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5.1.1.5. Genericity
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The sections above have shown that noun phrases are generally used to refer to certain entities in domain D. In this section, we will discuss generic noun phrases, such as those given in example (37). In examples like these, the property denoted by the verb phrase is not predicated of any entity in domain D; the examples express a general rule that is assumed to be true in the speakerʼs conception of reality. In other words, by uttering one of the generic examples in (37), the speaker claims, roughly, that, regardless of the actual choice of domain D, all zebras are striped.

Example 37
a. De zebra is gestreept.
  the zebra  is striped
b. Een zebra is gestreept.
  a zebra  is striped
c. Zebraʼs zijn gestreept.
  zebras  are striped

Note that genericity is a property not only of the noun phrase, but also of the sentence as a whole. It is therefore not surprising that generic sentences have certain distinctive properties. For instance, the examples in (37) are given in the present tense, because this seems to favor the generic interpretation. This holds especially for (37a&b): replacing the present tense in these examples by a past tense results in constructions that are preferably construed as assertions about a certain individual zebra/set of zebras, and that can only marginally be interpreted as general statements on states of affairs valid for some time interval in the past. This section, however, will mainly focus on the properties of the noun phrase, though some of the properties of the generic clause as a whole will also be discussed as we go along. Subsection I starts by discussing generic uses of noun phrases headed by count nouns. This is followed in Subsection II by a discussion of generic noun phrases headed by non-count nouns.

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[+]  I.  Count nouns

The examples in (37) have shown that count nouns can enter three types of generic noun phrases: if the noun is singular, the article can be either definite or indefinite, and if it is plural it is normally the indefinite null article that is used.

[+]  A.  Definite versus indefinite articles

Broadly speaking, definite noun phrases refer to the whole class or a prototype thereof, whereas indefinite noun phrases refer to typical members of the class. The fact that definite noun phrases may refer to the whole class, whereas indefinite noun phrases cannot, is clear from the examples in (38). The examples in (38b&c) are semantically anomalous since the predicate uitgestorven'extinct' can only be predicated of a species as a whole, as in (38a), not of the individual members of a species. Similar examples that do not involve natural species are given in (39).

Example 38
a. De Dodo is uitgestorven.
  the Dodo  is extinct
b. * Een Dodo is uitgestorven.
  a Dodo  is extinct
c. *? Dodoʼs zijn uitgestorven.
  Dodos  are extinct
Example 39
a. De telefoon is uitgevonden door Alexander Graham Bell.
  the telephone  is invented  by Alexander Graham Bell
b. * Een telefoon is uitgevonden door Alexander Graham Bell.
  a telephone  is invented  by Alexander Graham Bell
c. *? Telefoons zijn uitgevonden door Alexander Graham Bell.
  telephones  are invented  by Alexander Graham Bell

The examples in (40) show that general statements that are construed as applicable to individual members of the class rather than to the class as a whole prefer a noun phrase headed by the indefinite article een or ∅. Since the proposition in (40) only holds for cats departing (to, e.g., a foreign country) and not for the whole species, the generic reading of the definite noun phrase is excluded.

Example 40
a. # De kat moet zes weken voor vertrek ingeënt worden.
  the cat  must  six weeks before departure  vaccinated  be
b. Een kat moet zes weken voor vertrek ingeënt worden.
  a cat  must  six weeks before departure  vaccinated  be
  'A cat must be vaccinated six weeks before departure.'
c. ∅ Katten moeten zes weken voor vertrek ingeënt worden.
  ∅ cats  must  six weeks  before departure  vaccinated  be
  'Cats must be vaccinated six weeks before departure.'

      The examples in (41) clearly show that definite noun phrases do not have to refer to classes. The class reading of the definite noun phrase in (41a) is of course impossible, since species do not eat; only individual members of a species do. The difference between the definite and indefinite noun phrases is now that the first refers to a prototype of the class whereas the indefinite noun phrases refer to typical members of the class. This can be made clear by means of the interpretation of adverbs like meestal'generally'. In (41a), this adverb can only be interpreted as an adverb of frequency: “It is generally the case that the crocodile eats once a week (but not while guarding its eggs)”. This reading is also available for the examples in (41b&c), but in addition the adverb may quantify over the noun phrase subject resulting in the reading “Most crocodiles eat only once a week (but there are some crocodiles that eat more often)”.

Example 41
a. De krokodil eet meestal maar één keer per week.
  the crocodile  eats  generally  only  once  a week
  'Most of the time, the crocodile eats only once a week.'
b. Een krokodil eet meestal maar één keer per week.
  a crocodile  eats  generally  only  once  a week
  'Most of the time, a crocodile eats only once a week.'
  'Most crocodiles eat only once a week.'
c. Krokodillen eten meestal maar één keer per week.
  crocodiles  eat  generally  only  once  a week
  'Most of the time, crocodiles eat only once a week.'
  'Most crocodiles eat only once a week.'

