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Show full table of contents The definite article in measure phrases

In the following subsection we will enumerate a number of other ways in which the definite articles in particular can be used, along with a concise discussion of the semantic properties of these uses. The unifying feature of these uses is that they involve some kind of unit of measure. Semantically, they are rather diverse, however, and we will not attempt to provide a unifying syntactic and semantic analysis for them.

[+]  I.  Definite articles followed by a measure unit

This subsection discusses definite articles followed by a noun phrase denoting a measure unit. We start with cases in which the article has a function similar to that of the preposition per borrowed from Latin. This is followed by temporal noun phrases preceded by the preposition om.

[+]  A.  Distributive de/het “per”

Example (165) illustrates a special use of the definite article in front of a measure phrase, in which use it alternates with the Latinate preposition per, which always takes bare singular complements; cf. (151). We cannot conclude from this, however, that de and het function as prepositions given that they agree in gender with the noun following them, which is a property of articles, not of prepositions. The semantic contribution of the article de/het and the preposition per is distributive in the sense that it distributes the monetary unit een euro over a measure unit like liter.

Example 165
a. De benzine kost een euro per/de liter.
  the petrol  costs  a euro  per/the  liter
  'Petrol costs a euro per liter.'
b. Die meloenen kosten een euro per/het stuk.
  those melons  cost  a euro  per/the  piece
  'Those melons cost a euro apiece.'

The distributive article can also mediate between a monetary unit and an individual who has to pay the relevant amount of money, as in the (166a). In this context, only man'person' seems felicitous; substituting vrouw'woman' for man gives rise to an unacceptable result, and the same thing holds for the replacement of man by persoon'person' or kind'child'. The awkwardness of de in (166b) matches that of the corresponding example with the preposition per, but the deviance of (166c&d) cannot be dismissed on the same grounds, since the corresponding examples with per are perfectly acceptable.

Example 166
a. De kaartjes kosten een euro per/de man.
  the tickets  cost  a euro  per/the  man
b. * De kaartjes kosten een euro per/de vrouw.
  the tickets  cost  a euro  per/the  woman
c. De kaartjes kosten een euro per/*de persoon.
  the tickets  cost  a euro  per/the  person
d. De kaartjes kosten een euro per/*het kind.
  he tickets  cost  a euro  per/the  child

      The fact that the phrase headed by the measure noun euro and the distributive phrase can be placed simultaneously in clause initial position shows that they form a constituent (the constituency test). This is also supported by the primed and doubly-primed examples in (167), which show that splitting the two gives rise to at least a marked result.

Example 167
a. [Een euro de liter] kost de benzine.
  a euro the liter  costs  the petrol
a'. * Een euro kost de benzine de liter.
a''. *? De liter kost de benzine een euro.
b. [Een euro de man] kosten die kaartjes.
  a euro the man  cost  those tickets
b'. * Een euro kosten die kaartjes de man.
b''. ? De man kosten die kaartjes een euro.

Still, the relative acceptability of (167b'') may suggest that, in some cases, topicalization of the distributive phrase is at least marginally possible. At first sight, this suggestion seems to receive additional support from a construction such as (168b), which is fully acceptable. It may be the case, however, that (168b) is not syntactically related to (168a); the phrase de man may simply act as an independent VP adverb, comparable to distributive elements like allen'all' or allemaal'all' in (168b'). Since we do not have conclusive arguments in favor of one of the options, we leave this issue for future research.

Example 168
a. We moeten een euro de man betalen.
  we  must  a euro  the man  pay
b. We moeten de man een euro betalen.
  we must  the man  a euro  pay
b'. We moeten allemaal/allen een euro betalen.
  we must  all/all  a euro  pay
[+]  B.  Definite articles followed by nouns denoting time intervals

Haeseryn et al. (1997: 191-2) point out that the meaning contributed by a definite article preceding nouns denoting measurement units is not always crystal-clear, and may vary from case to case. Thus, the PP om de minuut in (169a) is interpreted as meaning “every minute” while the structurally identical PP om de week in (169b) is usually understood to mean “every other week”; given that some speakers also allow the “every week” reading, this may lead to misunderstandings, which can be solved by adding the adjective andere'other', as in (169b').

Example 169
a. Om de minuut flitst er een lampje aan.
  around the minute  flashes  there  a lampdim  on
  'Every minute thereʼs a lamp switching on.'
b. Om de week reist ze naar Genève.
  around the week  travels  she  to Geneva
  'Every other week/%every week she travels to Geneva.'
b'. Om de andere week reist ze naar Genève.
  around the other week  travels  she  to Geneva
  'Every other week/*every week she travels to Geneva.'

