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Show full table of contents Special cases

Singular count nouns are normally not used in argument position without an article: see Section 8.2.2 for the use of bare singular count nouns used as predicates. There are, however, a number of cases in which bare singular count noun is acceptable.

[+]  I.  N+V collocations

The use of bare count nouns is possible in certain N+V collocations like piano spelen'to play the piano' and paard rijden'to ride on horseback'. Collocations like these behave like particle verbs such as weggooien'to throw away'. First the examples in (116) show that both the bare count noun and the particle must be adjacent to the verb; scrambling leads to severe ungrammaticality.

Example 116
a. Jan zal morgen piano spelen
  Jan will  tomorrow  piano play
  'Jan will play the piano tomorrow.'
a'. * Jan zal piano morgen spelen.
b. Jan wil morgen paard rijden.
  Jan wants  tomorrow  horse  drive
  'Jan wants to ride on horseback tomorrow.'
b'. * Jan wil paard morgen rijden.
c. Jan zal dat boek morgen weggooien.
  Jan will  that book  tomorrow  throw.away
  'Jan will throw away that book tomorrow.'
c'. * Jan zal dat boek weg morgen gooien.

The N+C collocation yet cannot be considered a single word given that verb-second can split the noun and the verb, just like it can split the verb and the particle.

Example 117
a. Jan speelt morgen piano.
  Jan plays  tomorrow  piano
  'Jan is playing the piano tomorrow.'
b. Jan rijdt morgen paard.
  Jan drive  tomorrow  horse
  'Jan is riding on horseback tomorrow.'
c. Jan gooit het boek morgen weg.
  Jan throws  the book  tomorrow  away
  'Jan throws the book away tomorrow.'

Topicalization of the verb, on the other hand, must pied-pipe the bare count noun or the particle, as is illustrated in (118).

Example 118
a. Piano spelen zal Jan morgen.
  piano play  will  Jan tomorrow
a'. * Spelen zal Jan morgen piano.
b. Paard rijden mag Jan morgen.
  horse  drive  is.allowed  Jan tomorrow
b'. * Rijden mag Jan morgen paard.
c. Weg gooien zal Jan dat boek morgen.
  away  throw  will  Jan that book  tomorrow
c'. * Gooien zal Jan dat boek morgen weg.

The examples above show that we are dealing with more or lesss idiomatic expressions, which are very common for all kinds of recurring activities (such as certain domestic duties). It seems that the formation of these collocations is only possible if there is no simple verb expressing the activity. For example, whereas the collocation auto rijden'to drive a car' is possible the collocation fiets rijden is apparently blocked by the existence of the verb fietsen'to cycle'. We will return to the N+V collocations discussed above in Section, sub I, where we will show that there are reasons for assuming that they are structurally ambiguous.

[+]  II.  Locational P + N collocations

There are also more or lesss fixed P + N collocations; two examples are given in (118). The expressions are more or lesss idiomatic in the sense that they are not entirely built up compositionally; as is shown by the English translations, the PP does not merely refer to a location. For a more extensive discussion of prepositions that take bare noun phrases as their complement, see Section P2.1.

Example 119
a. Jan zit hier op school.
  Jan sits  here  on school
  'Jan is enrolled as a student in this school.'
b. Jan zit hier al jaren op kantoor.
  Jan sit here  already for years  on office
  'Jan is already employed at this office for years.'
[+]  III.  Coordination

The examples in (120a&b) show that whereas a bare count noun like mes'knife' cannot be used in argument position, the coordinated phrase mes en vork can. Again, it seems that we are dealing with more or lesss idiomatic constructions, as will be clear from the fact illustrated by (120c) that the relative position of the two conjuncts cannot be changed. Example (120d), finally, shows that there are extra-linguistic constraints on the conjuncts: the unacceptability of mes and lepel is clearly related to the Western convention that one uses a knife and a fork at dinner, not a knife and a spoon.