This difference becomes even clearer if the verb phrase denotes an individual-level predicate like intelligent zijn'to be intelligent', that is, a predicate that denotes a more or lesss permanent property of its logical subject. An example such as (42a) is considered distinctly odd by most speakers, since it expresses that most of the time the rat is intelligent, that is, it forces stage-level interpretation on the adjective intelligent. The examples in (42b&c), on the other hand, sound perfectly natural under the reading “most of”.

Example 42
a. % De rat is meestal erg intelligent.
  the rat  is generally  very intelligent
b. Een rat is meestal erg intelligent.
  a rat  is generally  very intelligent
  'Most rats are very intelligent.'
c. Ratten zijn meestal erg intelligent.
  rats  are  generally  very intelligent
  'Most rats are very intelligent.'

The crucial difference between the (a)- and the (b/c)-examples in (41) and (42) is that there is only one prototype, whereas there are many typical members of a certain class: as a result only the latter can be quantified. Now that we have discussed some differences between definite and indefinite generic noun phrases, we will continue by discussing the properties of these noun phrases in more detail.

[+]  B.  Definite articles

This section discusses the generic use of definite noun phrases. Since the noun phrase is normally singular, our discussion starts in Subsection 1 by considering such cases. This is followed in Subsections 2 and 3 by a discussion of whether plural definite noun phrases can also be used generically. The discussion is concluded in Subsection 4 by giving some examples of definite generic noun phrases embedded within some other noun phrase.

[+]  1.  Singular generic definite noun phrases

Generic interpretations of definite noun phrases are not encoded in some part of the noun phrase itself, but depend on the semantic content of the construction in which they occur. An example such as (43a) does not trigger a generic interpretation, since it is highly improbable that a stage-level property like being in a cage is a property of (the prototype of) the set of entities denoted by a noun like zebra'zebra'. Therefore, this sentence must be interpreted as a proposition involving a specific entity in domain D. An example such as (43a'), which involves the individual-level predicate of “being striped”, on the other hand, can be seen as a general statement about (the prototype of) this set of entities. The noun phrase de zebra can therefore be given both a generic and a referential interpretation. Note, however, that an example such as (43a') is only ambiguous on paper. Leaving contrastive accent aside, the two interpretations are distinguished by accent: on the referential reading of the noun phrase, main accent is given to the adjective gestreept; on the generic reading, on the other hand, main accent falls on the noun phrase (the noun zebra in this case). A similar difference can be observed in (43b&b').

Example 43
a. De zebra zit in een kooi.
specific
  the zebra  sits  in a cage
a'. De zebra is gestreept.
generic
  the zebra  is striped
b. De vrouw loopt op straat.
specific
  the woman  walks  in the.street
b'. De vrouw is zachtmoedig van aard.
generic
  the woman  is mild in nature

      The discussion above does not imply that the generic interpretation of definite noun phrases is completely determined by context. This becomes clear when we consider some more examples. All primeless examples in (44) would be conceivable as generic statements, which is clear from the fact that the primed examples, which involve indefinite noun phrases, actually do have the intended meanings. Nevertheless, these examples strongly favor a regular referential meaning, that is, are preferably construed as an assertion about a certain entity in domain D.

Example 44
a. # Het meisje is intelligent.
  the girl  is intelligent
a'. Meisjes zijn intelligent.
  girls  are  intelligent
b. # Het boek is duur.
  the book  is expensive
b'. Boeken zijn duur.
  books  are  expensive
c. # De braadpan is zwaar.
  the frying pan  is heavy
c'. Braadpannen zijn zwaar.
  frying pans  are  heavy

      The reason for the impossibility of the intended generic readings of the primeless examples is not entirely clear. It might be the case that we are simply not inclined to picture a prototypical member of the sets denoted by the nouns in (44). Whereas the noun vrouw'woman' or zebra easily evokes a prototype, nouns like meisje'girl', boek'book' or braadpan'frying pan' do not. Perhaps this suggestion can be supported by the fact that a prototypical reading can be evoked provided that the context provides sufficient clues that such a reading is intended. This is clear from the fact that the examples in (45) do allow a generic reading, because the syntactic context makes it probable that two prototypes are compared: in (45a) the comparison involves a prototypical girl of a certain age and a prototypical boy of the same age, and in (45b) a prototypical girl from the polder and a prototypical girl from the city. It seems, however, that even in these cases the use of an indefinite noun phrase, as in the primed examples, is much preferred by most speakers.

Example 45
a. Het meisje is op die leeftijd volwassener dan de jongen.
  the girl  is at that age  more mature  than the boy
a'. Meisjes zijn op die leeftijd volwassener dan jongens.
  girls  are  at that age  more mature  than boys
b. Het meisje uit de polder is volwassener dan het meisje uit de stad.
  the girl from the polder  is more mature  than the girl from the city
b'. Meisjes uit de polder zijn volwassener dan meisjes uit de stad.
  girls from the polder  are  more mature  than girls from the city

      The generic interpretation of the noun phrases in the primeless examples in (45) is clearly facilitated by the use of the modifiers: in (45a) the use of the adverbial phrase op die leeftijd'at that age' and in (45b) by the attributively used PP uit de polder/stad'from the polder/city'. That attributive modifiers make the generic reading more readily available is also clear from the examples in (46). Perhaps the use of the attributive modifier gebonden makes a prototypical reading more readily available due to the fact that it divides the superset of books into two subsets, so that we can compare the prototypical members of these subsets: the prototypical member of the set of bound books is unaffordable, in contrast to the prototypical member of the set of paperbacks or pocket books.

