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1.2.2.2. Abstract nouns
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Abstract nouns denote entities that have a mental existence only, and therefore do not have any physical properties. Obvious examples are nouns like betekenis'meaning', liefde'love' and geloof'belief'. The set of abstract nouns also include nouns like verwoesting'destruction'; these nouns denote events, which are not directly perceivable and have no objective existence in the physical world, but are rather mental constructs built on the basis of observations relating to the participants and the results of the events in question. Nouns like aanname'assumption' or verzoek'request' are also taken to be abstract nouns; they denote mental constructs that are used to refer to propositional contents. The same thing holds for nouns like grootte'size' or schoonheid'beauty' that, instead of denoting concrete objects, denote properties of these objects.

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[+]  I.  Subclassification

Most traditional (and also many theory-specific) discussions of abstract nouns treat these nouns as belonging to one heterogeneous group, their common feature being that they are not concrete. This is hardly surprising, since the category seems to defy systematic classification in terms of clear-cut features comparable to ±shape and ±set, which were used in 1.2.2.1 for the classification of the concrete nouns. Nevertheless, attempts have been made to come to a subclassification depending on the type of abstract entity denoted. Table 6 gives an overview of the types of abstract nouns that will be distinguished here together with a number of examples.

Table 6: Five subclasses of abstract nouns
type of noun denotation examples
State-of-affairs nouns action
+contr+dyn
verwoesting‘destruction’
behandeling‘treatment’
  process
-contr+dyn
val‘fall’
vooruitgang‘progress’
  position
+contr-dyn
verblijf‘stay’
volharding‘perseverance’
  state
-contr-dyn
bewusteloosheid‘unconsciousness’
ligging‘position’
Proposition nouns Propositional content feit‘fact’
aanname‘assumption’
Speech-act nouns statement verklaring‘statement’, belofte‘promise’
  question vraag‘question’, verzoek‘request’
  order bevel‘order’, opdracht‘order’
Property nouns Physical property lengte‘length’, schoonheid‘beauty’
  Mental property geduld‘patience’, verlegenheid‘shyness’
Emotion nouns Emotion liefde‘love’, angst‘fear’

In what follows, these types will be described in some detail. A brief discussion of differences in syntactic and morphological behavior between these subcategories will also be included.

[+]  A.  State-of-affairs nouns

State-of-affairs nouns, which are sometimes also referred to as event or process nouns, can be used to refer to states of affairs, that is, to actions (like verwoesting'destruction'), processes (like val'fall'), positions (like verblijf'stay'), states (like bewusteloosheid'unconsciousness'), and the like. As these states of affairs take place or obtain at a particular time and place, state-of-affairs nouns can be modified by time or place adverbials. Similarly, as states of affairs have participants, these nouns have arguments like agents, themes and recipients, even if these arguments are often not overtly present.
      Let us consider some examples. The head noun verwoesting'destruction' in (75a) is used to denote an action, the noun val'fall' in (75b) denotes a process, the noun wonen'living' in (75c) denotes a position and the noun hebben'having' in (75d) denotes a state. In all these examples, the head noun is complemented by one or more noun phrases referring to the participant(s) in the state of affairs referred to by the noun phrase as a whole; see Section 2.2.3 for a more detailed discussion of these complements. Note that in all these examples the state-of-affairs nouns are typically derived from verbs; in view of their meaning, this will not come as a surprise.

Example 75
a. de verwoesting van de stad
action: [+dynamic][+controlled]
  the destruction  of the city
b. de val van de regering
process: [+dynamic][-controlled]
  the fall  of the government
c. het wonen in een stad
position: [-dynamic][+controlled]
  the living  in a city
  'living in a city'
d. het hebben van blauwe ogen
state: [-dynamic][-controlled]
  the having  of blue eyes
  'having blue eyes'
[+]  B.  Proposition nouns

Proposition nouns are sometimes also referred to as content nouns; they denote entities that are assumed to have contents, such as facts, ideas, assumptions, beliefs etc. These entities function as propositions in the sense that they can be given a truth-value: they can be said to be true or untrue, they can be believed or denied, agreed with or rejected etc. The nouns in question have a complement, which typically takes the form of a clause or a PP: in (76a-c) the noun is complemented by a dat-clause denoting the content of the proposition and in (76d) a prepositional van-phrase is used.

