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Show full table of contents Form and position of the arguments

Generally speaking, we may say that picture and story nouns take two arguments. The external argument may be characterized as the agent (creator) and is typically expressed by means of a postnominal van-PP or a prenominal genitive noun phrase/possessive pronoun. The second argument can be characterized as the theme (subject matter) and is typically expressed by a postnominal PP: with picture nouns, this PP is introduced by van'of' and with story nouns by over'about'. In addition, these nouns can be combined with a possessor in the form of a postnominal van-PP or a prenominal genitive noun phrase/possessive pronoun.

Example 462
The projection of picture and story nouns
a. Agent: van-PP or genitive NP/possessive pronoun
b. Theme: van-PP (picture nouns) or over-PP (story nouns)
c. Possessor: van-PP or genitive NP/possessive pronoun

Given that van-PPs can play various roles, it will be clear that many of the examples discussed in the following subsections are ambiguous: for sake of simplicity, we will generally ignore this and focus on the reading that is relevant for the discussion at hand.

[+]  I.  Picture nouns

The semantic feature that picture nouns have in common is that they depict or represent an object and that their denotation is the result of some creative or productive process, as in the case of afbeelding'picture', schilderij'painting', foto'photo', or beeld'statue'. Syntactically, these nouns differ from other dyadic nouns in that they can take two postnominal van-PPs: one referring to the object depicted (from now on: the theme) and one referring to the creator of this object (from now on: the agent). In (463a), for example, the PP van Rembrandt'by/of Rembrandt' refers to the agent and the PP van zijn zoon Titus'of his son Titus' refers to the theme. This example also shows that the agent cannot be expressed by means of a door-PP, which is remarkable, since both in the verbal and in the nominal domain the door-phrase is a typical way of expressing agentivity; this is shown by examples (463b-d) for the deverbal nominalizations.

Example 463
a. het schilderij van zijn zoon TitusTheme van/*?door RembrandtAgent
picture noun
  the painting  of his son Titus  of/by Rembrandt
  'the painting of his son Titus by Rembrandt'
b. de vernietiging van de stadTheme door/*van CaesarAgent
  the destruction  of the city  by/of Caesar
c. het schilderen van zijn zoon TitusTheme door/*van RembrandtAgent
  the paint  of his son Titus  by/of Rembrandt
  'Rembrandtʼs painting (of) his son Titus'
d. het geschilder van zijn zoon TitusTheme ?door/*van RembrandtAgent
  the painting  of his son Titus   by/of Rembrandt

The examples in (464) show that picture nouns and deverbal nominalizations are similar in that they may both express the agent by means of a prenominal genitive noun phrase or a possessive pronoun (although this gives rise to a slightly marked result in the case of inf-nominalizations).

Example 464
a. Rembrandts/zijnAgent schilderij van zijn zoon TitusTheme
picture noun
  Rembrandtʼs/his  painting  of his son Titus
b. Caesars/zijnAgent vernietiging van de stadTheme
  Caesarʼs/his  destruction  of the city
c. ? Rembrandts/zijnAg (herhaaldelijk) schilderen van zijn zoon TitusTh
  Rembrandtʼs/his   repeatedly  painting  of his son Titus
  'Rembrandtʼs/his (repeatedly) painting (of) his son Titus'
d. Rembrandts/ zijnAgent geschilder van zijn zoon TitusTh
  Rembrandtʼs/his  painting  of his son Titus
[+]  II.  Story nouns

Story nouns refer to concrete objects that are the result of a creative process but which, unlike picture nouns, have abstract content. Both these aspects of story nouns can be modified, which can sometimes lead to ambiguity: in (465a) the modifying adjective dik'thick, bulky' can apply only to the concrete object, in (465b) the modifier interessant'interesting' will normally be taken to apply to some aspect of the contents, and in (465c) mooi'beautiful' can apply either to the physical object or to its contents.

Example 465
a. een dik boek
  thick  book
  'a bulky book'
b. een interessant boek over de middeleeuwenTheme
  an  interesting  book  about the Middle Ages
c. een mooi boek over liefde
  beautiful  book  about love

Complements of story nouns, on the other hand, cannot be related to the physical properties of the object in question. As in the case of picture nouns, they refer to the agent or the theme: the examples in (466) show that the former takes the form of a van-PP or a genitive noun phrase/possessive pronoun, and the latter that of an over-PP. Ambiguity may arise, due to the possibility of assigning the semantic roles of agent and possessor to the van-PP or the prenominal phrase.

Example 466
a. een boek van JanAgent/Poss over de middeleeuwenTheme
  a book  of Jan  about the Middle Ages
b. Jans/zijnAgent/Poss boek over de middeleeuwenTheme
  Jans/his  book  about the Middle Ages

The examples in (467) show that, just like with picture nouns, the agent of story nouns cannot be expressed by means of a postnominal door-PP.