Example 46
a. *? Het boek is tegenwoordig onbetaalbaar.
  the book  is nowadays  unaffordable
b. Het gebonden boek is tegenwoordig onbetaalbaar.
  the bound book  is nowadays  unaffordable

This probably also accounts for the fact that classes that are relatively high in the speakerʼs taxonomy are normally not preceded by a definite article in generic sentences. Examples such as (47a) contrast sharply with examples such as (43b): the fact that mammals are higher in the taxonomy than zebras apparently makes it easier for the speaker to picture a prototypical zebra than a prototypical mammal. Reference to a typical member is easier, and hence the use of an indefinite article, as in (47b&c), is preferred.

Example 47
a. % Het zoogdier is warmbloedig.
  the mammal  is warm.blooded
b. Een zoogdier is warmbloedig.
  a mammal  is warm.blooded
c. Zoogdieren zijn warmbloedig.
  mammals  are warm.blooded

From the discussion above, we may perhaps conclude that the ambiguity between the regular referential reading and the generic reading of a singular definite noun phrase is related to the question as to whether the language user is able to interpret the noun phrase as referring to a prototype of a certain set of entities (where many non-linguistic aspects may play a role).

[+]  2.  Plural generic definite noun phrases

Let us now consider whether plural definite noun phrases are possible in generic statements as well. Examples like (48a&a') can only be interpreted as statements about a contextually determined group of zebras/women. An example such as (48b) seems to fare better as a generic statement but this is due to the fact that the NP grote kat'big cat' may be used as the name of the superset containing the subsets of cats denoted by the nouns leeuw'lion', tijger'tiger', etc. In other words, the noun phrase de grote katten does not refer to one, but to several species of animals, hence its plural form.

Example 48
a. # De zebraʼs zijn gestreept.
  the zebras  are  striped
a'. # De vrouwen zijn zachtmoedig van aard.
  the women  are  mild  in nature
b. De grote katten zijn gevaarlijke roofdieren.
  the big cats  are  dangerous predators

This seems to lead to the conclusion that plural definite noun phrases cannot be used as generic noun phrases unless the noun phrase denotes a set of entities that can be further divided into several conventionally distinguished subclasses/species. This conclusion seems to be more or lesss correct, but it turns out that we have to make at least one exception. Consider example (49), taken from Geerts (1984), which involves the same string of words as (48a), but which seems to be perfectly fine on a generic reading. The crucial ingredient of (49) that makes the definite determiner felicitous is the presence of the restrictive modifier alleen'only'; as soon as alleen is deleted, the output becomes bad on a generic reading. The restrictive modifier alleen is apparently able to license the use of the definite article due to the fact that it evokes a reading in which the set denoted by zebra is construed as a proper subset of a larger set, viz., the set denoted by wilde paarden'wild horses'.

Example 49
(Er zijn vele soorten wilde paarden, maar) alleen de zebraʼs zijn gestreept.
  there are many kinds of wild horses but  only  the zebras  are  striped

A similar effect of restrictive modifiers on the legitimacy of a definite determiner in generic plural noun phrases can be detected in the pair in (50), adapted from De Hoop, Vanden Wyngaerd & Zwart (1990: 100ff.). The semantic effect of the addition of the PP-modifier met witte voetjes is the creation of a subset of domestic cats with specific bodily features (viz., the possession of white paws); as a result, the definite determiner can now felicitously be used to pick out the intended subset.

Example 50
a. # De katten brengen geluk.
  the cats  bring  luck
b. (Katten hebben een slechte reputatie, maar) de katten met witte voetjes brengen geluk.
  cats  have  a bad reputation  but  the cats with white paws  bring  luck

The minimal pair in (51) furthermore show that it is only the subset that can occur with the definite article; in (51a) the noun phrase de katten refers to a superset which includes the subset referred to by de katten met witte voetjes and the use of the definite article gives rise to a degraded result, whereas in (51b) the noun phrase de zwarte katten refers to a subset that is contrasted with another subset referred to by de katten met witte voetjes and the use of the definite article is allowed.

Example 51
a. *? De katten hebben een slechte reputatie, maar de katten met witte voetjes brengen geluk.
  the cats  have  a bad reputation  but  the cats with white paws  bring  luck
b. De zwarte katten hebben een slechte reputatie, maar de katten met witte voetjes brengen geluk.
  the black cats  have  a bad reputation  but  the cats  with white paws  bring  luck

From this we may conclude that the use of the definite article is not related to the fact that the noun phrases in question have a generic reading, but to the fact that these noun phrases are linked to some explicitly mentioned or tacitly assumed superset in domain D. This use of the definite article is therefore reminiscent of the use of the definite article in noun phrases that refer to entities that are not part of domain D but can be inferred from the linguistic or non-linguistic context of the discourse; see the discussion of examples (21) to (25) in Section 5.1.1.2.

