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[+]  I.  Adverbial approximative modifiers

Cardinal numerals can be readily modified by two types of adverbial phrases: those of the first type are approximative modifiers, which indicate that the cardinality expressed by the numeral is approximately correct, and those of the second type indicate that the cardinality is precise. Examples of the former are bijna'nearly', circa'about', ongeveer'approximately', ruim'over', and zowat'about'; examples of the latter are precies'exactly' and exact'exactly'.

Example 46
a. Jan heeft bijna/ongeveer/ruim duizend boeken.
  Jan has  nearly/about/over  thousand  books
  'Jan has nearly/about/over a thousand books.'
b. Jan heeft precies/exact duizend boeken.
  Jan has  exactly/exactly  thousand  books
  'Jan has exactly a thousand books.'

Normally, approximate modifiers are only used with fairly round figures. Without further context, it would sound weird to say something like (47a), since using the numeral negenhonderd en zevenennegentig (997) suggests that the speaker is able to give the precise number of books involved so that the modifier is superfluous; examples such as (47a) are only felicitous if it is known from the context that, for some reason, Jan aims at collecting precisely 997 books. This restriction does not hold, however, in cases such as (47b), where the noun can also be preceded by fractions. So bijna negenhonderd en zevenennegentig euro'nearly nine hundred and ninety seven euro' could refer to, e.g., an amount of €996.89.

Example 47
a. $ Jan heeft bijna/ongeveer/ruim negenhonderd en zevenennegentig boeken.
  Jan has  nearly/about/over  nine hundred and ninety seven  books
b. Jan heeft bijna/ongeveer/ruim negenhonderd en zevenennegentig euro.
  Jan has  nearly/about/over  nine hundred and ninety seven  euro
[+]  II.  Approximative constructions introduced by the spurious article een

The use of approximative adverbial phrases is not the only way of expressing the notion of approximation. Dutch has available an ample variety of means to express this notion. The examples in (48), for example, show that there is a small set of adjectives that can have this function; like the approximative adverbs, they precede the numeral they modify.

Example 48
a. een kleine honderd boeken
  small  hundred  books
  'slightly less than a hundred books'
b. een dikke/goede honderd boeken
  fat/good  hundred  books
  'somewhat more than a hundred books'

The examples in (48) seem related to (49a) where no adjective is used and a “spurious” indefinite article expresses the meaning “approximately” all by itself; the adjectives in (48) can probably be seen as modifiers that make the approximative reading in (49a) more specific. Although some examples can be found on the internet, it seems to us that the adjectives in (48) cannot readily be added to example (49b), in which the indefinite article is replaced by the spurious non-D-linked demonstrative zoʼn: %zoʼn kleine/dikke honderd boeken. Note further that the approximative reading of een and zoʼn can be enhanced by using a juxtaposition of two numerals, as in the primed examples.

Example 49
a. een honderd boeken
  hundred  books
  'about a hundred books'
a'. een zes, zeven euro
  six  seven euro
  'about six or seven euro'
b. zoʼn honderd boeken
  such.a  hundred  books
  'about a hundred books'
b'. zoʼn zes, zeven euro
  such.a  six  seven euro
  'about six or seven euro'

The suggestion that the adjectives in (48) modify the meaning expressed by the spurious indefinite article receives more support from the fact, shown in (50), that the indefinite article cannot be replaced by a definite one, which suggest that the adjectives do not express an approximative meaning all by themselves.

Example 50
a. * de kleine honderd boeken
  the  small  hundred  books
b. * de dikke/goede honderd boeken
  the  fat/good  hundred  books

However, Haeseryn et al. (1997) note that the adjectives dik and goed in (48b) are also used without the article een in spoken language. Although examples such as (51a) sound marked to us, especially with goed, they can readily be found on the internet. We therefore conclude that, at least for speakers who accept and produce these examples, these adjectives do express an approximative meaning all by themselves. This does not hold for klein, however; (51b) is certainly not acceptable.

Example 51
a. % dik/goed honderd boeken
b. * klein honderd boeken

      The constructions in (49) seem to alternate with the constructions in (52), where the numeral is expressed in a postnominal of-phrase. It is not clear to what word class of belongs; normally, of is used as a conjunction or as an interrogative complementizer, but neither of these functions seems appropriate for characterizing it in these examples. Note further that it is not possible in constructions like these to add an approximative modifier, but the approximative reading can be enhanced by using numerals in juxtaposition.

