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Show full table of contents Distribution of geen inside the noun phrase

This section discusses the restrictions on the use of geen within the noun phrase. We start in Subsection I by considering the question of what types of noun it can modify. After that, we briefly discuss in Subsection II whether geen can be combined with pronouns and proper nouns. Subsection III discusses the co-occurrence restrictions with other elements within the noun phrase.

[+]  I.  Geen and noun phrase types

Geen is remarkably flexible when it comes to the types of noun phrase that it can combine with. It is possible for geen to combine with count nouns of all genders and numbers. Geen can also be construed with non-count nouns. Examples are given in Table 3.

Table 3: Distribution of geen in noun phrases headed by count/non-count nouns
  singular plural
  -neuter +neuter  
count nouns geen stad
no town
geen huis
no house
geen steden/huizen
no towns/houses
non-count nouns geen ellende/wijn
no misery /wine
geen verdriet/water
no sorrow/water

Though geen can in principle combine with plural count noun phrases, there are restrictions on the use of plurals in combination with geen: whereas the plural noun schepen'ships' can be used with geen in the primeless sentences of (246), this is impossible in the primed examples that feature the more special “not a single” reading of geen — this reading requires that the noun is singular, as in (222) in Section, sub III.

Example 246
a. Er varen geen schepen op de zee.
  there  sail  no ships  on the sea
  'There are no ships sailing on the sea.'
a'. * Geen schepen zijn 100% waterdicht.
  no ships  are  100 per cent  watertight
b. Ik heb daar geen schepen gezien.
  have  there  no ships  seen
  'I didnʼt see any ships there.'
b'. * Geen schepen levert men 100% waterdicht af.
  no ships  delivers  one  100 per cent  watertight  prt.

The ungrammaticality of the primed examples in (246) matches that of the corresponding cases featuring geen enkel(e)/één in (247b); that these examples are unacceptable is not surprising from the point of view of their meaning “not a single”. What is interesting, though, is that enkel(e) is compatible with plural noun phrases in other contexts: enkele schepen is perfect as the plural counterpart of een enkel schip'a single ship'. This means that it is not entirely clear what causes the unacceptability of (247b) with enkel(e).

Example 247
a. Geen enkel/één schip is 100% waterdicht.
  no  single/one  ship  is 100 per cent  watertight
b. * Geen enkele/één schepen zijn 100% waterdicht.
  no  single/one  ships  are  100 per cent  watertight

      There are also many pluralia tantum that cannot be preceded by geen, like tropen or Verenigde Staten in (248a&b). The reason for this lies in the fact that tropen and Verenigde Staten are always definite expressions, with which geen cannot be combined. If the plurale tantum can be indefinite, like hersens/hersenen in (248c&c'), geen is possible.

Example 248
a. * geen tropen
cf. de/*∅ tropen
  no  tropics
b. * geen Verenigde Staten
cf. de/*∅ Verenigde Staten
  no  United States
c. Planten hebben geen hersenen.
  plants  have  no brains
c'. Heb jij geen hersens of zo?!
  have  you  no brains  or so
  'Donʼt you have brains, or what?!'

      The acceptability of using geen with non-count nouns extends to the cases of bare-stem and ge-nominalizations in (249).

Example 249
a. geen werk
bare-stem nominalization
  no work
b. geen gewerk
  no work

Inf-nominalization like (250a) are generally awkward, although (250b&c) show that there are idiomatic examples involving inf-nominalizations.

Example 250
a. ?? geen werken
  no work
b. Dat is geen doen.
  that  is  no do
  'That is impossible, unbearable.'
c. Er is geen houden meer aan.
  there  is  no hold  anymore  prt
  'It cannot be controlled/stopped anymore.'

      When we now take a birdʼs eye view of the noun phrase types with which geen can be construed, we find that only a subset can occur with the indefinite article een in neutral contexts; een does not combine with plurals or non-count nouns (except in the special contexts discussed in Section An approach to geen that would hold that it is the result of the fusion of niet and the indefinite article een would hence fail to cover the entire spectrum of possibilities in the distribution of geen. A particularly tough nut to crack for such an analysis of geen would be the case in (251), in which geen combines with an element that does not seem to qualify as nominal at all.