[+]  3.  Plural generic definite noun phrases headed by, e.g., nationality names

Although the discussion in Subsection 2 has shown that plural definite noun phrases normally cannot be used generically, an exception must be made for nationality nouns like Nederlander'Dutchman' or nouns that refer to members of certain societal groups or organizations like kapitalist'capitalist'. With nouns of these types generic statements can therefore often be expressed in four different ways, as illustrated in (52) and (53).

Example 52
a. De Nederlander is onverdraagzaam.
  the Dutchman  is intolerant
b. De Nederlanders zijn onverdraagzaam.
  the Dutchmen  are  intolerant
c. Een Nederlander is onverdraagzaam.
  a Dutchman  is intolerant
d. Nederlanders zijn onverdraagzaam.
  Dutchmen  are  intolerant
Example 53
a. De kapitalist denkt alleen aan zijn eigen belangen.
  the capitalist  thinks  only  of his own interests
b. De kapitalisten denken alleen aan hun eigen belangen.
  the capitalists  think  only  of their own interests
c. Een kapitalist denkt alleen aan zijn eigen belangen.
  a capitalist  thinks  only  of his own interests
d. Kapitalisten denken alleen aan hun eigen belangen.
  capitalists  think  only  of their own interests
[+]  4.  Generic definite noun phrases embedded in other noun phrases

So far, we have only discussed generic definite noun phrases in clauses. As is shown in (54a), definite noun phrases can also obtain a generic reading when embedded in a larger noun phrase. The difference between (54a) and (54b) suggests that in this case the context also determines whether a generic reading is possible or not.

Example 54
a. [de rechten van [de vrouw]]
  the rights  of  the woman
  Available reading: 'the womanʼs rights'
specific
  Available reading: 'womenʼs rights'
generic
b. [de vrienden van [de vrouw]]
  the friends  of  the woman
  Available reading: 'the womanʼs friends'
specific
  Impossible reading: 'womenʼs friends'
generic

Note that example (54a) is genuinely ambiguous only on paper; if pronounced in a neutral context, the generic reading will give rise to main stress on vrouw, while the specific reading assigns main prosodic prominence to rechten. This is shown in (55), where the verbal predicate blocks a generic reading of de vrouw in (55a), but strongly favors it in (55b).

Example 55
a. De rechten van de vrouw werden haar allemaal ontnomen.
  the rights of the woman  were  her  all  taken.away
  'The rightrs of the woman (e.g. Marie) were all taken away from her.'
b. De rechten van de vrouw worden nog niet universeel erkend.
  the rights of the woman  are  yet not  universally  recognized
  'Womenʼs rights arenʼt yet universally recognized.'

The contrast between the examples in (54a) and (56) shows again that definite plural noun phrases are normally not assigned a generic reading.

Example 56
[de rechten van [de vrouwen]]
  the rights  of  the women
Available reading: 'the womenʼs rights'
specific
Impossible reading: 'womenʼs rights'
generic
[+]  C.  Indefinite articles

The examples in (37b&c) have shown that indefinite noun phrases can also be used generically. They differ from definite noun phrases in that they do not refer to a prototypical member of the set denoted by the noun. If the indefinite noun phrase is singular it refers to a typical member, and if it is plural it refers to typical members of the set denoted by the noun. In a sense, indefinite generic noun phrases “quantify” over the individuals in the set denoted by the noun; they express a categorical statement of the type “all N ...”. This is clear from the fact that these noun phrases can be modified by adverbial phrases like in het algemeen'in general', meestal'generally' or zelden'rarely', which may modify their “universal” interpretation. This was discussed already on the basis of the examples in (41) and (42). Here, we repeat examples (42b&c) as (57), which must be given the interpretation “most rats are intelligent”.

Example 57
a. Een rat is meestal erg intelligent.
  a rat  is  generally  very intelligent
b. Ratten zijn meestal erg intelligent.
  rats  are  generally  very intelligent

We start in Subsection 1 by discussing some differences between generic and non-generic indefinite noun phrases. This is followed in Subsection 2 by a discussion of the differences between singular and plural generic indefinite noun phrases.

[+]  1.  Differences between generic and non-generic indefinite noun phrases

Generic indefinite noun phrases differ in syntactic behavior from the non-generic ones. Consider the examples in (58). Non-generic indefinite DPs headed by an indefinite article do not occur in the regular subject position, whereas generic indefinite noun phrases introduced by the article een/∅ must occur in this position, which is clear from the fact that they cannot enter the expletive construction discussed in Section 8.1.4; the noun phrases in (58a&a') receive a non-generic interpretation, whereas those in (58b&b') receive a generic interpretation.

