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2.2.5.4. The distribution of the arguments of the noun
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This section discusses more extensively complementation of the picture and story nouns. We will not only discuss the form and distribution of the agent and the theme, but also include constructions containing a possessor.

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[+]  I.  Picture nouns

This subsection discusses in more detail the syntactic behavior of the complements of picture nouns like schilderij'painting' and tekening'drawing'. These nouns typically take two arguments, denoting the creator and the object depicted, which syntactically behave as the agent and the theme: they can appear either as postnominal van-PPs or prenominally as genitive noun phrases. Moreover, both can appear postnominally as van-PPs in one and the same construction (unlike with the nominalizations discussed in Section 2.2.3). A complicating factor is that one and the same constituent can be interpreted either as the agent or as the possessor of the created objects. Finally, although both agent and theme are generally implied, they need not always be expressed. This leads to a number of possible combinations, some of which are ambiguous.

[+]  A.  Picture nouns with one argument expressed

If only one argument is expressed, this argument may appear either prenominally as a genitive noun phrase/possessive pronoun or postnominally as a van-PP. In the former case, the argument will normally be interpreted as the agent or the possessor of the object referred to; the paintings referred to in example (504a) are either painted by Rembrandt or possessed by him. With certain nouns, however, the genitive noun phrase/possessive pronoun can also be interpreted as the theme: the default reading of example (504b) seems to be that in which Peter is the person depicted, although he could also be the painter or the possessor of the painting.

Example 504
a. Rembrandts/ZijnAgent/Poss schilderijen zijn veel geld waard.
  Rembrandtʼs/his  paintings  are  much money  worth
  'Rembrandtʼs paintings are worth a lot of money.'
b. Peters/ZijnTheme/Agent/Poss portret hangt aan de muur.
  Peterʼs/his  portrait  hangs  on the wall

If the noun is only accompanied by a van-PP, the construction is normally three ways ambiguous. Thus, the PP van Rembrandt in example (505a) can have the semantic role of agent, theme or possessor. Just like the genitive noun phrase in (504b), the PP van Peter in example (505b) is preferably construed as a theme.

Example 505
a. een schilderij van RembrandtAgent/Theme/Poss
  a painting  of Rembrandt
  'a painting by Rembrandt/of Rembrandt('s)'
b. een portret van PeterAgent/Theme/Poss
  a portrait  of Peter
  'a portrait of Peter'
[+]  B.  Picture nouns with two arguments expressed

As soon as a picture noun selects two arguments, part of the ambiguity arising in constructions with only one complement is solved: if the van-PP is interpreted as the theme, as in the (a)-examples of (506), the prenominal noun phrase can refer either to the agent or the possessor; if the van-PP is interpreted as the agent, as in (506b), the prenominal genitive noun phrase can only be the possessor. Observe that, out of context, the choice between agent and possessor will depend on the person(s) referred to and their relation to the medium involved: Rembrandt will normally be interpreted as the painter in (506a), whereas in (506a') Jan is probably the possessor (unless he is known to be a lithographer).

Example 506
a. RembrandtsAgent/Poss schilderij van zijn zoon TitusTheme
  Rembrandtʼs  painting  of his son Titus
a'. JansAgent/Poss poster van Marilyn MonroeTheme
  Janʼs  poster  of Marilyn Monroe
b. PetersPoss/*Theme portret van RembrandtAgent
  Peterʼs  painting  of Rembrandt
  'Peterʼs painting by Rembrandt'

      It has been claimed that in those cases where both arguments are expressed postnominally, the outermost van-PP is to be interpreted as the possessor or agent, with the theme always closest to the noun (De Wit 1997: 29/131). The examples in (507) show, however, that the two PPs can actually occur in either order.

Example 507
a. een tekening van de WestertorenTheme van RembrandtAgent/Poss
  a drawing  of the Westertoren  of Rembrandt
  'Rembrandtʼs drawing of the Westertoren'
b. een tekening van RembrandtAgent/Poss van de WestertorenTheme

Which order actually appears may depend on linguistic as well as extra-linguistic factors, and there are circumstances where the preferred order is actually the one in which the agent precedes the theme. This may be the case if the theme is relatively long or where ambiguity may arise as to the role of the van-PP. It is for both reasons that example (508b) is preferred to (508a): the theme-PP is long, and when the PP van Rembrandt follows the theme, it could be interpreted either as the agent argument of the noun schilderij, or as a possessive van-phrase modifying the noun phrase headed by the noun wei'meadow' (or, perhaps, koeien'cows').

