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4.2.1. The N van een N'N of a N' construction
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This section discusses N van een N constructions of the type in (195). The examples in (195a) and (195b) show that there are two semantic subtypes of this construction; cf. Den Dikken (2006: ch.5). Example (195a) involves some form of metaphoric comparison: the size of the referent of the noun phrase is compared to a tree, that is, he is huge. The most prominent reading of (195), on the other hand, is one in which a property is attributed to the referent of the noun phrase in his/her capacity as a doctor: although the referent may be brilliant in most respects, (s)he is certainly not brilliant as a doctor. In many cases, however, it is not easy to distinguish between the two subtypes. For example, example (195c) is a case of evaluative metaphoric comparison; the referent of the phrase is not only compared with a dike but this comparison is (in this case conventionally) used to simultaneously express that the referent has certain (unspecified) properties that are highly desirable for a managing director.

Example 195
a. Hij is een boom van een kerel.
  he  is a  tree  of  a fellow
  'a fellow like a tree'
b. Hij is een onbenul van een dokter.
  he  is an  idiot  of  a doctor
  'Heʼs an idiot as a doctor.'
c. Hij is een dijk van een directeur.
  he  is a  dike  of  a director

      The semantic relation between the nouns in the binominal N van een N construction in (196a) is therefore quite different in nature from the relation between the nouns in a construction such as (196b), where the PP van een piraat'of a pirate' is a PP-modifier of the noun schat'treasure': in the first we are discussing a cat, whereas in the latter we are discussing a treasure.

Example 196
a. Marie heeft een schat van een kat.
  Marie has  a treasure  of  a cat
  'Marie has a very sweet cat.'
b. Jan bewonderde een schat van een piraat.
  Jan admired  a treasure of a pirate
  'Jan admires a treasure of a pirate.'

The two constructions also differ syntactically. The indefinite articles in the binominal construction in (196a), for example, cannot be replaced by the definite article de'the' (at least not with preservation of the intended metaphoric meaning of the example), whereas this is perfectly possible in the modification construction in (196b). This is illustrated in (197).

Example 197
a. # Marie heeft de schat van een kat.
a'. # Marie heeft een schat van de kat.
a''. # Marie heeft de schat van de kat.
b. Jan bewonderde de schat van een piraat.
b'. Jan bewonderde een schat van de piraat.
b''. Jan bewonderde de schat van de piraat.

Another difference between the two constructions in (196) is that the binominal N van een N construction in (196a) cannot be split, whereas the PP-modifier in construction (196b) can be separated from the noun schat'treasure' by means of PP-over-V or topicalization. This is shown in (198).

Example 198
a. # dat Marie een schat heeft van een kat.
a'. # Van een kat heeft Marie een schat.
b. dat Jan een schat bewonderde van een piraat.
b'. Van een piraat bewonderde Jan een schat.

Now that we have seen that the binominal construction in (196a) differs from the modified noun phrase in (196b), we will investigate the former in more detail. Keep in mind that the judgments given on the examples in the following subsections only reflect the metaphoric use of the construction; occasionally, the given strings are acceptable under the modification interpretation, that is, with a van-PP modifying the first noun,but this will not be indicated.

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[+]  I.  The relation between the two nouns (number agreement between the two nouns)

The most conspicuous property of the N van een N construction is that, as a general rule, the two nouns agree in number: if N1 is singular, N2 must be singular as well; if N1 is plural, N2 must also be plural. This is illustrated in (199).

Example 199
a. een schat van een kat
... sg ... sg ...
  treasure  of  cat
b. schatten van katten
... pl ... pl ...
  treasures  of  cats
c. * een schat van katten
... sg ... pl ...
  treasure  of  cats
d. * schatten van een kat
... pl ... sg ...
  treasures  of  cat

As is shown in (200), the N van een N construction resembles in this respect the copular construction, in which number agreement between the subject and the predicative noun phrase is generally obligatory as well; see Section 8.2, sub IV, for some exceptions. This supports the idea that the two nouns in the N van een N construction are in a predicative relation.