Example 76
a. het feit dat de aarde rond is
  the fact  that  the earth  round  is
  'the fact that the earth is round'
b. het idee dat schapen gekloond kunnen worden
  the idea  that  sheep  cloned  can  be
  'the idea that sheep can be cloned'
c. de aanname dat er leven op de maan is
  the assumption  that  there  life  on the moon  is
  'the assumption that there is life on the moon'
d. het nieuws van het aanstaande huwelijk van de kroonprins
  the news  of the forthcoming marriage of the crown.prince
  'the news of the crown princeʼs forthcoming marriage'

Like state-of-affairs nouns, proposition nouns are typically, though not necessarily, deverbal; cf. the use of the simple nouns feit'fact' and idee'idea' in (76a&b). With the deverbal cases, the input verb belongs to the class of so-called verbs of thinking (such as geloven'to believe', aannemen'to assume', veronderstellen'to suppose', denken'to think', menen'to think/believe', argumenteren'to argue/reason', redeneren'to reason', etc.) or verbs denoting actions requiring some mental activity on the part of the speaker or hearer (like impliceren'to imply', bewijzen'to prove').
      The primed examples in (77) show that deverbal proposition nouns all seem to have infinitival counterparts that are clearly related in meaning.

Example 77
a. de aanname
  'the assumption'
a'. het aannemen
  'the assuming'
b. de argumentatie
  'the argumentation'
b'. het argumenteren
  'the arguing'
c. de redenering
  'the reasoning/argumentation'
c'. het redeneren
  'the reasoning'

Nevertheless, there are important semantic and syntactic differences between the two forms. As far as the semantics is concerned, deverbal proposition nouns like aanname, argumentatie, and redenering denote the content of the argumentation or (line of) reasoning, whereas the infinitival nouns function as state-of-affairs nouns, denoting the action of arguing or reasoning. In other words, while the former are preferred in contexts like (78a) where it is the content that is referred to, the latter are more acceptable in contexts like (78b) where some action is referred to.

Example 78
a. Zijn redenering was niet bepaald logisch.
  his reasoning  was not  exactly  logical
a'. ?? Zijn redeneren was niet bepaald logisch.
  his  to.reason  was not  exactly  logical
b. Logisch redeneren is niet zijn sterkste punt.
  logically  to.reason  is not  his strongest point
  'Reasoning logically isnʼt his strongest point.'
b'. ?? Logische redenering is niet zijn sterkste punt.
  logical  reasoning  is not  his strongest point

We refer the reader to Section 2.2.3.2 for a more detailed discussion of these forms and the syntactic differences between them (such as the optional/obligatory realization of the complement).

[+]  C.  Speech-act nouns

Speech-act nouns denote a type of abstract entity that can be described as a speech act. Nouns of this type, such as vraag'question', bevel'order', belofte'promise', verzoek'request', mededeling'announcement' denote some form of verbal interaction, and are typically derived from verbs denoting such activities, that is, the input verb is a verb of saying like vragen'to ask', bevelen'to order', beloven'to promise', verzoeken'to request', etc.
      Like proposition nouns, speech-act nouns can take a clausal complement introduced by a complementizer denoting the contents of the speech act. This is illustrated in example (79) for the speech-act nouns mededeling'announcement' and verzekering'assurance', which take a clausal complement introduced by the complementizer dat'that'.

Example 79
a. De mededeling dat de trein vertraagd was, was niet te verstaan.
  the announcement  that the train delayed was  was not  to hear
  'The announcement that the train was delayed couldnʼt be heard.'
b. De verzekering dat het probleem niet ernstig was, stelde ons gerust.
  the assurance  that the problem not serious was  put  us  at.ease
  'The assurance that the problem wasnʼt serious put our minds at ease.'

