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9.2.2. Modal infinitives

This section discusses the attributive use of the modal infinitives (which are also known as passive infinitives; cf. Kester (1994a). We will start by showing that this use is only compatible with verbs that take an accusative object.

[+]  I.  Verb types

Participles are not the only verbal elements that can be used attributively: te-infinitives can also be used in this way, as is shown by the examples in (83).

Example 83
a. de te lezen boeken
  the  to read  books
  'the books that are to be read'
b. de af te leggen afstand
  the  prt.  to cover  distance
  'the distance that is to be covered'
c. het groen te verven hek
resultative construction
  the  green  to paint  gate
  'the gate that has to be painted green'

The verbs that may enter this construction are limited to those that take an accusative object; in other words, intransitive and unaccusative verbs cannot occur in this construction. This is shown in (84).

Example 84
a. * de te lachen mensen
  the  to laugh  people
b. * de te vallen bladeren
  the  to fall  leaves
c. * de (ons) te bevallen boeken
nom-dat verb
  the   us  to please  books

Since the head noun in (83) corresponds to the direct object of the active counterpart of the infinitival verb, the impossibility of (84a) is not very surprising. The ungrammaticality of (84b&c), on the other hand, is surprising given that attributively used past/passive participles can be used to modify both the object of a transitive verb and the subject of an unaccusative verb; cf. Section 9.2.1. One possible approach to accounting for the ungrammaticality of these examples is to appeal to the fact that the construction expresses a notion of obligation (cf, subsection III), which must be ascribed to some (implicit) +human argument in the structure. Such an approach would still leave examples such as (85) unaccounted for, where the obligation could be ascribed to the noun.

Example 85
* de (vroeg) te vertrekken mensen
  the  early  to leave  people
'the people that have to leave early'

Example (86) with the unaccusative verb verschijnen'to appear' is exceptional as it is judged acceptable by many Dutch speakers, which may be due to English influence. Note that this example does not express the root modality of ability or obligation but future aspect.

Example 86
% het nog/in een internationaal tijdschrift te verschijnen artikel
  the  still/in an international journal  to appear  article
'the article still to appear/to appear in an international journal'
[+]  II.  Attributive inflection

Since modal infinitives end in schwa (orthographically represented as -en), they do not get the attributive ending; cf. Section 5.1.1, sub II. Still, the examples in (87) show that it is justified to treat them on a par with the attributively used adjectives. As a rule, coordination is restricted to elements of the same category or to elements that have the same syntactic function: for instance, nouns cannot be coordinated with adjectives nor with verbs. The fact that modal infinitives can be coordinated with APs strongly suggests that they have the same syntactic status. In (87a) and (87b), this is illustrated for the modal infinitives on their verbal and nonverbal readings, respectively.

Example 87
a. een zwaar en door de atleten binnen een uur af te leggen parcours
  hard  and  by the athletes  within an hour  prt.  to cover  track
b. een intelligente maar niet gemakkelijk te overtuigen student
  an  intelligent  but  not  easy  to convince  student
[+]  III.  Two types of modal infinitives

This subsection shows that there are two types of modal infinitives, which can be distinguished on the basis of meaning as well as syntactic behavior.

[+]  A.  Meaning

Modal infinitives inherently express some form of modality. The examples in (83) from Subsection I, for instance, express obligation: example (83a) expresses that the books have to be read (by someone), and (83b) that the distance has to be covered (by someone). Another modality that can be expressed by means of these modal infinitives is that of ability. Although this reading is not very salient in (83), it can be favored by adding an adverbially used adjective such as gemakkelijk'easily' or the negative adverb niet'not', as in (88). Note that the modal infinitive constructions in (88) can be readily confused with the so-called easy-to-please-construction; see Section 6.5, sub IV, for a discussion of the differences between the two constructions.

Example 88
a. een gemakkelijk/niet te lezen boek
  easily/not  to read  book
  'an easily accessible book/'an inaccessible book'
b. een gemakkelijk/niet af te leggen afstand
  easily/not  prt.  to cover  distance
  'a distance that can be covered easily/that cannot be covered'

Examples such as (89), which can be found in Dutch public transport, show that it is also possible to express permission by means of the modal infinitive. To our knowledge, this has not been investigated so far.