Example 58
a. Er zwemt een vis in het water.
non-generic
  there  swims  a fishsg  in the water
a'. Er zwemmen vissen in het water.
non-generic
  there  swim  fishpl  in the water
b. Een vis zwemt in het water.
generic
  a fishsg  swims  in the water
b'. Vissen zwemmen in het water.
generic
  fishpl  swim  in the water

It may be, however, that an exception must be made for generic statements of the type in (59). These examples are generic but not in the same sense as the examples discussed earlier: they do not involve a categorical statement about the members of the set denoted by the NP goed mes'good knife', but a generic statement about the activity denoted by the noun phrase dit soort werk'this kind of work'; when one does this (kind of) work, a good knife is/good knives are indispensable. Therefore, if we want to categorize the subject noun phrases in (59) as non-generic, we should rephrase our earlier findings a bit: it is only in generic clauses that indefinite noun phrases introduced by een/∅ can occupy the regular subject position. Since, to our knowledge, examples such as (59) have not been discussed in the literature, we will not address them any further.

Example 59
a. Een goed mes is onmisbaar voor dit (soort) werk.
  a good knife  is indispensable  for  this  kind.of  work
b. Goede messen zijn onmisbaar voor dit (soort) werk.
  good knives  are indispensable  for  this  kind.of  work
[+]  2.  Differences between singular and plural generic indefinite noun phrases

So far, we have not discussed the difference between the singular and plural generic indefinite noun phrases. Although at first sight it seems difficult to pinpoint a difference in meaning, it is clear that they are not synonymous. This becomes evident when we consider the implication relations that hold between singular and plural examples, as in the primeless and primed examples in (60).

Example 60
a. Een zebra is gestreept. ⇒
  a zebra  is striped
a'. Zebraʼs zijn gestreept.
  zebras are striped
b. Musicals zijn populair. ⇏
  musicals are popular
b'. Een musical is populair.
  a musical is popular

It seems that implication relations like (60a) are always valid. The inverse implication relation in (60b), on the other hand, does not seem to hold. This suggests that generic sentences with an indefinite singular noun phrase express that the typical members of the class are in some sense inherently endowed with or defined by the property denoted by the predicate. Generic sentences with an indefinite plural noun phrases, on the other hand, seem to ascribe a more incidental or transitory property to the class: musicals may be popular today, but there is no guarantee that this will also be the case in the future. That something like this is indeed the case is clear from the fact that using an adverbial phrase like tegenwoordig'nowadays' is possible in (61a) but not in (61b).

Example 61
a. Musicals zijn tegenwoordig populair.
  musicals are  nowadays  popular
b. * Een musical is tegenwoordig populair.
  a musical  is nowadays  popular

      There are also differences concerning the syntactic environments in which singular and plural generic indefinite noun phrases can occur. Above, we have only discussed examples in which the generic noun phrase acts as the subject of a clause. When we widen our discussion to other syntactic functions, it seems that generic singular noun phrases have a more limited distribution than the plural ones. The primeless, singular examples in (62) must be construed specifically: Jan is studying or fond of a certain zebra. The primed, plural examples, on the other hand, seem to readily allow a generic interpretation of the indefinite noun phrase. The doubly-primed examples are added for completeness’ sake, in order to show that generic definite noun phrases may also be used in syntactic functions other than subject.

Example 62
a. # Jan bestudeert een zebra.
  Jan studies  a zebra
b. # Jan is dol op een zebra.
  Jan is fond  of a zebra
a'. Jan bestudeert zebraʼs.
  Jan studies  zebras
b'. Jan is dol op zebraʼs.
  Jan is fond  of zebras
a''. Jan bestudeert de zebra.
  Jan studies  the zebra
b''. Jan is dol op de zebra.
  Jan is fond  of the zebra

It should be noted, however, that we cannot conclude from these examples that generic singular indefinite noun phrases can only occur as the subject of the clause. This is clear from the examples in (63). In these examples the indefinite noun phrases are not the subject of the clause, but still the sentences can be interpreted generically (which reading is facilitated if a modifier like meestal is added to the sentence). The main difference between (62) and (63) is that the examples in the latter contain a complementive that is predicated of the indefinite noun phrase. From this, we may conclude that a generic singular indefinite noun phrase can only occur if it is the logical subject of some predicate, whereas generic plural noun phrases are freer in distribution.

Example 63
a. Ik vind een zebra (meestal) erg interessant.
  I consider  a zebra  generally  very interesting
b. Ik vind zebraʼs (meestal) erg interessant.
  I consider  zebras  generally  very interesting

      To conclude this subsection, we give the primeless examples in (64) to show that generic indefinite noun phrases can also be embedded in a larger noun phrase. The meaning of these examples is something like “all zebras have a biotope that consists of ...”. As is shown in the primed examples, the larger noun phrase containing a singular indefinite noun phrase also has a more restricted distribution than the one containing a plural indefinite noun phrase; (64a') is at least preferably construed as involving the biotope of a certain zebra.