      The fact that andere can be added in (169b) suggests that om de week itself does not explicitly mean “every other week”; if it did, adding andere would be tautologous, as in fact it is in (170a), where the result of inserting andere is very awkward due to the fact that the om het jaar already unambiguously expresses that we are dealing with a biennial event. It remains an open question what feature of the lexical semantics of the noun is responsible for this surprising interpretative variation of the PP om de N. As a tendency it seems to be the case that the longer the stretch of time denoted by the noun, the more favored the “every other N” reading is: nouns like seconde'second' and minuut'minute' clearly favor the “every N” reading, whereas nouns like maand'month' and jaar'year' favor the “every other N” reading. It should be noted, however, that modifiers like half or numerals like twee'two' in (170b) may override this tendency; the presence of such modifiers always results in an “every half/two N” reading.

Example 170
a. De conferentie wordt om het (??andere) jaar gehouden.
  the conference  is  around the other year  held
  'The conference is organized every other year.'
b. De vergadering wordt om de twee maanden/het half jaar gehouden.
  the meeting  is  around the two months/the half year  held
  'The meeting takes place every two months/half year.'
[+]  II.  Definite and indefinite articles construed with numerals

The previous subsection has shown that definite articles exhibit peculiar behavior in the domain of measure phrases. The uses of definite and indefinite articles decribed in the present subsection have a natural link with the preceding in that they, too, involve measure phrases, namely noun phrases containing numerals.

[+]  A.  Preposition + definite article de+ numeral

This subsection discusses phrases like in/tegen de duizend boeken in (171), which consist of a preposition followed by a plural noun phrase containing the definite article de and a numeral. Phrases like these are spurious PPs: they have the distribution of a noun phrase, which is clear from the fact illustrated in the primed examples that they cannot extrapose; see also the discussion of (174) below.

Example 171
a. dat hij in de duizend boeken heeft.
  that  he  into the thousand books  has
  'that he has more than a thousand books.'
a'. * dat hij heeft in de duizend boeken.
b. dat hij tegen de duizend boeken heeft.
  that he  against the thousand books  has
  'that he has almost a thousand books.'
b'. * dat hij heeft tegen de duizend boeken.

The use of the definite article de in examples such as (171) is special because no definite meaning aspect seems to be contributed by the determiner: the paraphrases in (172) make clear that the phrases are semantically indefinite.

Example 172
a. dat hij ruim duizend boeken heeft.
  that  he  over thousand books  has
  'that he has over a thousand books.'
b. dat hij bijna duizend boeken heeft.
  that  he  nearly thousand books  has
  'that he has nearly a thousand books.'

In fact, the indefiniteness of the phrases in (171) can readily be established without appealing to the paraphrases in (172). First, the “have” sentences in (171) seem to favor a permanent possession/ownership reading, and these do not allow definite direct objects. This is shown in (173): since birthmarks are permanently possessed, the use of the definite determiner leads to a semantically weird result in (173a). Similarly, (173b) is weird on the intended reading that Jan is the owner of the books.

Example 173
a. Jan heeft ($de) twee moedervlekken op zijn rug.
  Jan has  the  two birthmarks  on his back
b. # Jan heeft de duizend boeken.
  Jan has  the thousand books

Second, the examples in (174) show that phrases like (171) can be used as the subject in an expletive construction. Given that PPs normally cannot be used as subjects, these examples also provide additional evidence that we are dealing with spurious PPs with the actual value of a noun phrase.

Example 174
a. Er liggen in de duizend boeken op zolder.
  there  lie  in the thousand books  in the attic
  'There are more than a thousand books in the attic.'
b. Er liggen tegen de duizend flessen wijn in de kelder.
  there  lie  against the thousand bottles of wine  in the cellar
  'There are nearly a thousand bottles of wine in the cellar.'

Finally, the indefiniteness of the noun phrases in (171) is also clear from the fact illustrated in (175) that its head can be replaced by quantitative er, which is possible with indefinite noun phrases only; cf. Section 6.3 for discussion.

Example 175
a. Hij heeft er in de duizend [ e].
  he  has  er  into the thousand
  'He has more than a thousand of them.'
b. Hij heeft er tegen de duizend [ e].
  he  has  er  against the thousand
  'He has nearly a thousand of them.'

Consider again example (174a). The fact that the definite article de does not contribute the meaning of definiteness to the phrase as a whole suggests that is not an immediate constituent of the noun phrase headed by boeken: a reasonable alternative is to analyze in de duizend boeken in such a way that in de duizend is a constituent quantifying boeken. This representation gives structural recognition to the fact that in de duizend alternates with ruim duizend'over a thousand' in (172a), in which ruim duizend is likewise a constituent.

Example 176
a. [[in de duizend] boeken]
b. [[ruim duizend] boeken]

Note, however, that the analysis suggested in (176a) has the rather remarkable property that the numeral duizend is immediately preceded by a definite article, which is normally not possible: (*De) duizend is een groot getal'Thousand is a large number'. It has therefore been suggested that the structure of in de duizend boeken is slightly more complex and features a phonetically empty “classifier” to the right of duizend: [[in de duizend (classifier)] boeken]. This might be supported by the fact that such a “classifier” can at least marginally be spelled out overtly: in de duizend (??stuks) boeken. We leave it to future research to establish whether or not an analysis along this line is feasible.
      So far, we have only illustrated the de + numeral construction by means of the prepositions in and tegen. There are, however, combinations involving other prepositions that are eligible for a similar kind of analysis. In (177) we divide the relevant prepositions into three groups.