Example 89
Noodrem alleen te gebruiken in geval van nood.
  safety brake  only  to use  in case of emergency
'It is only allowed to use the safety brake in case of emergency.'
[+]  B.  Realization of the implied agent

The cases in (83) and (88) differ for some speakers in that the implied agent of (83) can normally be expressed by means of a door-PP, whereas the implied agent is (preferably) expressed by means of a voor-PP in (88). This is illustrated in (90) for the examples in (83b) and (88b).

Example 90
a. de door/%voor de atleten af te leggen afstand
  the  by/for  the athletes  prt.  to cover  distance
  'the distance to be covered by the athletes'
b. een voor/%door de atleten gemakkelijk/niet af te leggen afstand
  for/by  the athletes  easily/not  prt.  to cover  distance
  'a distance that the athletes can cover easily/cannot cover'
[+]  C.  Degree of verbalness

The fact that the door-phrase can be added in (90a) strongly suggests that the infinitive is still verbal in nature under the obligation reading. This is supported by the facts that, e.g., the indirect object or the predicative complement of the verb can be overtly expressed in the attributive construction under the obligation reading; cf. the examples in (91).

Example 91
a. de (aan) de studenten te sturen brief
  the   to  the students  to send  letter
  'the letters that must be sent to the students'
b. de in de kast te zetten boeken
  the  in the cupboard  to put  books
  'the books that must be put in the cupboard'

The fact that the predicatively used modal infinitive in (92) is not compatible with an obligation reading actually suggests that the infinitive cannot be adjectival in nature under this reading; this is only possible if the modality expressed by the infinitive is ability; see Section 9.3.1, sub III, for more discussion.

Example 92
Deze afstand is (door de atleten) af te leggen.
  this distance  is  by the athletes  prt.  to cover
Impossible reading: 'This distance must be covered by the athletes.'
Possible reading: 'This distance can be covered by the athletes.'

      The voor-phrase in (90b) is not an argument of the verb, but acts as an argument of the adjectival modifier gemakkelijk (cf. Het is gemakkelijk voor hem'It is easy for him') or as an independent adverbial restrictor. Actually, the examples in (91) suggest that the te-infinitive cannot be readily supplemented by the arguments of the active verb under the ability reading. This is also supported by example (93a), which shows that adding a door-phrase to example (88a) is impossible. This has given rise to the idea that the te-infinitives are nonverbal on their ability reading. The fact that the copular constructions in (92) and (93b) do allow the ability reading is of course fully compatible with that idea.

Example 93
a. % een door Peter gemakkelijk/niet te lezen boek
  by Peter  easily/not  to read  book
b. Deze boeken zijn (gemakkelijk/niet) te lezen.
  these books  are   easy/not  to read
  'These books are (easily/not) accessible.'
[+]  IV.  Concluding remarks

Contraction verbs like ontslaan'to sack' in (94a) often cannot be used in attributive position, although Haeseryn et al. (1997) provides a number of acceptable examples with the (adjectival) ability reading. Given that the acceptable examples in (94b&c) have an idiomatic ring to them, we may be dealing with fully lexicalized formations.

Example 94
a. * de te ontslane werknemers
  the  to sack  employees
b. niet te overziene consequenties
  not  to survey  consequences
  'consequences that cannot be overlooked'
c. in niet mis te verstane bewoordingen
  in not  wrongly  to understand  words
  'in an unmistakable phrasing'

For completeness’ sake, we want to mention that we have called the te-phrases modal infinitives, because te is an infinitive marker and the element following it has the appearance of an infinitive. It should be noted, however, that the complement of zu in the German counterparts of these phrases has the appearance of an inflected present participle; cf. Kester (1994a). This is illustrated in (95), in which the inflection is given in italics.

Example 95
a. ein nicht zu verkennendes Zeichen
  not  to mistake sign
b. ein nicht leicht zu überzeugender Junge
  not  easy  to convince  boy
  • Haeseryn, Walter, Romijn, Kirsten, Geerts, Guido, Rooij, Jaap de & Toorn, Maarten C. van den1997Algemene Nederlandse spraakkunstGroningenNijhoff
  • Kester, Ellen-Petra1994Eurotra grammar: adnominal participles and infinitives in Germanic and Romance languagesStudi e ricerche 11AlessandriaEdizioni dell'Orso
  • Kester, Ellen-Petra1994Eurotra grammar: adnominal participles and infinitives in Germanic and Romance languagesStudi e ricerche 11AlessandriaEdizioni dell'Orso
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