Example 251
Het was geen buitenspel.
  it  was  no off.side

The expression buitenspel'offside' used in sports is a compound originating from a PP headed by buiten (lit.: outside (of) play) and it does not show any earmarks of nominalness; for example, it cannot be pluralizedor used as the input for diminutivization, nor does it combine with any determiners: *de/*?het/*een buitenspel. In particular, the fact that buitenspel cannot be construed with the indefinite article een in any context (not even in exclamatives, which otherwise feature een rather profusely: * Een buitenspel dat het was!'an offside that it was') makes a fusion approach to the geen found in (251) difficult to uphold. Laxer variants of the fusion analysis which allow geen to result from merger of niet and the null article ∅ as well fare no better in this regard, unless it can be successfully argued that buitenspel features the null article.
       Geen can also combine with the nominal part of verbal N+V collocations of the type illustrated in (252), in which the primeless geen examples alternate with the primed examples featuring the negative adverb niet. There is a tendency to spell the members of the collocation as individual words in the examples with geen but as a single word in the examples with niet, although all variants can be found on the internet.

Example 252
a. Ik kan geen piano spelen.
  can  no piano  play
  'I canʼt play the piano.'
a'. Ik kan niet pianospelen.
  can  not  piano.play
  'I canʼt play the piano.'
b. Ik kan geen auto rijden.
  can  no  car  drive
  'I cannot drive (a car).'
b'. Ik kan niet autorijden.
  can  not car.drive
  'I cannot drive (a car).'

Section, sub I, has shown that N+V collocations of this type are like particle verbs in the sense that the dependent nominal is obligatorily split off the verbal base if the verb undergoes verb-second, that is, moves into the second position of the main clause. It seems that in such cases, there is a clear preference to use a noun phrase with geen; examples with geen occur frequently on the internet, whereas the frequency of examples with niet is conspicuously low.

Example 253
a. Ik speel geen piano.
  play  no piano
  'I donʼt play the piano.'
a'. ? Ik speel niet piano.
  play  not  piano
  'I donʼt play the piano.'
b. Ik rijd geen auto.
  drive  no  car
  'I donʼt drive (a car).'
b'. ? Ik rijd niet auto.
  drive  not  car
  'I donʼt drive (a car).'

The same contrast can be observed if the verb is part of a verb cluster and non-adjacent to the noun, as in (254). These facts suggests that N+V collocations are actually ambiguous; if the noun combines with geen it functions a regular object, while it is part of the verb if it is preceded by niet; see Booij (2010:ch.4) for a similar conclusion.

Example 254
a. dat ik geen/?niet piano kan spelen.
  that  no/not piano  can  play
  'that I canʼt play the piano'
b. dat ik geen/?niet auto kan rijden.
  that  no/not  car  can  drive
  'that I cannot drive a car.'

This suggestion is further supported by the fact that if the noun is also part of the verb cluster, as in (255), it is niet that must be used. Note that in these examples there is again a tendency to spell the collocations as single words.

Example 255
a. dat ik niet kan pianospelen.
  that  not  can  piano.play
  'that I canʼt play the piano'
a'. * dat ik kan geen piano spelen.
  that  can  no piano  play
b. dat ik niet kan autorijden.
  that  not  can  car.drive
  'that I cannot drive a car.'
b'. * dat ik kan geen auto rijden.
  that  can  no car  drive

Section, sub I, has shown that topicalization of the main verb cannot strand the noun but must pied-pipe it. The examples in (256) show that topicalization of the N+V collocation is excluded with geen and strands the negative adverb niet in its original position. This suggests that the examples in (256) are related to those in (255a&b), in which the N+V collocation behave like a single word, rather than to those in (254) where they are clearly construed independently and the nouns form a constituent with the negative article geen.