Example 467
a. een boek van/*door HuizingaAgent over de middeleeuwenTheme
  a book  of/by Huizinga  about the Middle Ages
  'a book by Huizinga about the Middle Ages'
b. de film van/*door Oliver StoneAgent over NixonTheme
  the film  of/by Oliver Stone  about Nixon
  'the film by Oliver Stone about Nixon'

The claim that the agent of story nouns cannot be expressed by means of a door-PP seems to be contradicted by the primeless examples in (468), where it seems that the use of door-PPs is also acceptable. It is plausible, however, that in these cases we are actually not dealing with story nouns (= nouns denoting the concrete result of a creative action) but with nominalizations (= nouns denoting the action denoted by the base verb). This suggestion is supported by the primed examples, where the context forces a concrete reading of the nouns phrase, and the door-phrase cannot be used.

Example 468
a. Ik heb naar de toespraak van/door Jan over zinloos geweld geluisterd.
  I have  to the speech  of/by Jan  about pointless violence  listened
  'Iʼve listened to Janʼs speech on pointless violence.'
a'. Ik heb de toespraak van/*?door Jan over zinloos geweld verscheurd.
  I have  the speech  of/by Jan about pointless violence  torn.up
  'Iʼve torn up Janʼs speech on pointless violence.'
b. Ik heb geluisterd naar een lezing van/door Jan over zinloos geweld.
  have  listened  to a lecture  of/by Jan  about pointless violence
  'Iʼve listened to a lecture by Jan on pointless violence.'
b'. Ik heb een lezing van/*?door Jan over zinloos geweld verbrand.
  have  a lecture  of/by Jan  about pointless violence  burnt
  'Iʼve burnt a lecture by Jan on pointless violence.'

      Story nouns differ from picture nouns in that the theme is not expressed by a van-PP, but by a PP headed by the preposition over'about'. The question can be raised whether over is a functional preposition (comparable to functional van) introduced to express the semantic relation between the head noun and its argument, or whether it is inherited from the verb underlying the story noun, as could be the case in the primed examples in (469).

Example 469
a. De koningin sprak het volk toe over zinloos geweld.
  the queen  spoke  the people  prt.  about pointless violence
  'The queen addressed the people on the subject of pointless violence.'
a'. De koningin hield een toespraak over zinloos geweld.
  the queen  held  an address  about pointless violence
  'The queen delivered an address about pointless violence.'
b. De meester vertelde de klas over ridders en draken.
  the teacher  told  the class  about knights and dragons
b'. De meester beloofde de klas een vertelling over ridders en draken.
  the teacher  promised  the class  a story  about knights and dragons

This is an important question since the distinction between story nouns and ing-nominalizations depends on its answer. If the preposition is inherited from the input verb, there is no reason to distinguish a separate class of story nouns: constructions like toespraak over'speech about' and vertelling over'story about' in (469) would then simply pattern with ing-nominalizations like jacht op'hunt for'; cf. Section

Example 470
a. De prins jaagde op groot wild.
  the prince  hunted  on big game
  'The prince hunted big game.'
b. De prins opende de jacht op groot wild.
  the prince  opened  the hunt  on big game
  'The prince opened the hunt for big game.'

An obvious problem for assuming that the theme PP of the story noun is inherited from a base verb is that it cannot account for the use of the over-PP in examples such as (471), where the story noun is not derived from a verb, but where the relation between the head noun and the theme argument is nevertheless identical to that in example (469). This suggests that the PP is not an inherited argument.

Example 471
a. Ik heb een boek over taalkunde gelezen.
  have  a book  about linguistics  read
  'Iʼve read a book about linguistics.'
b. Hij heeft een film over Nixon gemaakt.
  he  has  a film  about Nixon  made
  'He has made a film about Nixon.'

It has been suggested, though, that the inheritance approach can be saved by assuming that the over-PP in (471) functions as a complement of the verb, rather than as a complement of the noun. This would mean that the primeless examples in (472) do not have the structures shown in the primed examples, but those in the doubly-primed examples (cf. Bach & Horn 1976, Kooij & Wiers 1977, 1978, 1979; Klein & Van der Toorn 1979, and De Haan 1979).