Example 200
a. Die kat is een schat.
... sg ... sg ...
  that cat  is a treasure
b. Die katten zijn schatten.
... pl ... pl ...
  those cats  are  treasures
c. ?? Die katten zijn een schat.
... pl ... sg ...
  those cats  are  a treasure
d. * Die kat is schatten.
... sg ... pl ...
  that cat  is treasures

      Occasionally, however, a predicative singular noun can be predicated of a plural subject, as in (201a); this is especially the case if the predicate is a mass noun, as in (201b). It has been claimed in Bennis et al. (1998) that, for at least some people, the corresponding N van een N constructions in the primed examples are also acceptable (to various degrees). If the primed examples are really grammatical (we were not able to find any examples of this sort on the internet), this stresses the similarity of the N van een N and the copular construction, and hence supports the idea that N1 and N2 are in a predicative relation in the N van een N construction.

Example 201
a. Die feiten zijn een ramp.
  those facts  are  a disaster
b. Die voetbalvandalen zijn tuig.
  those hooligans   are scum
a'. % die ramp van een feiten
  that disaster  of  a facts
b'. % dat tuig van een voetbalsupporters
  that scum  of  hooligans

      It has also been claimed that examples such as (202b), in which N2 is a mass noun, are at least marginally possible for some speakers (we found one example on the internet). However, the corresponding copular construction is absolutely ungrammatical. It should be noted, however, that in English, singular mass nouns that trigger plural agreement on the finite verb (like the police in The police are coming) can occur as the subject in a copular construction with a plural nominal predicate: The police are idiots. If a mass noun triggers singular agreement on the finite verb, on the other hand, this is impossible: % The government is/are idiots. The unacceptability of Dutch examples such as (202a) may therefore be due to the fact that all Dutch mass nouns trigger singular agreement on the finite verb.

Example 202
a. * De regering is/zijn idioten.
  the government  is/are  idiots
b. % die idioten van een regering
  those idiots  of  a government
[+]  II.  The semantic head of the construction

A hotly debated issue with respect to the N van een N construction is whether N1 or N2 is the semantic head of the construction. The fact that in constructions such as (203a), the N van een N construction can be replaced a noun phrase headed either by N1 or by N2 has given rise to the idea that the construction is ambiguous and that either of the two nouns can function as the semantic head of the construction.

Example 203
a. Jan en Ruud zijn twee schatten van katten.
  Jan and Ruud  are  two treasures of cats
b. Jan en Ruud zijn twee schatten.
c. Jan en Ruud zijn twee katten.

This conclusion seems to be mistaken, however, since the acceptability of (203b) is just due to the fact that the noun phrase twee schatten is used as a (metaphoric) predicate, just as in the N van een N construction. If the binominal phrase is used as an argument, as in (204), the direct object twee schatten in (204b) cannot be construed metaphorically, but must refer to entities that are part of the regular denotation set of the noun schat'treasure'; as a result (204b) refer to a different state of affairs than (204c). The fact that (204c) can be used to refer to the same state of affairs as (204a), on the other hand, shows unambiguously that it is N2 that acts as the semantic head of the N van een N construction.

Example 204
a. Zij heeft/kocht twee schatten van katten.
  she  has/bought  two treasures of cats
b. # Zij heeft/kocht twee schatten.
c. Zij heeft/kocht twee katten.
[+]  III.  The syntactic head of the construction (number agreement with the finite verb)

Since the two nouns in the N van een N construction generally agree in number, it is hard to say which of the two nouns triggers agreement on the finite verb. In order to determine that, we have to take recourse to the more exceptional and perhaps disputable cases in (201b) and (202b). Our own judgments suggest that non-linguistic factors may be the determining factor when we are dealing with a singular N1: in (205a) singular agreement seems to be preferred, whereas in (205a') it is plural agreement that is preferred. In examples such as (205b), in which N1 is plural, we always seem to have plural agreement. The data in (205) show that the fact that N2 is the semantic head of the construction does not necessarily imply that it is also the syntactic head of the construction; cf. the discussion in 4.1.1.2, where we reached a similar conclusion for the quantificational binominal construction.

