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1.1.2. The internal structure of the noun phrase

This section discusses the overall internal structure of the noun phrase. We will distinguish two syntactic domains. The first domain, which we will call the NP-domain, is headed by the noun. The second domain is the DP, which is often assumed to be headed by a determiner, quantifier or a numeral. We will discuss these two domains in I and II, respectively. Subsection III is devoted to a brief discussion of non-restrictive modifiers of the noun phrase. Subsection IV concludes with some remarks on word order restrictions within the noun phrase.

[+]  I.  The NP-domain

The NP-domain consists of the head noun, its complement(s) and its restrictive modifier(s). Leaving irrelevant details aside, the structure of the NP is normally assumed to be as indicated in (4a). A complement occurs right-adjacent to the noun in the form of a PP (unless the noun is a nominal infinitive, in which case the complement may occur in pronominal position as a noun phrase); an example is given in (4b). Restrictive modifiers can be either pre- or postnominal. The prenominal position is normally occupied by an attributive adjective, as illustrated in (4c), whereas the postnominal modifier normally has the form of a PP or a restrictive relative clause. The postnominal modifier normally follows the complement of the noun; we illustrate this with a PP-modifier in (4d).

Example 4
a. [NP AP N complement-PP]
b. de [NP vernietiging [compl van Rome]]
  the  destruction  of Rome
c. een [NP [AP erg dik] boek]
  very thick  book
d. de [NP vernietiging van Rome [PP in 410 A.D.]]
  the  destruction  of Rome  in 410 A.D.

For our present purposes, this brief introduction of the internal structure of the NP suffices. An exhaustive discussion of complementation of the noun can be found in Chapter 2. Modification of the NP is the topic of Chapter 3, and is also extensively discussed in Chapter A5 and Chapter A9.
      Semantically speaking, the NP determines the denotation of the complete noun phrase. A noun like boek'book' can be said to denote a set of entities with certain properties. Modification of the noun involves modification of the set denoted by the noun phrase; the NP erg dik boek'very thick book', for example, denotes a subset of the set denoted by boek. The NP-domain itself does not encode the fact that noun phrases are normally used as referring expressions; Subsection II will show that this is the semantic function of the elements constituting the DP-domain.

[+]  II.  The DP-domain

This subsection briefly discusses the lexical elements that are found in the DP-domain (the determiners, quantifiers and numerals), characterize the semantic contribution that these elements make, and also introduce the so-called pre-determiners al and heel that can be used to modify certain determiners.

[+]  A.  Determiners and quantifiers/numerals

In current linguistic theory, determiners, quantifiers and numerals are generally assumed to be external to the NP-domain, and are taken to function as the head of a projection containing the NP-domain, as in (5).

Example 5
[DP ... D ... [NP ... N ...]]

This implies that elements such as a determiner or quantifier are assumed to be the head of the full noun phrase, and it is these elements that determine the referential and/or the quantificational properties of the noun phrase. The determiner slot D can be left empty or be filled by one of the elements in Table 3.

Table 3: Determiners and quantifiers/numerals
articles het boek
the book
een boek
a book
demonstrative pronouns dit/dat boek
this/that book
deze/die pen
this/that pen
deze/die boeken
these/those books
possessive NPs and pronouns Jans/zijn boek
Janʼs/his book
mijn moeders/haar pen
my motherʼs/her pen
onze boeken
our books
quantifiers and numerals veel boeken
many books
elk boek
every book
twee boeken
two books

The assumption that articles, demonstratives and possessive pronouns occupy the position D accounts for the fact that these elements are in complementary distribution, since it is generally accepted that a head position of a phrase can be occupied by one head only. This claim has furthermore given rise to the hypothesis that the noun phrase may contain more projections than those identified in (5): DP and NP. This is related to the fact that numerals and some quantifiers can be combined with articles, demonstratives and possessive pronouns. Quantifiers and numerals have therefore been claimed to head the projections QP and/or NumP. Under this hypothesis, an example such as mijn vijf broers would have the articulated structure in (6).

Example 6
[DP mijn [NumP vijf [NP broers]]]
  my  five  brothers
'my five brothers'

Though questions concerning the number of projections involved are obviously of interest (see Alexiadou et al., 2007: part II, for discussion), the main point to remember here is that determiners and quantifiers/numerals are assumed to be external to the NP, which implies that they have no effect on the denotation of the (modified) noun. Their semantic contribution is restricted to the referential and/or quantificational properties of the noun phrase as a whole. Below, we will briefly illustrate this by means of examples in which the noun phrase acts as the subject of the clause. But before we can do this, we will provide some background by briefly outlining the set-theoretic treatment of the subject-predicate relation, which will be central to our discussion of the denotational properties of the NP.
      Certain aspects of the meaning of a clause can be expressed by means of set theory: an example such as Jan loopt op straat'Jan is walking in the street' expresses that the singleton set denoted by the proper noun Jan is included in the set denoted by the verb phrase loopt op straat'walks in the street'. More generally, the subject-predicate relation in a clause can be expressed by means of Figure 1, where A represents the set denoted by the NP and B indicates the set denoted by the verb phrase. The intersection A ∩ B denotes the set of entities for which the proposition expressed by the clause is claimed to be true.