Example 256
a. Pianospelen kan ik niet.
  piano.play  can  not
a'. * Geen piano spelen kan ik.
b. Autorijden kan ik niet.
  car.drive  can  not
b'. * Geen auto rijden kan ik.

This fact that geen forms a syntactic constituent with the nouns piano/auto again suggests that geen cannot be the result of fusion of niet and een: nouns like piano/auto never feature an indefinite article in N+V collocations, nor are they likely to have a null determiner; they are truly bare nouns, which nonetheless can still be combined with geen.

[+]  II.  Geen and personal pronouns and proper nouns

It is impossible for geen to combine directly with personal pronouns; in (257), we have illustrated this for the plural pronouns. An exception must be made, however, for the doubly-primed examples in which geen is followed by a case-inflected form of the pronoun. These forms are relics from older stages of the language and belong to the formal register; in present-day Dutch the partitive constructions in the singly-primed examples would be used.

Example 257
a. * geen wij/ons
  no  we/us
a'. geen van ons
  none of us
a''. $ geen onzer
  none usgen
b. * geen jullie/u
  no  you pl/polite
b'. geen van jullie/u
  none of you pl/polite
b''. $ geen uwer
  none yougen
c. * geen zij/hen
  no  they/them
c'. geen van hen
  none of them
c''. $ geen hunner
  none themgen

       Geen does normally not appear with proper nouns referring to persons, although a somewhat special case was discussed in Section, sub III. Nevertheless, geographical proper nouns can sometimes be construed with geen, particularly in contexts in which they are premodified by some adjective, as illustrated in the (a)-examples of (258). Another instantiation of the combination of proper nouns with geen is formed by the names of languages, as in the (b)-examples of (258). In the (a)-examples geen can be replaced with niet een, whereas in the (b)-examples only geen is possible.

Example 258
a. De Denen willen eigenlijk helemaal geen ?(verenigd) Europa.
  the Danish  want  actually  altogether  no united Europe
a'. België wil geen ?(tweede) Italië worden.
  Belgium  wants  no second Italy  become
b. Ik spreek geen Züritüütsch.
  speak  no Swiss-German
b'. Dat is geen Nederlands.
  that  is no Dutch
[+]  III.  Restrictions on accompanying determiners and quantificational elements

This subsection investigates the restrictions that geen poses on other elements within the noun phrase, such as determiners, quantificational elements and attributive adjectives.

[+]  A.  Determiners

We can be brief about the distribution of definite articles and demonstrative and possessive pronouns. We have already seen in Section, sub II, that noun phrases containing geen are normally indefinite, as is evident, e.g., from the fact illustrated in (259) that they readily occur as the subject in expletive constructions.

Example 259
Er staat geen paard in de gang.
  there  stands  no horse  in the hall

Since geen is not possible in definite noun phrases, it will not come as a surprise that geen cannot be combined with noun phrases which feature a definite article or a demonstrative/possessive pronoun (changing the order does not affect the judgments).

Example 260
a. * de/die/mijn geen stad/steden
  the/that/my  no  town/towns
b. * het/dat/mijn geen huis
  the/that/my  no  house

      It is also impossible for geen to combine with noun phrases containing the indefinite article een, regardless of whether it precedes or follows geen. This would of course follow from the “fusion” approach to geen since there are no noun phrases which feature multiple instances of the indefinite article: *een een stad (lit.: an a city). But by essentially the same token, the deviance of (261) also follows from an approach to geen as an atomic indefinite quantifier; multiple specification of indefiniteness on a single noun phrase is also impossible: *een één of andere stad and *een enige steden (lit.: a some towns).

Example 261
* <een> geen <een> stad
  no  town

      Some speakers report that they allow geen to precede noun phrases featuring the indefinite determiner-like elements dat/dit/zulk soort'that/this/such sort of', as in (262a). Such examples are, however, extremely rare on the internet: we only found two or three examples with dit and zulk. We did, however, find substantial numbers of examples such as (262b) with zulke/dergelijke'such'. Examples like these seem to be rejected by speakers of Standard Dutch.