Example 205
a. Die ramp van een feiten %komt/*komen zeer ongelegen.
  that disaster of a facts   is/are  very inconvenient
a'. Die ramp van een feiten %staan/*?staat in iedere grammatica.
  that disaster of a facts    are/is  in every grammar
b. Die idioten van een regering ?zijn/*is nu helemaal gek geworden.
  those idiots of a government   are/is  now  completely mad  become
[+]  IV.  Articles and other determiners preceding N1 (gender agreement)

Another way of determining the syntactic head of the construction is by considering what determiner the N van een N construction takes. If the definite determiner agrees in gender with N1 we conclude that N1 is the syntactic head of the construction, and if it agrees with N2 we conclude that N2 is the syntactic head. Unfortunately, we cannot show this on the basis of the definite articles de and het, since we have already seen in (197a) that definite articles cannot be used in the N van een N construction. Gender agreement can, however, also be illustrated by means of demonstrative pronouns: the demonstrative die'that/those' is non-neuter and/or plural, whereas the demonstrative dat'that' is singular neuter.

Example 206
Demonstrative pronouns in singular N van een N constructions
a. die[-neuter] schat[-neuter] van een kat[-neuter]
  that  treasure  of  a cat
b. dat[+neuter] vod[+neuter] van een schrift[+neuter]
  the  rag  of  an exercise book
c. % die[-neuter] schat[-neuter] van een kind[+neuter]
  the  treasure  of  a child
c'. % dat[+neuter] schat[-neuter] van een kind[+neuter]
d. % dat[+neuter] vod[+neuter] van een roman[-neuter]
  the  rag  of  a book
d'. * die[-neuter] vod[+neuter] van een roman[-neuter]
Example 207
Demonstrative pronouns in plural N van een N constructions
a. die schatten van katten
  those  treasures  of  cats
b. die vodden van schriften
  those  rags  of  exercise books
c. die vodden van romans
  those  rags  of  novels

The examples in (206a&b) and (207) show that the demonstratives can readily be used if the two nouns select the same demonstrative, that is, if they both select die or dat. According to some speakers the mixed singular examples are excluded. Other speakers do accept at least some of these examples. In the case of (206c&c'), judgments appear to differ among these speakers: some prefer the primeless example, in which the demonstrative agrees with N1 but not with N2, whereas others prefer the primed example, in which the demonstrative agrees with N2. The judgments on the 9d)-examples in (206), on the other hand, seem clearer: the primed example is generally rejected, whereas the primeless example is accepted by at least some speakers. Similar judgments have been collected with the possessive pronouns onze[-neuter,+sg] 'our' and ons[+neuter,+sg] 'our' in (208). We refer the reader to Everaert (1992) for a detailed discussion.

Example 208
The possessive pronoun ons/ onze'our'
a. % Onze[-neuter] draak[-neuter] van een toneelstuk[+neuter] is uitgevoerd.
  our  dragon  of  a play  has.been  performed
a. % Ons[+neuter] draak[-neuter] van een toneelstuk[+neuter] is uitgevoerd.
b. % ons[+neuter] doetje[+neuter] van een filiaalchef[-neuter]
  our  softy  of  a branch.manager
b'. * onze[-neuter] doetje[+neuter] van een filiaalchef[-neuter]

      Table 4 summarizes the above findings. Examples in which the determiner agrees in gender with the two nouns are always possible. If the two nouns differ in gender, agreement of the determiner and N1 is obligatory for at least one group of speakers. For another group of speakers, the gender of N1 affects the agreement pattern: if N1 is -neuter, agreement between the determiner and N2 is preferred, but if N1 is +neuter, agreement of the determiner and N2 is also blocked for them. It goes without saying that those cases in which agreement is entirely absent give rise to the most degraded results, which is not reflected by the judgments in the table.