      Speech-act nouns can also take an infinitival complement introduced by the complementizer om, provided the input verb is able to do so, too. The implied subject PRO of the infinitival complement clause is interpreted as being coreferential with an argument of the speech-act noun. Which argument functions as antecedent depends on the context, just as in the case of verbs; cf. Section V5.2.2.1 for extensive discussion. The examples in (80) serve to illustrate this: in (80a), it is the genitive noun phrase Jans, referring to the person making the request, that will be interpreted as coreferential with PRO, and in (80b), it is the noun phrase Peter, the recipient of the request, that is interpreted as the PRO subject of the interpretation.

Example 80
a. Jans verzoek aan Peter [om PRO te mogen blijven] werd genegeerd.
  Janʼs request to Peter  comp  to be.allowed  stay  was  ignored
  'Janʼs request to Peter for permission to stay was ignored.'
b. Jans verzoek aan Peter [om PRO te blijven] werd genegeerd.
  Janʼs request to Peter  comp  to stay  was  ignored
  'Janʼs request to Peter to stay was ignored.'

      The clausal complement of the speech-act noun vraag'question' is interrogative. As with the verb vragen'to ask', the interrogative complement can be a yes/no-question, introduced by the complementizer of, or a wh-question, introduced by a wh-phrase.

Example 81
a. de vraag [of we moesten komen]
yes/ no-question
  the question  comp  we  must  come
  'the question as to whether we had to come'
b. de vraag [hoe we nu moesten handelen]
wh-question
  the question  how  we  now  must  act
  'the question as to how we should act in such cases'

      Speech-act nouns can also take PP-complements. These complements can denote the contents of the speech act, in which case the choice of preposition often depends on the speech-act noun.

Example 82
a. zijn verzoek om salarisverhoging
  his request  for pay rise
b. zijn mededeling over het volgende uitje
  'his announcement about the next excursion'
c. het verbod op roken in dit gebouw
  the ban  on smoking  in this building
d. de vraag naar olie
  the request  for oil

A postnominal PP can, of course, also refer to the participants of the speech act, in which case the prepositions van'of' and aan'to' are used, followed by a noun phrase referring to the speaker and the addressee, respectively, as in (83). Note that both the van-PP and the aan-PP precede the om-complement in (83), regardless of whether the latter is a PP or a clause.

Example 83
a. het verzoek van Marie aan de commissie om extra hulp
  the request  of Marie  to the committee  for extra help
b. het verzoek van Marie aan de commissie [om PRO te worden toegelaten]
  the request  of Marie  to the committee  comp  to be  admitted

The examples in (84) show that a postnominal PP can also have the function of an adverbial adjunct. These examples also show that a PP-complement must precede the PP-adjunct, whereas a complement clause follows it instead. For more details on the complementation of speech-act nouns, see Section 2.3.

Example 84
a. het verbod <op stelen> in de Bijbel <??op stelen>
  the ban    on stealing  in the Bible
b. het verbod <??[om PRO te stelen]> in de Bijbel <[om PRO te stelen]>
  the ban       comp  to steal  in the Bible
[+]  D.  Property nouns

Property nouns are those nouns that denote properties of entities. Two basic subtypes can be distinguished: (i) nouns describing physical/perceptible properties of concrete entities, such as hoogte'height', grootte'size', vorm'form', etc. and (ii) nouns describing abstract properties, such as character traits, like geduld'patience' or beleefdheid'politeness'. Property nouns, if derived, typically have an adjectival basis, such as hoog'high', breed'wide', groot'big', beleefd'polite', etc. Some basic property nouns, such as duur'duration' and kleur'color' have a verbal counterpart ( duren'to last' and kleuren'to color'), but whether these nouns have been derived from the verbs in question or the other way round is an open question.