Example 262
a. % Ik heb helaas geen dat/dit/zulk soort dingen in voorraad.
  have  unfortunately  no  that/this/such  sort [of] things  in store
  'Unfortunately, I have no such things in store.'
b. % Ik heb helaas geen zulke/dergelijke dingen in voorraad.
  have  unfortunately  no  such  things  in store

      Of course, the co-occurrence restrictions discussed in this subsection would immediately follow if geen is analyzed as an article, and hence competes for the same position occupied by the articles and the demonstrative and possessive pronouns. We have seen in the introduction to this section on geen, however, that we should not to jump to conclusions, since geen also exhibits various properties of numerals and quantifiers; cf. the discussion of the examples in (204) in the introduction to Section 5.1.5.

[+]  B.  Quantifiers and numerals

Apart from the cases in which geen seems to act as a degree modifier, discussed in Section, sub IIID, geen does not seem to readily combine with numerals, with the exception of cases in which some presupposition is denied. So, when someone is accused of having eaten five cakes, he may react by saying something like (263a). A more or lesss similar construction is given in (263b), which can often be heard in markets.

Example 263
a. Ik heb geen vijf koeken opgegeten, maar slechts twee!
  have  no  five cakes  prt.-eaten  but  only two
  'I didnʼt eat five cakes; Iʼve had only two.'
b. Dit alles kost geen tien, geen zeven, geen zes, maar slechts vijf eurootjes!
  this all   costs  no ten,  no seven,  no six,  but  only five eurosdim
  'And all this doesnʼt cost ten, seven, or six, but only five euros!'

Quantifiers never co-occur with geen. The following examples are all ungrammatical, regardless of the order of geen and the quantifier, although examples such as geen één/enkele'not a single' may be considered an exception; cf. Section, sub IIIA.

Example 264
a. * geen enige ellende
  no  some  misery
b. * geen elke/iedere stad
  no  every  town
c. * geen veel ellende/steden
  no  much/many  misery/towns
c'. * geen weinig ellende/steden
  no  little/few  misery/towns
[+]  C.  Geen preceding attributive adjectives, and inflection

Geen can readily be construed with noun phrases premodified by attributive adjectives. As shown in Section, sub IC, it is even possible for geen in examples such as (265a) to be semantically associated not with the noun phrase as a whole but just with the adjective. Example (265a) is ambiguous between the two niet paraphrases in (265b&c); on the (265b) reading geen is semantically construed with the entire noun phrase, while on the interpretation corresponding to (265c) geen is semantically associated to the attributive adjective geringe.

Example 265
a. Dat is geen geringe prestatie.
  that  is  no insignificant accomplishment
b. Dat is niet een geringe prestatie.
  that  is  not  an insignificant accomplishment
c. Dat is een niet geringe prestatie.
  that  is  not insignificant  accomplishment

Regardless of whether it semantically teams up with the adjective or with the noun phrase as a whole, the distribution of adjectival inflection is determined by the gender features of the head noun in the same way as in indefinite noun phrases headed by the indefinite articles een/Ø.

Example 266
a. geen/een gering-*(e) prestatie
  no/an  insignificant  accomplishment
b. geen/een gering-(*e) resultaat
  no/an  insignificant  result
c. geen/∅ gering-*(e) prestaties/resultaten
  no  insignificant  accomplishments/results

Note that in the singular examples geen must be taken to be syntactically construed with the noun phrase as a whole, given that count noun phrases like prestatie and resultaat normally cannot be determinerless: *Dat is prestatie/resultaat. Hence, even if geen negates only the content of the attributive adjective, it is still a syntactic part of the noun phrase as a whole. This tallies with the fact that geen cannot, in fact, form a constituent with an adjective: *Dat is geen gering'that is no insignificant'.

  • Booij, Geert2010Construction morphologyOxford/New YorkOxford University Press
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