Table 4: Gender agreement in singular N van een N constructions
  N1 N2 agreement with judgment
        group I group II group III
DET[-neuter] -neuter -neuter N1 and N2
  -neuter +neuter N1 * ? *
  +neuter -neuter N2 * * *
  +neuter +neuter no agreement * * *
DET[+neuter] +neuter +neuter N1 and N2
  +neuter -neuter N1 * ? *
  -neuter +neuter N2 * * ?
  -neuter -neuter no agreement * * *

      To conclude this discussion of agreement, we want to point out that the set of determiners preceding the N van een N construction is rather limited. The demonstratives die/dat in (206) and (207) above, for example, do not really have a deictic function, but rather seem to express a kind of affective meaning, as can also be found in, for example, die Jan toch!, which is said of Jan when he is doing/saying something special and the speaker wants to express his approval or (mild) disapproval of what Jan is doing/saying. As is shown by (209a), using demonstratives in their deictic function generally leads to a bad result, just like the use of the definite article does. Only in very special contexts are “true” demonstratives possible. An interrogative example such as (209b), for instance, seems possible provided that the speaker is, for instance, hugging the cat in question thus showing that he himself is fond of it, but not when he is just pointing at it. In other words, (209b) is only possible if used as a kind of rhetorical question.

Example 209
a. ?? Jan bekeek die schatten van katten (en Marie bekeek deze).
  Jan looked.at  those treasures of cats   and  Marie  looked.at  those
b. En wat vind je van deze schat van een kat?
  and  what  consider  you  of  this treasure of a cat
  'And, what do you think of this wonderful cat?'

      The fact that the N van een N construction conveys a strong personal evaluation of the referent of the construction may also account for the fact that first person possessive pronouns are more commonly used in the construction than the second or third person ones. If acceptable, the use of second and third person possessive pronouns generally conveys an ironic message; the speaker of (210b), for example, confronts the hearer with a fact that is not compatible with the description of the cats as being “schatten”.

Example 210
a. Mijn/*?jouw/*?haar schatten van katten zijn ziek.
  my/your/her treasures of cats  are  ill
b. Mijn/jouw/haar schatten van katten hebben het vlees weer eens gestolen.
  my/your/her treasures of cats  have  the meat  again  stolen
  'Those nice cats of yours stole the meat from the pan again.'

      Due to restrictions like these, the set of determiners preceding the N van een N construction is largely restricted to the cases discussed above and the indefinite articles een/∅ and derivatives of them like zoʼn'such a', geen'no' and wat een'what a'. Some examples involving these indefinite determiners are given in (211).

Example 211
a. Ruud is een schat van een kat.
  Ruud is a  treasure  of  a cat
a'. Jan en Ruud zijn ∅ schatten van katten.
  Jan and Ruud  are  treasures of cats
b. Jan is zoʼn schat van een kat.
  Jan is such a  treasure  of  a cat
c. Is Ruud geen schat van een kat?
  Is Ruud no  treasure  of  a cat
  'Isnʼt Ruud a wonderful cat?'
d. Wat een schat van een kat!
  what  treasure  of  a cat
  'What a wonderful cat!'
[+]  V.  Modification of the nouns

Modification of the nouns in the construction is subject to various restrictions. Inserting an attributive adjective immediately before N2, for example, is impossible; the only exception are classifying adjectives in collocations like Cyperse kat'tabby' in (212c).

Example 212
a. * een schat van een vriendelijke kat
  treasure  of  kind  cat
b. ?? een schat van een oude kat
  treasure  of  an  old  cat
c. een schat van een Cyperse kat
  treasure  of  tabby

Using an attributive adjective modifying N1 is possible, but generally these modifiers are amplifying or affective in nature and do not attribute a property to N1, which is of course not surprising given that N1 is not referential in nature.

Example 213
a. een grote schat van een kat
  big  treasure  of  cat
  'a very nice cat'
b. een lelijk serpent van een hond
  an  ugly  serpent  of  dog
  'a very nasty dog'

      According to some, an attributive adjective preceding N1 can also be used to modify N2, which would be compatible with the fact that it is N2 that acts as the semantic head of the construction. Some examples, taken from Den Dikken (1995b), are given in (214).