Figure 1: Set-theoretic representation of the subject-predicate relation

In an example such as Jan en Marie wandelen op straat'Jan and Marie are walking in the street', it is claimed that the complete set denoted by A, viz. {Jan, Marie}, is included in set B, which is constituted by the people walking in the street. In other words, it expresses that the intersection (A ∩ B) exhausts set A so that the remainder of set A is empty: A - (A ∩ B) = ∅; The semantic function of determiners and quantifiers/numerals is to specify the intersection A ∩ B and the remainder of A - (A ∩ B); nothing is said about the remainder of set B, that is, B - (A ∩ B). Below, we will informally describe this for some determiners and quantifiers/numerals. A more exhaustive and formal description can be found in Chapter 6.
      The definite article de/het in (7) expresses that in the domain of discourse all entities that satisfy the description of the NP are included in the intersection A ∩ B, that is, that A - (A ∩ B) = ∅. The singular noun phrase de jongen'the boy' in (7a) has therefore approximately the same interpretation as the proper noun Jan in the discussion above; it expresses that the cardinality of A ∩ B is 1 (for this we will use the notation: |A ∩ B| = 1). The plural example in (7) differs from the singular example only in that it expresses that |A ∩ B| > 1.

Example 7
a. De jongen loopt op straat.
  the boy  walks  in the.street
b. De jongens lopen op straat.
  the boys  walk  in the.street

The meaning of a definite demonstrative pronoun like deze'this/these' and die'that/these' or a possessive pronoun like mijn is similar to that of the definite article, the only difference being that these determiners effect a partitioning of the set denoted by A, and claim that one of the resulting subsets is properly included in B.
      The semantic contribution of the indefinite articles in (8a&b) is to indicate that A ∩ B is not empty, but they do not imply anything about the set A - (A ∩ B); the latter may or may not be empty (the other boys included in set A may all be in school). The difference between the singular indefinite article een and the (phonetically empty) plural indefinite article ∅ is that the former expresses that |A ∩ B| = 1, whereas the latter expresses that the cardinality can be larger than 1. At least semantically speaking, the cardinal numerals belong to the same class as the plural indefinite article; an example such as (8c) is similar in all respects to (8b) apart from the fact that it expresses that |A ∩ B| = 2.

Example 8
a. Er loopt een jongen op straat.
  there  walks  a boy  in the.street
  'A boy is walking in the street.'
b. Er lopen ∅ jongens op straat.
  there  walk  boys  in the.street
  'Boys are walking in the street.'
c. Er lopen twee jongens op straat.
  there  walk  two boys  in the.street
  'Two boys are walking in the street.'

      The semantic contribution of quantifiers like enkele'some', veel'many' and weinig'few' can be described in similar terms. The main difference is that the cardinality of the set A ∩ B is somewhat vaguer: an example such as (9a) expresses more or lesss the same thing as (8b), but in addition the use of enkele suggests that the cardinality of A ∩ B is lower than some implicitly assumed norm “c”: 1 < |A ∩ B| < c. The interpretation of the quantifiers veel and weinig also seems to depend on some implicitly assumed norm: veel expresses that |A ∩ B| > c' and weinig that |A ∩ B| < c''. In the case of enkele in (9a), the implicit norm c seems more or lesss fixed; the cardinality of the set of boys walking in the street will never be higher than, say, eight or nine. In the case of veel and weinig, on the other hand, the implicitly assumed norm is contextually determined: a hundred visitors may count as many at a vernissage but as few at a concert of the Rolling Stones. Note further that, as in the case of the indefinite articles and numerals, the examples in (9) do not imply anything about the set A - (A ∩ B).

Example 9
a. Er lopen enkele jongens op straat.
  there  walk  some boys  in the.street
  'Some boys are walking in the street.'
b. Er lopen veel/weinig jongens op straat.
  there  walk  many/few boys  in the.street
  'Many/few boys are walking in the street.'

      If we combine a definite determiner and a numeral/quantifier the meanings of the two are combined. An example such as (10a) expresses that |A ∩ B| = 2, which can be seen as the semantic contribution of the numeral twee'two', and that A - (A ∩ B) = ∅, which can be seen as the semantic contribution of the definite article de. Similarly, (10b) expresses that |A ∩ B| > c, which is the contribution of the quantifier, and that A - (A ∩ B) = ∅, which is the contribution of the definite article de.

