the quantificational pronoun iets can be combined with a noun, which is not possible in other cases; cf. (6).

[+]  III.  N-movement analysis

The N-movement analysis, which is due to Abney (1987), is similar to the empty noun analysis in that it assumes that the partitive genitive is followed by an empty noun, but differs from it in assuming that the empty noun is not directly inserted but results from movement. More specifically, the analysis assumes that the constructions in (15a) and (15b) are closely related; (15b) is derived by moving the noun iets into the position that is occupied by the determiner een in (15a). The representations of (15a&b) are given in the corresponding primed examples, in which DP stands for the projection of the determiner (D), and t stands for the trace left by movement of the noun iets.

Example 15
a. een leuk iets
  nice  thing
a'. [DP een [NP leuk iets]]
b. iets leuks
  something  nice
b'. [DP ietsi [NP leuks ti]]

A clear advantage of the N-movement analysis in (15b') over the nominalization and empty noun analyses is that it does not imply that the pronoun iets can be followed by a noun phrase in other cases, whereas it provides a natural account for the facts that have been given in favor of the empty noun analysis; cf. the discussion of the examples in (8), (9) and (11).
      In addition, the N-movement analysis can readily account for the fact that iets can be premodified in the construction in (15a), in which it functions as a regular noun preceded by the indefinite article een, but not in the partitive genitive construction in (15b), in which it occupies the position of the article, by pointing out that the article een cannot be premodified by an adjective either. Similarly, the analysis accounts for the fact that the partitive genitive construction cannot be preceded by a determiner, given that the position normally occupied by the determiner is occupied by iets itself. It should be noted, however, that these facts are not conclusive given that the quantificational pronoun iets normally cannot be premodified or preceded by a determiner in other cases either; see the discussion of the examples in (35) and (36) in Section 7.2.2, sub I.
      Finally, the N-movement analysis also provides a natural account for the placement of the intensifier zo'so' in (16b). Section 3.1.3, sub IB, has shown that the modifier zo in the (a)-examples in (16) can either precede or follow the indefinite determiner een. As is illustrated in the (b)-examples, it can also precede or follow the noun iets in the partitive genitive construction. If the noun iets occupies the same position as een, as in the analysis in (15b'), this similarity follows immediately; see Section 7.3, sub IV, for more discussion of these data.

Example 16
a. Het was een zo saaie vergadering [dat ik ervan in slaap viel].
  it  was  so boring  meeting  [that I thereof in sleep fell]
a'. Het was zoʼn saaie vergadering [dat ik ervan in slaap viel].
b. iets zo saais [dat ik ervan in slaap viel]
  something  so boring  [that I thereof in sleep fell]
b'. zo iets saais [dat ik ervan in slaap viel]

      Although we have seen that the N-movement analysis has several advantages, there are also some problems. First, consider again the examples in (11), which have been given as evidence in favor of both the empty noun and the N-movement analysis. It should be noted that these data do not provide unambiguous evidence in favor of these analyses. As is discussed in Section 5.5, sub I, co-occurring attributives can be either coordinated or stacked, as in (17a). In the partitive genitive construction in (17b), on the other hand, the adjectives must be coordinated, as is clear from the fact that leaving out the conjunction en/maar is impossible for the vast majority of speakers. In this respect the partitive genitive adjectives resemble the predicatively used adjectives in (17c).

Example 17
a. Dat was een goedkope (en/maar) goede auto.
  that  was a  cheap   and/but  good  car
b. iets goedkoops *(en/maar) goeds
  something  cheap     and/but  good
c. Die auto was goedkoop *(en/maar) goed.
  that car  was  cheap     and/but  good

Second, if the partitive genitive construction is indeed derived from an attributive construction by means of movement, we would wrongly expect that all adjectives that can be used attributively are also possible in the partitive genitive construction, that is, that the primed examples in (18) would be grammatical; see Section 7.2.3 for a more thorough discussion.

Example 18
a. de zaterdagse bijlage
  the  Saturdayʼs  supplement
a'. * iets zaterdags
   something  Saturday
b. het dominicaner klooster
  the  Dominican  monastery
b'. * iets dominicaners
   something  Dominican

Third, we need to account for the fact that the pronoun cannot be the +animate quantificational pronoun iemand'someone'; despite the fact that iets can be replaced by iemand in the attributive construction in (15a), this is not possible in the partitive genitive construction in (15b). In this respect Dutch crucially differs from English which does allow constructions such as someone nice. The use of the percentage sign is to indicate that, although all our informants reject examples such as (19b), the construction with iemand can readily be found on the internet; it requires further investigation in order to establish whether we are dealing with an ongoing language change or with something else.

Example 19
a. een leuk iemand
  nice  person
b. % iemand leuks

Finally, the proposal does not straightforwardly account for the fact that the quantificational pronoun iets can be replaced by quantifier nouns such as een heleboel or quantifiers like veel, as these elements cannot appear as the head of a common noun phrase. Note that (20a') is also a problem for the N-movement approach given that een heleboel is not a head but a phrase.

Example 20
a. * een leuk heleboel
b. * een leuk veel
a'. een heleboel leuks
  lot  nice
b'. veel leuks
   much  nice
[+]  IV.  Conclusion

This section has shown that it is far from clear what the proper analysis of the partitive genitive construction is. We will therefore put this problem aside, while referring to Broekhuis & Strang (1996) who suggest an analysis based on the assumption that the noun and the adjective are in a predicative (and not in an attributive) relationship. Such an approach would be supported by the fact that the adjectives in partitive genitive constructions must be set-denoting, just as in predicative construction; cf. Section 7.2.3. Broekhuis & Strang do not develop this idea and Hoeksema (1998) has pointed out a number of potential problems for a proposal of this sort. Schoorlemmer (2005), on the other hand, has suggested that such an approach is tenable but only for a subset of the partitive genitive constructions. We leave the proper analysis of the partitive genitive to future research and focus instead on the properties of the construction that any analysis should be able to account for.

  • Abney, Steven1987The English noun phrase in its sentential aspectCambridge,, MAMITThesis
  • Broekhuis, Hans & Strang, Anke1996De partitieve genitiefconstructieNederlandse taalkunde1221-238
  • Haeseryn, Walter, Romijn, Kirsten, Geerts, Guido, Rooij, Jaap de & Toorn, Maarten C. van den1997Algemene Nederlandse spraakkunstGroningenNijhoff
  • Hoeksema, Jack1998Adjectivale inflectie op -s: geen geval van transpositieHoekstra, Erik, Smits, Caroline & Marle, Jaap van (eds.)Morfologiedagen 1996, Cahiers van het Meertens InstituutAmsterdam46-72
  • Kester, Ellen-Petra1996The nature of adjectival inflectionUtrechtUniversity of UtrechtThesis
  • Marle, Jaap van1996The unity of morphology; on the interwovenness of the derivational and inflectional dimension of the wordBooij, Geert & Marle, Jaap van (eds.)Yearbook of morphology 1995Dordrecht/Boston/LondonKluwer Academic Publishers67-82
  • Schoorlemmer, Maaike2005The status of the adjective in Dutch partitive constructions
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