Example 214
a. % een roodharig[+neuter] slagschip[+neuter] van een vrouw[-neuter]
  red.haired  battleship  of  woman
  'a fierce red-haired woman'
a'. * een roodharige[-neuter] slagschip[+neuter] van een vrouw[-neuter]
b. % een roodharige[-neuter] ijsberg[-neuter] van een wijf[+neuter]
  red.haired  iceberg  of  bitch
  'a frigid red-haired bitch'
b'. % een roodharig[+neuter] ijsberg[-neuter] van een wijf[+neuter]

Insofar as the examples in (214) are acceptable, it is clear that roodharig must be modifying N2. Note that the data in (214) are in accordance with the findings with respect to gender agreement in Table 4: the (a)-examples show that if N1 is neuter and N2 is non-neuter, the adjective must agree with N1, whereas the (b)-examples show that if N1 is non-neuter and N2 is neuter, speakers seem to vary with respect to the noun that triggers agreement — for some speakers it is N1, as in (214b), whereas for others it is N2, as in (214b'). So again, we have to conclude that the feature +neuter N1 blocks gender agreement with N2 for all speakers.
      Although attributively used adjectives may precede N1, postnominal modifiers cannot immediately follow it, as is shown in (215a). Probably, the impossibility of modifying N1 is again due to the fact that N1 is not referential in nature. Example (215b) shows that postmodifiers following N2 are possible, but in these cases we cannot immediately decide whether the PP modifies N2 or the complete N van een N construction.

Example 215
a. een boom (*daar/*in de tuin) van een kerel
  tree  there/in the garden  of  a fellow
  'a big/strong fellow'
b. een boom van een kerel uit Groningen
  tree  of  fellow  from Groningen

In order to find out whether the modifier in (215b) modifies N2 or the complete N van een N construction, we may take into account relative clauses such as those given in (216). The fact that the relative pronoun must agree in gender with N2 suggests that it is this noun that is modified, and not the complete N van een N construction.

Example 216
a. een schat[-neuter] van een kind[+neuter] dat[+neuter]/*die[-neuter] ziek is
  a treasure  of  child  that  ill  is
  'a charming child that is ill'
b. een kreng[+neuter] van een vrouw[-neuter] die[+neuter]/*dat[+neuter] weggelopen is
  carcass  of  wife  that  run.away  is
  'a bitch of wife that has run away'
[+]  VI.  The article een preceding N2

The indefinite article preceding N2 cannot be replaced by other kinds of determiners. The indefinite article seems sensitive to the number of N2: if N2 is singular the indefinite article is een'a', and if it is plural the article has the null form.

Example 217
a. Marie heeft een schat van een/* kat.
  Marie has  a treasure  of  cat
b. Marie heeft twee schatten van ∅/%een katten.
  Marie has  two treasures  of  ∅/a  cats

The “%” preceding een in (217b) is due to the fact that whereas Bennis et al. (1998) claim that examples such as schatten van een katten are possible, other speakers consider the result highly marked at best. Still, the N pl van een N pl construction is fully acceptable for all speakers in exclamative contexts like (218a), in which case both nouns are preceded by the indefinite article een. As shown in (218b), such a combination of een and a plural noun is not restricted to N van een N constructions of this kind, but are typical of this kind of exclamative constructions.

Example 218
a. Een schatten van een katten dat hij heeft!
  a treasures  of  a cats  that  he  has
b. Een boeken dat hij heeft!
  a books  that  he  has

This suggests that the indefinite article and N2 can simply be analyzed as a noun phrase. There is, however, a problem with this conclusion; een is also possible with N2s that normally cannot be preceded by an indefinite article. The most conspicuous case involves proper nouns: normally, a proper noun like Marie is not preceded by an indefinite article (*een Marie), yet in (219) it is obligatorily present.