Example 10
a. De twee jongens wandelen op straat.
  the two boys  walk  in the.street
b. De vele jongens wandelen op straat.
  the two boys  walk  in the.street
[+]  B.  Pre-determiners

Special attention must be paid to a set of expressions that are often referred to as pre-determiners. These expressions are quantifiers that may appear in a position left-adjacent to the determiners. Some examples are given in (11), in which the determiners mijn'my' and de'the' in the determiner position are preceded by the pre-determiners al'all' and heel'whole/all of the'. The semantics of these pre-determiners is extremely complex. Therefore, we will not discuss these elements here, but refer the reader to the extensive discussion in Chapter 7.

Example 11
a. al mijn boeken
  all  my  books
b. heel de taart
  whole  the  cake
  'all of the cake'
[+]  III.  Non-restrictive modifiers

Some examples of non-restrictive modification are given in (12): non-restrictive modifiers typically take the form of non-restrictive relative clauses, as in (12a), but they can occasionally also be adjectival or nominal in nature, as in (12b&c). Semantically speaking, non-restrictive modifiers are outside both NP and DP, and contain material that falls outside the scope of the noun and determiner: non-restrictive modifiers neither affect the denotation of the NP nor the referential or quantificational properties of the noun phrase as a whole, but just provide additional information about the referent of the noun phrase. Syntactically speaking, however, the non-restrictive modifiers in (12) clearly belong to the noun phrase, since they occupy the clause-initial position together with the DP (the constituency test).

Example 12
a. Het boek, dat ik graag wilde hebben, was net uitverkocht.
  the book  that  gladly  wanted  have  was  just  sold.out
  'The book, which I very much wanted to have, was just sold out.'
b. De man, boos over zijn behandeling, diende een klacht in.
  the man  angry  about his treatment  deposited  a complaint  prt.
  'The man, who was angry about his treatment, deposited a complaint.'
c. Het boek, een eerste druk van Karakter, werd verkocht voor € 10.000.
  the book  a first edition of Karakter  was  sold  for € 10,000
[+]  IV.  Order of elements within the noun phrase

The previous subsections have shown that the structure of the noun phrase is more or lesss as indicated in (13a). Putting certain co-occurrence restrictions and special intonation patterns aside for the moment, this structure allows us to provide a descriptively adequate account for the main word order patterns found within the noun phrase. For example, (13a) predicts that the determiners always precede the noun and its adjectival premodifiers and that the determiner can only be preceded by the pre-determiners al and heel, that is, that a numeral or quantifier must follow the determiner (if present). In other words, the structure in (13a) correctly predicts that there are no alternative realizations of the prenominal string al de vier aardige N in example (13b). Similarly, it predicts that an example such as (13b) has no alternative word order pattern for the post-nominal PPs: the PP van de Ver e nigde Staten is the complement of the deverbal noun vertegenwoordiger, and is hence expected to precede the PP-modifier uit New York.

Example 13
a. [DPal/heel D [NumP/QP Num/Q [NP A N complement]]] non-restr. modifiers
b. al de vier aardige vertegenwoordigers van de VS uit New York
  all  the  four  nice  representatives  of the US  from New York

      There are, however, various complicating factors. Consider, for instance, the examples in (14) involving the deverbal noun behandeling'treatment'. The noun phrase Jan in (14a) can be considered a complement of the head noun, just as it would be a complement of the verb behandelen'to treat' in the clause De dokter behandelt Jan in het ziekenhuis'The doctor is treating Jan in hospital'. Example (14b) shows, however, that the noun phrase Jan can also be realized as a genitive noun phrase, in which case it precedes the noun behandeling and the attributive adjective langdurig'protracted'. In order to account for this, it is generally assumed that the complement of a noun can also be realized as a genitive noun phrase, which is placed in the determiner position (just like possessive pronouns). For completeness’ sake, note that Section, sub I, will show that (in contrast to English) Dutch exhibits severe restrictions on the noun phrase types that may occur as genitive noun phrases.

Example 14
a. de langdurige behandeling van Jan in het ziekenhuis
  the  protracted  treatment  of Jan  in the hospital
b. Jans langdurige behandeling in het ziekenhuis
  Janʼs  protracted  treatment  in the hospital

Another complication is that the complements of nominal infinitives may also occur in the form of a noun phrase in prenominal position. Still, example (15a) shows that the unmarked position of the complement is after the attributive adjectives, so that we can simply assume that, like the postnominal PP-complements, the pre-nominal nominal complements must be closer to the head noun than the modifiers.

Example 15
a. Het gebruikelijke tomaten gooien bleef niet uit.
  the  customary  tomatoes  throwing  remained  not  prt.
  'The customary throwing of tomatoes followed.'
b. * Het tomaten gebruikelijke gooien bleef niet uit.

For a more detailed discussion of complementation and modification, and of the problems concerning word order within noun phrases, see Chapter 2 and Chapter 3.

  • Alexiadou, Artemis, Haegeman, Liliane & Stavrou, Melita2007Noun phrases in the generative perspectiveBerlin/New YorkMouton de Gruyter
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