[+]  1.  Physical property nouns

Since the physical properties denoted by property nouns are typically used to describe some other entity, they usually occur with a van-complement, as shown by examples (85a&b). Example (85c) shows that it is sometimes also possible to use a possessive pronoun or a genitive noun phrase.

Example 85
a. de hoogte van de toren is indrukwekkend
  the height of the tower  is impressive
b. De vorm van de vraag is belangrijk.
  the form of the question  is important
c. de lengte van Jan/Jans lengte/zijn lengte
  the height of Jan/Janʼs height/his height

Genitive noun phrases can only be used if the referent is +human, as in (85c), but possessive pronouns can also be used to refer to a -animate entity. This is, however, subject to certain restrictions that are not fully understood, and using a pronominalized van-PP is often preferred; see Section 5.2.2.1 for detailed discussion. Example (86c) shows that using a pronominalized van-PP to refer to a +human referent gives rise to a degraded result.

Example 86
a. De hoogte ervan/$Zijn hoogte is indrukwekkend.
  the height of.it/his height  is impressive
  'Its height is impressive.'
b. De vorm ervan/$Zijn vorm is belangrijk.
  the form of.it/his form  is important
  'Its form is important.'
c. Zijn[+human] lengte/??de lengte ervan[+human]
  his height/the height of him

A van-complement is not used if the reference is nonspecific or generic: in the former case the property noun will be preceded by the indefinite article, as in (87a), and in the latter case it may appear without a determiner, as in (87b).

Example 87
a. Elk gebouw heeft een hoogte, een lengte en een breedte.
  every building  has  a height  a length  and  a width
b. Vorm is belangrijker dan inhoud.
  form  is more important  than content
  'Form is more important than content.'
[+]  2.  Abstract property nouns

The second subcategory of property nouns consists of nouns that denote properties that cannot be observed or measured in a direct way, but which form part of the mental make-up of the entity described. They include nouns denoting (more or lesss) permanent character traits like geduld'patience', intelligentie'intelligence' or luiheid'laziness'. As with the physical property nouns, these nouns typically occur in combination with a van-PP or, when the property is assigned to a +human entity, with a genitive noun phrase or possessive pronoun. This is illustrated in example (88).

Example 88
a. de aantrekkingskracht van drugs
  the attraction  of drugs
b. het geduld van Peter
  the patience  of Peter
b'. Peters/zijn geduld
  Peterʼs/his patience
[+]  E.  Emotion nouns

The emotion nouns are the final type of abstract nouns that we will discuss here, These nouns denote (more or lesss) temporary emotions, like haat'hatred', begeerte'desire', behoefte'need' and verdriet'grief'. In most cases, the emotion denoted involves some other, affected, entity. In this respect, the nouns exhibit a structural parallelism with the verbs to which they are semantically related; this will become clear from comparing the primeless, verbal constructions in (89) with the primed, nominal ones. However, the fact that these nouns select their own preposition ( voor, aan, naar, tegen/jegens), which is typically lacking in the verbal constructions, suggests that these nouns cannot be considered derived from the related verbs. See Section 2.1, sub VA5, for some more discussion on the emotion nouns.

Example 89
a. Peter behoeft rust.
archaic
  Peter  needs  quiet
a'. Peters behoefte aan rust
colloquial
  Peterʼs  need  for quiet
b. Zij begeert macht.
  she  craves  power
b'. haar begeerte naar macht
  her  craving  for power
c. Hij haat zijn rivaal.
  he  hates  his rival
c'. zijn haat tegen/jegens zijn rivaal
  his hatred  of his rival
[+]  II.  Non-prototypical uses

In many cases nouns that can be used to refer to abstract entities can also be used to refer to concrete entities. This type of ambiguity has often been referred to as the difference between state-of-affairs nouns and result nouns, with the former denoting an event and the latter the concrete result of that event; cf. Abney (1987: 115), Grimshaw (1990), De Haas & Trommelen (1993: 241) and Alexiadou et al. (2007: part IV, Section 1.3). Examples of such nouns are uitvinding'invention' and bestrating'surfacing/surface' in example (90). Observe the difference in complementation between the two (a)-examples in (90), with the van-PP referring to the invention and the inventor, respectively; see Section 2.2.3.3 for more details on the complementation of ing-nominalizations.