Example 508
a. ? een schilderij van een paar koeien in een wei van Rembrandt
  a painting  of a couple cows in a meadow  of Rembrandt
  'a painting of some cows in a meadow by Rembrandt'
b. een schilderij van Rembrandt van een paar koeien in een wei
[+]  C.  Picture nouns with three arguments expressed

When the agent, theme and possessor are simultaneously expressed, the best result is obtained if the possessor appears prenominally as a genitive noun phrase or possessive pronoun while the theme and the agent are realized postnominally as van-PPs.

Example 509
a. mijn Poss schilderij van de WestertorenTheme van RembrandtAgent
  my  painting  of the Westertoren  of Rembrandt
  'my painting of the Westertoren by Rembrandt'
b. hunPoss beeld van RembrandtTheme van een bekend kunstenaarAgent
  their  statue  of Rembrandt  of a famous artist
  'their statue of Rembrandt by a famous artist'

In (509), the prenominal phrase is always the possessor. The two postnominal van-PPs can occur in either order. Which of the two orders is preferred may depend on linguistic as well as extra-linguistic factors. Consider in this respect the examples in (510). The (a)-examples are equally acceptable: the agent and theme argument may occur in either order. The (b)-examples are also both acceptable, although due to the length of the theme-PPs, the order in (510b') seems to be preferred. The examples in (510) show again that there is no reason for assuming that in neutral circumstances the theme should be closer to the head than the agent.

Example 510
a. mijn broersPoss schilderij van de WestertorenTheme van RembrandtAgent
  my brotherʼs  painting  of the Westertoren  of Rembrandt
  'my brotherʼs painting of the Westertoren by Rembrandt'
a'. mijn broers schilderij van Rembrandt van de Westertoren
b. ? hunPoss beeld van een nog zeer jonge RembrandtTheme van Louis RoyerAgent
  their  statue  of a still very young Rembrandt  of Louis Royer
  'their statue of a still very young Rembrandt by Louis Royer'
b'. hun beeld van Louis Royer van een nog zeer jonge Rembrandt

It is possible to realize all three arguments as postnominal van-PPs, although in most cases the result will be awkward as well as confusing, as such constructions are almost inevitably (and often multiply) ambiguous. It seems that the acceptability of the construction correlates with the degree of definiteness. Example (511a) with the indefinite article een'a' is pretty awkward, which may be due to the fact that the addition of the three PPs makes it rather implausible that the denotation of the modified noun is a non-singleton set: the example implies that there is yet another painting of the Westertoren that is painted by Rembrandt and owned by my brother. Example (511b) is marked compared to the (a)-examples in (510) but acceptable. Example (511c) is fully acceptable, although it has a somewhat special meaning: the determiner dat does not have a demonstrative meaning but is used to introduce some entity into the discourse that is presented as familiar to the hearer; see Section 5.2.3.2, sub IIB, for discussion.

Example 511
a. ?? een schilderij van de WestertorenTheme van RembrandtAgent van mijn broerPoss
  a painting  of the Westertoren  of Rembrandt  of my brother
  'a painting of the Westertoren by Rembrandt owned by my brother'
b. ? het schilderij van de WestertorenTheme van RembrandtAgent van mijn broerPoss
c. dat schilderij van de WestertorenTheme van RembrandtAgent van mijn broerPoss

As mentioned above, the use of more than one van-PP can lead to all kinds of ambiguities. In (511), for example, the PP van Rembrandt could in principle also be construed as the possessor of the Westertoren: it is only our knowledge of the world that prevents this interpretation. But this might also go in the other direction: although (491) can be interpreted in such a way that we are dealing with a painting by Rembrandt of an apprentice, our knowledge of the world will rather force a reading according to which the painting was made by a pupil of Rembrandt, that is, a reading in which van Rembrandt modifies leerling.

Example 512
dat schilderij van een leerling van Rembrandt van mijn broerPoss
  that painting  of a pupil  of Rembrandt of my brother
'that painting by a pupil of Rembrandt owned by my brother'

Another confusing example is given in (513a). Although it is clear that Vermeer is the painter of the painting, it is not the case that it functions as the agent of the picture noun schilderij. This is due to the fact that the painting is known as “Het melkmeisje van Vermeer” and therefore we are dealing with a single postnominal constituent that functions as the theme of the picture noun schilderij'painting'. This explains why the order in (513a') is unacceptable. If the PP van het melkmeisje van Vermeer indeed functions as the theme of the noun, we may expect that it is possible to add another agent, such as a forger. This expectation is indeed borne out.