Example 120
a. * Jan gebruikte mes bij het avondeten
  Jan used  knife  with the dinner
  'Jan used knife at dinner.'
b. Jan gebruikte mes en vork bij het avondeten
  Jan used  knife and fork  with the dinner
c. * Jan gebruikte vork en mes bij het avondeten
  Jan used  fork and knife  with the dinner
d. * Jan gebruikte mes en lepel bij het avondeten
  Jan used  knife and spoon  with the dinner

There are many examples of coordinated bare singular count nouns. In (121) some typical examples are given involving kinship nouns: we may add vader en moeder'father and mother' although we may be dealing with vocatives in this case. All of these cases seem idiomatic in the sense that the order of the conjuncts is rigid and sometimes the meanings are not compositional: man en vrouw refers to a couple, and moeder en kind typically refers to a mother and her newborn baby.

Example 121
a. man en vrouw
  man and woman
  'husband and wife'
a'. * vrouw en man
b. broer en zuster
  brother and sister
b'. * zuster en broer
c. moeder en kind
  mother and child
  'mother and her baby'
c'. * kind en moeder

Other examples involve nouns referring to objects that are typically used together. A typical example is mes and vork'knife and fork' from example (120), but there are many more: a small and random set is given in (122).

Example 122
a. draad en naald
  thread  and  needle
c. pen en papier
  pen and  paper
b. huis en tuin
  house  and  garden
d. pijl en boog
  arrow  and  bow

Another clearly idiomatic example is dag en nacht'day and night' in (123), which is rather special in that it is used, not as an argument, but as an adverbial phrase meaning something like “continuously for a very long time”.

Example 123
Hij huilde dag en nacht.
  he cried  day and night

Note that the conjunction need not be en'and' but can also be noch'neither ... nor'. It is clear from the meaning that we are dealing with fixed expressions in (124). We have not been able to find examples with the disjunctive coordinator of'or', which do occur in English: cf. It is feast or famine these days for a working fisherman (Carole Boster, p.c.).

Example 124
a. Hij heeft kind noch kraai.
  he  has  child nor crow
  'He has no family at all.'
b. Hij geeft taal noch teken.
  he  gives  language  nor  sign
  'There is no sign of life from him.'

      Using coordinated bare count nouns in prepositional adverbial phrases is very common, as shown by the examples in (125). Note that all these constructions often have a “high degree” reading; see Postma (1995) for discussion.

Example 125
a. Het schip verging met man en muis.
  the ship  was.wrecked  with  man and  mouse
  'The ship was lost with everyone on it.'
b. Hij verzette zich met man en macht.
  he  resisted refl  with man and power
  'He resisted with all his might.'
c. Hij ging van deur tot deur.
  he went  from door  to door
  'He went to all places.'

Again the disjunctive coordinator of'or' is normally not found, although it should be noted that the fixed collocation op leven en dood in, e.g., op leven en dood vechten'to fight a life-and-death battle' is sometimes realized with of; a Google (1/13/2015) resulted in about 4000 hits for the string [ op leven of dood] but more than 100.000 hits for [ op leven en dood] (numbers include all cases).
      Finally, note that none of the examples above involve conjuncts containing a modifier. This is not accidental: adding a modifier to any of the bare nouns above will give rise to an ungrammatical result.

[+]  IV.  Conclusion

The previous subsections have shown that bare singular count noun may occasionally occur in argument position, but that this always triggers some special meaning aspect; see De Swart & Zwarts (2001) for more discussion. We therefore conclude that we are normally dealing with more or lesss idiomatic constructions; see Zwarts (2008) for a potential counterexample to this claim.

  • Postma, Gertjan1995Zero semantics. A study of the syntactic conception of quantificational meaningUniversity of LeidenThesis
  • Swart, Henriëtte de2001Weak readings of indefinites: type shifting and closureThe Linguistic Review1869-96
  • Zwarts, Joost2008Some remarks on bare coordination
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