Example 90
a. De uitvinding van de telefoon dateert uit de 19e eeuw.
process noun
  the invention of the telephone  dates  from the 19th century
a'. De uitvinding van Bell hing aan de muur.
result noun
  the invention of Bell  hangs  on the wall
  'Bellʼs invention is hanging on the wall.'
b. De bestrating van de weg duurde drie weken.
process noun
  the surfacing of the road  took  three weeks
b'. De bestrating van deze weg moet vernieuwd worden.
result noun
  the surface of this road  needs  renewed  be
  'This road is in need of a new surface.'

The distinction between result and process nouns covers only a small number of the many ambiguities that may occur with abstract nouns. Many nouns can be used to denote an abstract entity like an action or process as well as a concrete entity that is not the result of the state of affairs but in some other way related to it. In examples (91a'&b'), for instance, the nouns vergadering and bezoek refer to participants (namely, the agents) of the action denoted by the verbs vergaderen'to meet' and bezoeken'to visit', and in (91c') the noun huisvesting'housing' refers to the (concrete) means through which the action of housing is accomplished. In all three cases the nouns in the primeless sentences are state-of-affairs nouns.

Example 91
a. De vergadering duurde drie uur.
process noun
  the meeting  lasted  three hour
a'. De vergadering bestond uit oudere heren.
“participant” noun
  the meeting  consisted  of elderly gentlemen
b. Het bezoek duurde erg lang.
process noun
  the visit  lasted  very long
b'. Het bezoek bleef erg lang.
“participant” noun
  the visitors  stayed  very long
c. De huisvesting van asielzoekers duurt te lang.
process noun
  the housing of asylum seekers  takes  too long
c'. We waren op zoek naar geschikte huisvesting.
“means” noun
  we  were  looking  for suitable housing
  'We were looking for suitable accommodation.'

      In other cases, the abstract noun in question does have an event and a result reading, but instead of the result being a concrete entity, its referent, too, is abstract. An example is given in (92): in (92a) the noun veroordeling is used to refer to the action of sentencing performed by the jury, whereas in (92b) it is used to refer to the punishment resulting from this action.

Example 92
a. De veroordeling van de beklaagde door de jury verliep moeizaam.
  the sentencing of the accused  by the jury  went  difficult
  'The sentencing of the accused by the jury was problematic.'
b. De verdachte wachtte een zware veroordeling.
  the accused  waited  a heavy sentence
  'The accused was in for a heavy sentence.'

      Finally, example (93) shows that the abstract noun need not be a state-of-affairs noun. Instead the ambiguity here is between an abstract, speech act reading of the nouns vraag'question' and bevel'order' and a concrete reading. In these cases, the speech-act reading is clearly the prototypical one.

Example 93
a. Hij had de vraag/het bevel niet goed begrepen.
abstract
  he  had  the question/the order  not  well  understood
  'He hadnʼt quite understood the question/order.'
b. De vraag/het bevel was moeilijk te lezen.
concrete
  the question/the order  was difficult  to read
References:
  • Abney, Steven1987The English noun phrase in its sentential aspectCambridge,, MAMITThesis
  • Alexiadou, Artemis, Haegeman, Liliane & Stavrou, Melita2007Noun phrases in the generative perspectiveBerlin/New YorkMouton de Gruyter
  • Grimshaw, Jane1990Argument structureLI Monograph 18Cambridge, MAMIT Press
  • Haas, Wim de & Trommelen, Mieke1993Morfologisch handboek van het Nederlands. Een overzicht van de woordvormingSDU Uitgeverij
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