Example 177
a. more than: boven, over, in
b. less than: beneden, onder, tegen
c. approximately: rond, om en nabij, tussen

We give some examples in (178), which show that the original meaning of the prepositions can be readily recognized. Example (178f) further shows that the selection restrictions of the prepositions are also preserved: tussen'between' must be followed by a coordinated phrase.

Example 178
a. Kinderen beneden de drie (jaar) reizen gratis.
  children  below  the three year  travel  free
  'Children under the age of three travel free.'
b. als je onder de zeventig maar boven de vijftig bent
  if  you  under the seventy  but  above the fifty  are
c. Hij heeft al over de duizend boeken.
  he  has  already  over the thousand books
  'He already has more than a thousand books.'
d. Hij was binnen de tien minuten hier.
  he  was  within  the ten minutes  here
e. Het duurt rond/om en nabij de tien minuten.
  it  lasts  around/around and close.to  the ten minutes
  'It takes approximately ten minutes.'
f. Deze boeken kosten tussen de vijf en tien euro.
  these books  cost  between  the five and ten  euros
  'The price of these books ranges between five and ten euros.'

      The examples in (179), which are adapted from actual examples found on the internet, show that at least in some cases additional modifiers can be added to the sequence P + numeral; we have not been able to find cases involving prepositions that trigger the approximative meaning. Since ruim and ver modify the cardinal number, examples like these may be construed as additional evidence for an analysis along the lines of (176a), where the sequence P + numeral is construed as a complex modifier of the noun.

Example 179
a. Van Schagen heeft vermoedelijk ver over de duizend prenten gemaakt.
  Van Schagen  has  probably  far  over the thousand  prints  made
  'Van Schagen probably made much more than a thousand prints.'
b. Deze monitoren zijn verkrijgbaar voor ruim onder de honderd euro.
  these screens  are available  for  amply  under the hundred  euros
  'These monitors are available for far less than one hundred euros.'

      Before we conclude this section, we want to make a number of additional observations. The first is that, although it is clear that we are dealing with spurious PPs with the value of noun phrases, this does not mean that it is always possible to replace these phrases with regular noun phrases: the two examples in (180) both express that the damage amounts to several thousands of euros, but nevertheless involve two different verbs.

Example 180
a. De schade loopt in de duizend euroʼs.
  the damage  runs  into the thousand euros
  'The damage is more than a thousand euros.'
a'. * De schade loopt meer dan de duizend euroʼs.
b. De schade beloopt meer dan duizend euroʼs.
  the damage  be-runs  more than thousand euros
b'. * De schade beloopt in de duizend euroʼs.

The construction in (180a) is also special in that the numeral can be pluralized, which results in a non-trivial meaning change: the sequence in + numeral no longer means “more than Num Ns” but “several Numpl. Ns”

Example 181
De schade loopt in de duizenden euroʼs.
  the damage  runs  into the thousands euros
'The damage is several thousands of euros.'

      Finally, it can be noted that the use of the definite article in combination with a numeral is not entirely restricted to contexts with a preposition: whereas the prepositions cannot be omitted in (182a&b), example (182c) is perfectly acceptable without a preposition. Note that the noun jaar'year' is preferably dropped in these examples due to the fact that it is more or lesss predictable in this context.

Example 182
a. Hij loopt tegen de dertig (?jaar).
  he  runs  towards  the thirty    year
  'Heʼs almost thirty (years old).'
b. Hij is in de dertig (?jaar).
  he  is into the thirty    year
  'Heʼs into his thirties.'
c. Hij is de dertig (?jaar) al gepasseerd.
  he  is  the thirty   year  already  passed
  'Heʼs already past thirty.'
[+]  B.  Indefinite article + numeral: “approximately + numeral”

Example (183a) shows that the indefinite article een can also be construed with numerals, which is surprising in view of the fact that een is not normally used in combination with plural noun phrases (except for the cases discussed in Section In this context, een can be preceded by zo, giving rise to the contracted form zoʼn in (183b). The interpretation of een/zoʼn tachtig boeken is “approximately/about eighty books”.

Example 183
a. Hij heeft een tachtig boeken.
  he  has  an eighty books
b. Hij heeft zoʼn tachtig boeken.
  he  has  so an eighty books
  'He has about eighty books.'

A related case, with similar semantics, is illustrated in (184). This example is less striking since een is construed with a singular noun phrase here. Note that zoʼn, while in perfectly free variation with een in (183), is awkward in (184b).

Example 184
a. Hij heeft een boek of tachtig.
  he  has  a book or eighty
  'He has about eighty books.'
b. ?? Hij heeft zoʼn boek of tachtig.
  he  has  so a book or eighty

The constructions in this section are discussed more extensively in Section

  • Haeseryn, Walter, Romijn, Kirsten, Geerts, Guido, Rooij, Jaap de & Toorn, Maarten C. van den1997Algemene Nederlandse spraakkunstGroningenNijhoff
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