Example 219
a. die schat van *(een) Marie
  that  treasure  of     a  Marie
b. dat serpent van *(een) Marie
  that  snake  of     a  Marie

The same thing can perhaps be shown on the basis of substance nouns, which normally cannot be preceded by an indefinite article either: een pracht van een wijn/kaas (lit.: a beauty of a wine/cheese). However, a caveat is in order, since speakers tend to no longer construe the N2s in such cases as substance nouns. Instead, the noun wijn will, for instance, be interpreted as referring to a certain kind of N2, and the N2 kaas as referring to an actual object.
      There are also proper nouns that can be preceded by a definite, but not by an indefinite article, for example de/*een Westerkerk or het/*een paleis op de Dam. Again, these proper nouns must be preceded by een in the N van een N construction; note that the definite article, which is normally present, cannot be used in these binominal constructions.

Example 220
a. die pracht van een Westerkerk
  that  beauty  of  Westerkerk
b. dat monster van een Paleis op de Dam
  that  monster  of  Paleis op de Dam

The facts in (219) and (220) have led to the suggestion that een is actually not part of the noun phrase headed by N2, but is present to perform some other function; see Bennis et al. (1998) for discussion.

[+]  VII.  The preposition van

Since the preposition van cannot be replaced by any other preposition, it has been suggested that it is a spurious preposition. Alexiadou et al. (2007: 246) suggest that this can also be motivated by the fact that, unlike true van-PPs, the sequence van + noun phrase cannot undergo pronominalization. Another fact that may point in this direction is that this sequence cannot be moved independently of the sequence preceding van.

Example 221
a. Jan is een boom van een kerel.
  Jan is  a tree  of a fellow
b. * Jan is een boom ervan.
  Jan is a tree  there-of

Bennis et al. (1998) also adopt the claim that van is a spurious preposition and they have suggested that its syntactic function is to signal the predicative relation between N1 and N2; they claim that, in a sense, van is comparable to the copula zijn'to be' in a copular construction.

[+]  VIII.  Syntactic distribution

The N van een N construction can be used in all regular NP-positions, that is, both as an argument and as a nominal predicate. In (222), we give examples in which the construction functions as a subject, a direct object, an indirect object, the complement of a preposition, and a predicate in a copular construction.

Example 222
a. Zoʼn schat van een kind verdient een lolly.
subject
  such a treasure of a child  deserves  a lollipop
b. Ik heb een pracht van een vaas gekocht.
direct object
  have  a beauty of a vase  bought
c. Jan geeft zoʼn schat van een kind graag een kusje.
indirect object
  Jan gives  such a treasure of a child  gladly  a kiss
d. Iedereen heeft respect voor zoʼn boom van een vent.
complement of P
  everyone  has  respect for  such a tree of a fellow
  'Everybody respects such a big/strong fellow.'
e. Jan en Ruud zijn schatten van katten.
nominal predicate
  Jan and Ruud  are  treasures of cats
References:
  • Alexiadou, Artemis, Haegeman, Liliane & Stavrou, Melita2007Noun phrases in the generative perspectiveBerlin/New YorkMouton de Gruyter
  • Bennis, Hans, Corver, Norbert & Den Dikken, Marcel1998Predication in nominal phrasesThe Journal of Comparative Germanic Linguistics185-117
  • Bennis, Hans, Corver, Norbert & Den Dikken, Marcel1998Predication in nominal phrasesThe Journal of Comparative Germanic Linguistics185-117
  • Bennis, Hans, Corver, Norbert & Den Dikken, Marcel1998Predication in nominal phrasesThe Journal of Comparative Germanic Linguistics185-117
  • Bennis, Hans, Corver, Norbert & Den Dikken, Marcel1998Predication in nominal phrasesThe Journal of Comparative Germanic Linguistics185-117
  • Dikken, Marcel den1995Copulas
  • Dikken, Marcel den2006Relators and linkers. The syntax of predication, predicate inversion, and copulasCambridge, MA/LondonMIT Press
  • Everaert, Martin1992Nogmaals: <i>Een schat van een kind</i>Bennis, Hans & Vries, Jan W. de (eds.)De binnenbouw van het Nederlands. Een bundel artikelen voor Piet Paardekooper.DordrechtICG Publications45-54
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