Example 513
a. Jans schilderij van het melkmeisje van Vermeer
  Janʼs  painting  of the dairy girl  of Vermeer
  'Janʼs painting of the dairy girl by Vermeer'
a'. ?? Jans schilderij van VermeerAgent van het melkmeisjeTheme
b. een schilderij [van het melkmeisje van Vermeer]Th van een meestervervalserAg
  a painting   of the dairy.girl of Vermeer  of a master-counterfeiter
  'a painting of the dairy girl of Vermeer by a counterfeiter'
b'. een schilderij [van een meestervervalser] [van het melkmeisje van Vermeer]
[+]  II.  Story nouns

This subsection discusses in more detail the syntactic behavior of the complements of story nouns like boek'book' and toespraak'speech'. These nouns typically take two arguments, denoting the creator and the object depicted, which syntactically behave as the agent and the theme: they can appear either as postnominal PPs or prenominally as genitive noun phrases. A complicating factor is the fact that one and the same constituent can sometimes be interpreted either as the agent or as the possessor of the created objects. Finally, although both agent and theme are generally implied, they need not always be expressed. This leads to a number of possible combinations, some of which are ambiguous.

[+]  A.  Story nouns with one argument expressed

Basic story nouns like boek'book' and film'film' can felicitously be used without arguments, regardless of whether the noun phrase it heads refers to the physical object or to the abstract content of the object. As with picture nouns, the agent argument in (514) could also be interpreted as the possessor of the object referred to by the noun phrase. The saliency of this ambiguity seems to depend on the interpretation of the story noun in question: it is more likely to arise in (514a), in which the noun phrase refers to the physical object, than in (514b), in which it is the abstract content that is relevant.

Example 514
a. Jan las een dik boek (van ChomskyAgent) (over taalkundeTheme).
  Jan read  a thick book   of Chomsky   about linguistics
  'Jan read a thick book by Chomsky on linguistics.'
b. Jan las een boeiend boek (van ChomskyAgent) (over taalkundeTheme).
  Jan read  a riveting book   of Chomsky   about linguistics
  'Jan read a riveting book by Chomsky on linguistics.'

      Noun phrases headed by deverbal story nouns like toespraak'speech' or lezing'lecture' usually refer to abstract contents and require the presence of at least one argument, which can be either the agent or the theme. Thus, whereas in (514) the basic noun boek'book' can be used without a complement, example (515a) would be considered odd without the presence of a complement; however, as soon as the agent is mentioned, all sentences are acceptable.

Example 515
a. Ik heb naar een lezing ??(over taalkundeTheme) geluisterd.
  have  to  a lecture     about linguistics  listened
  'Iʼve listened to a lecture (on linguistics).'
b. Ik heb naar een lezing van ChomskyAgent geluisterd.
  have  to  a lecture  of Chomsky  listened
  'Iʼve listened to a lecture by Chomsky.'
b'. Ik heb naar ChomskyʼsAgent lezing geluisterd.
  have  to  Chomskyʼs  lecture  listened
  'Iʼve listened to Chomskyʼs lecture.'

The (b)-examples in (515) show that the agent can be expressed either as a postnominal van-PP or as a prenominal genitive noun phrase (or possessive pronoun). Although story and picture nouns behave alike in this respect, they crucially differ with respect to the form of the postnominal theme PP: Whereas this argument appears as a van-PP with picture nouns, with story nouns it always takes the form of a PP introduced by over. As a result of this the ambiguity between an agent and a theme reading that frequently arises with picture nouns will never occur with story nouns.

Example 516
a. de lezing over/*van ChomskyTheme
story noun
  the lecture  about/of  Chomsky
  'the lecture about Chomsky'
b. het schilderij van RembrandtTheme/Agent
picture noun
  the painting  of Rembrandt
  'the painting of/by Rembrandt'
[+]  B.  Story nouns with two arguments expressed

When a story noun is accompanied by two arguments, the agent may appear either postnominally as a van-PP or prenominally as a genitive noun phrase. In either case, the theme argument takes the form of a postnominal over-PP. In postnominal position, the order of the agent and the theme is relatively fixed: whereas the order agent-theme in (517a&b) is perfectly acceptable, the reversed order in (517a'&b') is highly marked (on the intended, non-appositive reading).