Example 472
a. Jan heeft een boek over taalkunde geschreven.
  Jan  has  a book  about linguistics  written
  'Jan has written a book about linguistics.'
a'. Jan heeft [NP een boek [PP over taalkunde]] geschreven.
a''. Jan heeft [NP een boek] [PP over taalkunde] geschreven.
b. Peter heeft een artikel over voorzetsels gepubliceerd.
  Peter has  an article  about prepositions  published
  'Peter has published an article about prepositions.'
b'. Peter heeft [NP een artikel [PP over voorzetsels]] gepubliceerd.
b''. Peter heeft [NP een artikel] [PP over voorzetsels] gepubliceerd.
c. De meester vertelde een verhaal over ridders en draken.
  the teacher  told  a story  about knights and dragons
c'. De meester vertelde [NP een verhaal [PP over ridders en draken]].
c''. De meester vertelde [NP een verhaal] [PP over ridders en draken].

The structures in the doubly-primed examples are certainly tenable, given that the noun phrases are actually optional; besides the (a)-examples in (472), it is also possible to have the examples in (473), in which the over-PPs clearly function as a complement of the verb.

Example 473
a. Jan heeft over taalkunde geschreven.
  Jan has  about linguistics  written
b. Peter heeft over voorzetsels gepubliceerd.
  Peter has  about prepositions published
c. De meester vertelde over ridders en draken.
  the teacher told  about knights and dragons

This does not imply, however, that the structures in the singly-primed examples are excluded. That these structures are possible as well is clear from the fact that the PP can be pied-piped under topicalization (constituency test), provided that the indefinite noun phrase is assigned contrastive accent. Furthermore, the examples become fully acceptable under a more neutral intonation pattern if the indefinite article is replaced by a definite one or a demonstrative pronoun.

Example 474
a. Een boek over taalkunde heeft Jan geschreven.
b. Een artikel over voorzetsels heeft Peter gepubliceerd.
c. Een verhaal over ridders en draken vertelde de meester.

The examples in (475) further show that the two structures may also correspond to a difference in interpretation. If the PP is taken to be a complement of the verb, as in (475b), the ordinal numeral eerste'first' has scope over boek'book' only, and the sentence in (475a) expresses that Janʼs first book was about linguistics. However, if the PP is taken to be a complement of the noun, as in (475b), the ordinal numeral eerste has scope over the constituent boek over taalkunde'book about linguistics', and the sentence consequently expresses that Jan has just finished his first book on linguistics, which need not be the first book he has written; in fact, it will generally be concluded for pragmatic reasons that the book is in fact not the first book that Jan has written.

Example 475
a. Jan heeft zijn eerste boek over taalkunde geschreven.
  Jan has  his first book  about linguistics  written
  'Jan has written his first book about linguistics.'
b. Jan heeft [NP zijn eerste boek] [PP over taalkunde] geschreven.
b'. Jan heeft [NP zijn eerste boek [PP over taalkunde]] geschreven.

Finally, only a limited number of verbs allow an analysis with the over-PP as a complement of the verb. The sentences in example (476), for instance, do not involve any structural or interpretational ambiguity due to the fact that the verbs kopen'to buy' and zien'to see' cannot take a PP-complement headed by over, which is clear from the fact that the noun phrase headed by the story noun cannot be dropped. As a result, the over-PPs can only be interpreted as complements within the noun phrase.

Example 476
a. Jan heeft *(een boek) over taalkunde gekocht.
  Jan has     a book  about linguistics  bought
  'Jan has bought a book about linguistics.'
a'. Jan heeft [NP een boek [PP over taalkunde]] gekocht
b. We hebben *(een film) over Nixon gezien.
  we  have     a film  about Nixon  seen
  'We have seen a film about Nixon.'
b'. We hebben [NP een film [PP over Nixon]] gezien.

On the basis of these facts we conclude that there is evidence for a separate class of story nouns, which take a theme complement in the form of a postnominal over-PP. In some constructions there may, however, be ambiguity as to whether the over-PP functions as a complement of the noun or as a complement of the verb. This question is discussed in more detail in Section, sub II, where the function of the over-PP is discussed for a number of different verbs.

  • Bach, Emmon & Horn, George M1976Remarks on "Conditions on Transformations"Linguistic Inquiry7265-299
  • Haan, Ger de1979Onafhankelijke PP-komplementen van nominaSpektator8330-339
  • Klein, M. & Toorn, M.C. van den1979Van NP-beperking to XP-beperking: een antwoord op Kooij en Wiers 1978De Nieuwe Taalgids7297-109
  • Kooij, Jan & Wiers, Evelyn1977Vooropplaatsing van PPs in het NederlandsSpektator6445-449
  • Kooij, Jan & Wiers, Evelyn1978Vooropplaatsing, verplaatsingsregels en interne structuur van nominale groepenKooij, Jan (ed.)Aspekten van woordvolgorde in het NederlandsLeidenVakgroep Nederlandse Taal- & Letterkunde105-143
  • Kooij, Jan & Wiers, Evelyn1979Beperkingen en overschrijdingen: een antwoord aan Klein en Van den ToornDe Nieuwe Taalgids72488-493
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