Example 64
a. Het biotoop van een zebra bestaat uit ...
  the biotope  of a zebra  consists of
a'. # Jan bestudeert het biotoop van een zebra.
  Jan studies  the biotope of a zebra
b. Het biotoop van zebraʼs bestaat uit ...
  the biotope  of zebras  consists of
b'. Jan bestudeert het biotoop van zebraʼs.
  Jan studies  the biotope of zebras
[+]  II.  Non-count nouns

Non-count nouns normally cannot be preceded by the indefinite article een. They are either preceded by a definite article or by the indefinite null article. Table 2 gives some examples of several subtypes. Subsection A starts by showing that these non-count nouns also allow a generic reading, and Subsection B continues with a discussion of some general restrictions on the distribution of generic noun phrases headed by a non-count noun.

Table 2: Non-count nouns
  definite indefinite
substance noun de wijn‘the wine’
het fruit‘the fruit’
wijn‘wine’
fruit‘fruit’
abstract noun non-deverbal de armoede‘the poverty’
het verdriet‘the sadness’
armoede‘poverty’
verdriet‘sadness’
  deverbal het roken‘the smoking’
het sigaren roken
‘the smoking of cigars’
het roken van deze sigaar
‘the smoking of this cigar’
roken‘smoking’
sigarenroken
‘smoking of cigars’

[+]  A.  Generic and non-generic readings

This subsection discusses the generic and non-generic uses of substance nouns, which is followed by a discussion of non-deverbal and verbal abstract non-count nouns.

[+]  1.  Substance nouns

When a definite article combines with a substance noun like wijn'wine' or fruit'fruit', in many cases a specific interpretation for the resulting noun phrase ensues; the definite noun phrase refers to a contextually determined quantity of the substance in question. It is not impossible, however, to find substance nouns with a definite determiner that receive a generic interpretation; example (65) gives some instances of both uses.

Example 65
a. De wijn/Het fruit is lekker.
specific
  the wine/the fruit  is nice
a'. De wijn/Het fruit is duur dit jaar.
generic
  the wine/the fruit  is expensive  this year
b. [De smaak van [de wijn/het fruit]] is redelijk goed.
specific
  the taste of the wine/the fruit  is reasonably good
b'. [De prijs van [de wijn/het fruit]] is hoog dit jaar.
generic
  the price of the wine/the fruit  is high this year

The singular indefinite article een normally cannot be combined with non-count nouns. The examples in (66) show, however, that the indefinite null article ∅ can be used. If the resulting noun phrase functions as subject, its interpretation depends on its position in the clause: if the noun phrase occupies the regular subject position, as in (66a), it must be interpreted generically; if the noun phrase enters the expletive construction, as in (66a'), it is always interpreted as a non-generic, indefinite noun phrase. In other functions, the interpretation of the noun phrase depends on the denotation of the verb phrase, as can be seen by comparing the two (b)-examples.

Example 66
a. [∅ Wijn] is lekker.
generic
  ∅ wine  is nice
a'. Er ligt nog wijn in de kelder.
non-generic
  there  lies  still wine  in the cellar
b. Jan houdt van wijn.
generic
  Jan  likes  wine
b'. Jan heeft wijn gekocht.
non-generic
  Jan  has  wine  bought

If the indefinite noun phrase is embedded within a larger noun phrase, it is also the context that determines whether a generic reading is available. The (a)-examples in (67) show this for substance nouns embedded in a subject, and the (b)-examples for substance nouns embedded in a direct object.

Example 67
a. [Het glas met [∅ wijn]] viel om.
non-generic
  the glass  with  wine  fell  over
  'The glass containing wine tumbled.'
a'. [De prijs van [∅ wijn]] is hoog dit jaar.
generic
  the price of  wine  is high  this year
  'Wine is expensive this year.'
b. Jan heeft nog [een vat met [∅ goede wijn]].
non-generic
  Jan has  still   a barrel  with  good wine
b'. Jan beschreef [de smaak van [∅ goede wijn]].
generic
  Jan described   the taste of  good wine
[+]  2.  Non-deverbal abstract non-count nouns

Non-deverbal abstract non-count nouns can likewise be construed with the definite articles de and het without necessarily receiving a specific interpretation. Again, the context determines the distribution of specific and generic readings.

Example 68
a. De armoede/Het verdriet is ondraaglijk.
specific
  the poverty/the sadness  is unbearable
a'. De armoede/Het verdriet moet bestreden worden.
generic
  the poverty/the sadness  must  eradicated  be
b. [de ondraaglijkheid van [de armoede/het verdriet]]
specific/generic
  the unbearableness  of  the poverty/the sadness
b'. [De beperking van [de armoede/het verdriet]] heeft prioriteit.
generic
  the reduction  of  the poverty/the sadness  has  priority

      Abstract non-count nouns in argument positions normally cannot be combined with the indefinite article een without triggering a special, exclamative interpretation; cf. Section 5.1.4.2. However, the addition of a restrictive modifier may license it: Er heerst daar een *(ondraaglijke) armoede'there is an unbearable poverty there'; Hij heeft een *(onzegbaar) verdriet'He has an ineffable sadness'. However, as far as we can tell, such indefinite noun phrases are not readily possible in generic contexts; the examples in (69), at least, are somewhat odd.