Example 517
a. Ik heb een boek van ChomskyAgent over taalkundeTheme vertaald.
  have  a book  of Chomsky  about linguistics  translated
  'Iʼve translated a book by Chomsky about linguistics.'
a'. ?? Ik heb een boek over taalkundeTheme van ChomskyAgent vertaald.
a''. Ik heb ChomskyʼsAgent boeken over taalkundeTheme vertaald.
  have  Chomskyʼs  books  about linguistics  translated
b. Ik ben naar een/de film van SpielbergAgent over slavenhandelTheme geweest.
  I have  to a/the film  of Spielberg  about slave trade  been
  'Iʼve been to a film by Steven Spielberg about slave trade.'
b'. ?? Ik ben naar een/de film over slavenhandelTheme van SpielbergAgent geweest.
b''. Ik ben naar SpielbergʼsAgent film over slavenhandelTheme geweest.
  have  to Spielbergʼs  film  about slave trade  been

The genitive noun phrase and the postnominal van-PP are again ambiguous between an agentive and a possessive reading. Whether the resulting ambiguity is salient depends on the interpretation of the story noun in question: given that the contexts in (517) favor an abstract reading of the story nouns, the most prominent reading is the one with Chomsky/Spielberg as the agent. Out of context, however, examples such as (518a) do exhibit this ambiguity. When we restrict ourselves to the possessive reading it can be observed that the preferred realization is that as a genitive noun phrase or a possessive pronoun: the (b)-examples of (518) show that realization of the possessor as a postnominal van-PP is normally degraded and only occurs in a natural way with determiners like die'those' with the somewhat special function of introducing some entity into the discourse that is presented as familiar to the hearer; see Section 5.2.3.2, sub IIB, for discussion.

Example 518
a. Jans/zijnPoss boeken over taalkunde
  Janʼs/his  books  about linguistics
b. de boeken <??van JanPoss> over taalkunde <van JanPoss>
  the books       of Jan  about linguistics
b'. die boeken <van JanPoss> over taalkunde <?van JanPoss>
  those books     of Jan  about linguistics

      The examples in (519) show that the agent argument can also be simultaneously expressed with a possessor: the possessor will normally be expressed by means of a genitive noun phrase or a possessive pronoun, while expressing the agent in this way will give rise to a severely degraded result. Expressing both the agent and the possessor as postnominal van-PPs, as in the (b)-examples, is only possible with determiners like die under the somewhat special interpretation discussed above. It seems that placing the possessor adjacent to the noun is preferred in neutral contexts.

Example 519
a. Jans/onzePoss boeken van ChomskyAgent
  Janʼs/our  books  of Chomsky
a'. *? ChomskyʼsAgent boeken van Jan/onsPoss
  Chomskyʼs  books  of Jan/us
b. *? de boeken van JanPoss van ChomskyAgent
  the books  of Jan  of Chomsky
b'. die boeken <van JanPoss> van ChomskyAgent <?van JanPoss>
  those books  of Jan  of Chomsky
[+]  C.  Story nouns with three arguments expressed

Given that the agent cannot be expressed by a genitive noun phrase or possessive pronoun if a possessor is present and the agent preferably precedes the theme, there are only a restricted number of ways in which we can simultaneously express the agent, theme and possessor. Example (520a) gives the order that arises with a prenominal possessor: inverting the two postnominal PPs gives rise to a highly marked result and more or lesss forces an appositive reading of the PP van Chomsky.

Example 520
a. JansPoss boeken van ChomskyAgent over taalkundeTheme
  Janʼs  books  of Chomsky  about linguistics
b. *? JansPoss boeken over taalkundeTheme van ChomskyAgent

If all three arguments occur postnominally, the result is normally degraded on all word orders; example (521a) is perhaps marginally acceptable, but seems to require that the possessor be interpreted as an apposition. If the determiner is die'those', (521b) seems acceptable in the given order on the somewhat special interpretation discussed in the previous subsection. Placing the possessive or agentive van-PP in rightmost position seems marginally possible, but only on an appositive reading.

Example 521
a. ?? de boeken van ChomskyAgent over taalkundeTheme van JanPoss
  the books  of Chomsky  about linguistics  of Jan
b. die boeken van JanPoss van ChomskyAgent over taalkundeTheme
  those books  of Jan  of Chomsky  about linguistics
References:
  • Wit, Petra de1997Genitive case and genitive constructionsUtrechtUniversity of UtrechtThesis
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