Example 69
a. ? Een ondraaglijk verdriet is moeilijk te bestrijden.
  an unbearable sadness  is hard  to eradicate
b'. ? Een onzegbaar verdriet kan tot zelfmoord leiden.
  an ineffable sadness  can  to  suicide  lead

      Abstract non-count nouns occurring with the null article, on the other hand, are possible in generic contexts. As with the substance nouns, this is the normal interpretation when an indefinite noun phrase occupies the regular subject position. In order to obtain a non-generic reading, an indefinite subject must occur in the expletive construction. If the indefinite noun phrase has some other syntactic function in the sentence, the context determines whether a generic interpretation is possible or not. If the indefinite noun phrase is embedded in a larger noun phrase the generic reading of the indefinite noun phrase is the most prominent one.

Example 70
a. Er wordt hier nog steeds [∅ armoede] geleden.
non-generic
  there  is  here  still  poverty  suffered
a'. [∅ Armoede] is onduldbaar in een rijk land als Nederland.
generic
  poverty  is intolerable  in a rich land  like the.Netherlands
b. Sommige mensen lijden hier nog steeds [∅ armoede].
non-generic
  some people  suffer  here  still  poverty
b'. Deze regering mag [∅ armoede] niet accepteren.
generic
  this government  may  poverty  not  accept
c. [de schande van [∅ armoede]]
generic
  the disgrace of  poverty
[+]  3.  Deverbal abstract non-count nouns

Here we will restrict our discussion to infinitival nominals; cf. Sections 1.3.1.2 and 2.2.3.2. We start with bare-inf nominalizations (without an article). Since (71a) is derived from the intransitive, habitual verb roken'to smoke', it is not surprising that nominalizations like these are generally generic; cf. Jan rookt'Jan smokes, that is, Jan is a smoker'. The same thing holds for (71b) due to the fact that the nominalized phrase contains a bare plural noun, which seems generically construed in this example; cf. Jan rookt sigaren'Jan smokes cigars, that is, Jan is a smoker of cigars'.

Example 71
a. Roken is slecht voor je gezondheid.
  smoking  is bad  for oneʼs health
b. Sigaren roken is slecht voor je gezondheid.
  cigar smoking  is  bad  for oneʼs health

      Det-inf nominalizations (preceded by the neuter article het) can also inherit the arguments of the verb. The examples in (72) show that if the arguments precede the infinitive, they must be realized as indefinite plural noun phrases, just as in the case of the bare-inf nominalizations, but in this case the nominalizations clearly refer to specific “smoking” events, so we may safely claim that we are dealing with non-generic uses of these noun phrases.

Example 72
a. In deze zaal irriteert het roken me altijd.
  in this room  annoys  the smoking  me always
  'In this room I always get annoyed by the smoking.'
b. In deze zaal irriteert het sigaren roken me altijd.
  in this room  annoys  the cigars  smoking  me always

The examples in (73) further show that when we place these noun phrases in contexts that favor a generic interpretation, the result is marginal at best.

Example 73
a. ?? Het roken is slecht voor je gezondheid.
  the  smoking  is bad  for oneʼs health
b. ?? Het sigaren roken is slecht voor je gezondheid.
  the  cigars smoking  is bad  for oneʼs health

If the argument follows the infinitive, there are no restrictions on its realization; it can be plural or singular, and it can be indefinite or definite. The (a)-examples in (74) show that the choice between the latter two options affects the interpretation of the noun phrase as a whole: if the argument is a bare plural noun phrase, the generic reading of the nominalized phrase is clearly favored; if the argument is definite, on the other hand, a generic reading seems to be blocked. The (b)-examples show that as a result of this, use of a definite argument is excluded in contexts that favor a generic interpretation.

Example 74
a. Het roken van sigaren irriteert me.
generic
  the smoking  of cigars  annoys  me
a'. (?) Het roken van de sigaar/sigaren irriteert me.
specific
  the smoking  of the cigar/cigars  annoys  me
b. Het roken van sigaren is slecht voor je gezondheid.
generic
  the smoking of cigars  is bad  for oneʼs health
b'. *? Het roken van de sigaar/sigaren is slecht voor je gezondheid.
  the smoking of the cigar/cigars  is bad  for oneʼs health

Note, however, that definite noun phrases introduced by a demonstrative are possible in contexts like (74b&b'): if the noun phrase is singular, a specific reading is triggered; if it is plural, or a substance noun like tabak'tobacco', both readings are available.

Example 75
a. Het roken van deze/die sigaar is slecht voor je gezondheid.
specific
  the smoking of this/that cigar  is bad  for your health
b. Het roken van deze/die sigaren is slecht voor je gezondheid.
specific/generic
  the smoking of these/those cigars is bad  for your/oneʼs health

      Let us finally turn to cases that involve nominalized phrases embedded in a larger noun phrase. Given the contrast between the examples in (71) and (73), the judgment of example (76a) is surprising. This example clearly has a generic interpretation, but nevertheless the nominalized phrase must be preceded by the definite article. The judgments on the remaining examples (76b&c) are in accordance with the judgments on the examples in (74).

Example 76
a. [De bestrijding van [het/?? (sigaren) roken]] heeft prioriteit.
generic
  the eradication of  the/∅   cigars  smoking  has our priority
b. [het plezier in [het roken van sigaren]]
generic
  the pleasure  of  the smoking  of cigars
c. [het plezier in [het roken van de/deze sigaar]]
specific
  the pleasure  of  the smoking of the/this cigar
[+]  B.  Distributional restrictions on the generic readings

Although we have seen in Subsection A1 that definite noun phrases headed by a substance noun can be used generically, it is certainly not true that this holds in all cases. This will become clear by comparing the two examples in (77), which seem to show that the realization of the definite article is sensitive to the nature of the predicate; the definite article is possible (and perhaps even preferred) if we are dealing with a stage-level predicate like duur'expensive' in (77a), but not if we are dealing with an individual-level predicate like bestaan uit koolstof en waterstof'to consist of carbon and hydrogen' in (77b).

Example 77
a. De/? benzine is weer duur dit jaar.
  the/∅  petrol  is again  expensive  this year
  'The petrol is again expensive this year.'
b. ∅/*De benzine bestaat uit koolstof en waterstof.
  ∅/the petrol  consists  of carbon and hydrogen

An apparent counterexample to the claim that the nature of the predicate determines whether a definite article can be realized can be found in (78) which involve the individual-level predicate bestaan uit waterstof en zuurstof: the fact that using a definite article is blocked in (78a) is compatible with the proposed restriction; however, if a restrictive modifier like the PP op Mars'on Mars' is added to the generic noun phrase, as in (78b), using a definite article suddenly becomes possible.

Example 78
a. ∅/*Het water bestaat uit waterstof en zuurstof.
  ∅/the water  consists  of hydrogen and oxygen
b. Het/∅ water op Mars bestaat ook uit waterstof en zuurstof.
  the/∅ water on Mars  consists  also  of hydrogen and oxygen

We may account for this problem by assuming that, much as in the case of (50b), the semantic effect of the addition of the modifier in (78b) is the creation of a subset/subtype of water; while water on its own defines “water” exhaustively and does not leave any subset/subtype for the definite determiner to pick out, water op Mars denotes a subtype of water found on the planet of Mars, which is not coextensive with the substance of water in general. This makes it possible for the definite determiner to be felicitously used in (78b).
      From the discussion above, we conclude that, apart from those cases in which the addition of a modifier introduces a distinction between various subsets/subtypes, the definite article cannot be used if the predicate expresses an individual-level property. This conclusion seems to be supported by the examples in (79), which involve abstract non-count nouns.

Example 79
a. ∅/*De gezelligheid kent geen tijd.
  ∅/the coziness  knows  no time
  'Being sociable is always appropriate.'
b. ∅/*De verliefdheid is een alles overspoelend gevoel.
  ∅/the infatuation  is an everything overflowing sensation
  'Infatuation is a sensation that dominates everything.'

The infinitival nominals in (80) exhibit a pattern which is also similar yet subtly distinct from the one found in the substance noun examples in (78); cf. Hoekstra & Wehrmann (1985). Example (80a) shows again that individual-level predicates do not license the presence of a definite article: if the definite article is present, the noun phrase refers to a specific dancing event. The examples in (80b&c) show that adding a postnominal PP to the nominalization makes it possible to have a definite article due to the fact that we now dealing with various subtypes of dancing.

Example 80
a. ∅/#Het dansen is leuk.
  ∅/the dancing  is nice
b. Het/∅ dansen op blote voeten moet sterk worden ontraden.
  the/∅ dancing  on bare feet  must  strongly  be  discouraged
c. Het/??∅ dansen van sambaʼs is een geliefde bezigheid van Brazilianen.
  the/∅ dancing  of sambas  is a favorite occupation  of Brazilians

The surprising fact is that whereas the definite article is simply optional in (80b), it is preferably present in (80c). The roots of this difference with respect to the optionality of the article are as yet unclear. It is not the case, for instance, that the presence of a complement like van sambaʼs, as opposed to an adjunct like op blote voeten, makes het obligatory, which is clear from the fact that (het) werken aan je proefschrift is leuk'(the) working on your dissertation is nice' is grammatical both with and without the determiner. However, it is interesting to note that, although Dutch and English differ in that English does not allow a definite article in nominalizations where het is optional in Dutch, the two languages are perfectly on a par when it comes to the obligatory realization of the definite article preceding nominalizations with a postnominal van/of-complement: cf. the contrast between (*the) dancing on bare feet and *(the) dancing of sambas.

References:
  • Geerts, Guido1984Algemene Nederlandse spraakkunstGroningenWolters-Noordhoff
  • Hoekstra, Teun & Wehrmann, Pim1985De nominale infinitiefGLOT8257-275
  • Hoop, Helen de, Wyngaerd, Guido vanden & Zwart, Jan Wouter1990Syntaxis en semantiek van de <i>van die</i>-constructieGramma1481-106
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