Example 52
a. een boek of honderd
  book  of hundred
  'about a hundred books'
a'. een euro of zes, zeven
  an  euro of  six  seven
  'about six or seven euros'
b. zoʼn boek of honderd
  such.a  book  of hundred
  'about a hundred books'
b'. zoʼn euro of zes, zeven
  such.a  euro of  six  seven
  'about six or seven euros'

      Example (53a) is yet another way of expressing the same meaning. The noun phrase een stuk of honderd in this construction seems to have more or lesss the same structure as the phrase in (52a) and functions as a complex numeral modifying the noun boeken. According to our own intuition, zoʼn is impossible in this construction, although examples such as (53b) can be found on the internet (although een stuk of occurs about 700 times as often as zoʼn stuk of); we therefore marked it with “%”.

Example 53
a. [[een stuk of honderd] boeken]
  a piece  of  hundred  books
  'about a hundred books'
b. % zoʼn stuk of honderd boeken
  such.a piece  of  hundred books
  'about a hundred books'

Despite the fact that the examples in (52a) and (53a) express more or lesss the same meaning, they exhibit rather different syntactic behavior. The first difference involves subject-verb agreement. Since the noun preceding the numeral in (52) is singular, it need not surprise us that this noun phrase triggers singular agreement on the verb in (54a), although plural agreement seems possible for some speakers. Example (54b), on the other hand, shows that this is different with the noun phrase in (53a); the finite verb does not agree with the singular noun stuk, but with the plural noun boeken, a phenomenon that is common in several types of binominal constructions; cf. Section 4.1.1.

Example 54
a. Er staat/%staan een boek of honderd in de kast.
  there  stands/stand  a book  of  hundred  in the bookcase
b. Er staan/*?staat een stuk of honderd boeken in de kast.
  there  stand/stands  a piece  of  hundred  books  in the bookcase

The second difference concerns modification of the noun. The examples in (55) show that the noun boek can be modified if it is part of the structure in (53a), but not if it is part of the structure in (52a).

Example 55
a. een (*interessant) boek of honderd
  an     interesting  book  of  hundred
b. een stuk of honderd interessante boeken
  a piece  of  hundred  interesting books

The third difference is illustrated in (56) and concerns the fact that the numeral can be replaced by the modifier wat'some' in (53a), whereas this is impossible in (52a).

Example 56
a. * een boek of wat
  book  of some
b. een stuk of wat boeken
  a piece  of some  books
  'some books'
[+]  III.  Approximative constructions introduced by a spurious preposition

A totally different way of expressing an approximative meaning is by using a PP headed by, e.g., the prepositions rond, tegen or over (other prepositions are also possible; cf. Section, sub II), which must be followed by the definite article de. Both the preposition and the definite article are spurious given that the PP behaves like an indefinite noun phrase, which is clear from the fact, illustrated in (57), that the “PP” may function as a subject (it triggers agreement on the finite verb) in an expletive construction.

Example 57
a. Er staat rond de duizend euro op mijn spaarrekening.
  there  stands  around  the thousand euro  on my savings account
  'There is about a thousand euro on my savings account.'
b. Er zitten/*zit tegen de duizend leerlingen op deze school.
  there  sit/sits  against  the thousand pupils  at this school
  'There are nearly one thousand students at this school.'
[+]  IV.  Modifiers indicating an upper or lower bound

So far, most of the modification constructions express an approximative meaning. There are, however, other modifiers which convey that the cardinality expressed by the numeral is an upper or a lower bound. Modifiers that indicate that the cardinality expressed by the numeral is an upper bound are given in (58a), and modifiers that indicate a lower bound in (58b).

Example 58
a. hoogstens/ten hoogste/hooguit/maximaal veertig boeken
  at.most  forty books
  'at most forty books'
b. minstens/tenminste/minimaal/zeker veertig boeken
  at.least  forty books
  'at least forty books'

Similar meanings can be expressed by means of the comparative phrases meer/minder dan + NP'more/less than + NP' in (59a). This example raises the question as to whether the quantifier meer modifies the numeral or whether it is the numeral that modifies meer. The latter analysis can be supported by claiming that a comparative is normally modified by means of a dan-phrase. However, this particular use of the dan-phrase, shown in (59a), would be special in that it must precede the modified noun, and cannot follow it. As illustrated in (59b), dan-phrases used as modifiers of comparatives do not normally precede the modified noun. This fact may be given in support of the former analysis, according to which it is the comparative that modifies the numeral; see (182) in Section 6.2.5 for similar constructions with degree quantifiers.

Example 59
a. Zij heeft meer/minder <dan veertig> boeken <*dan veertig>.
  she  has  more/less    than forty  books
b. Zijn heeft meer/minder <*dan Jan> boeken <dan Jan>.
  she  has  more/less      than Jan  books
[+]  V.  Some problematic cases

Some disputable cases of modification of the numeral are given in (60). One possibility is to assume that the postnominal phrase is a modifier of the prenominal numeral.

Example 60
a. Jan kreeg drie boeken meer/minder dan Peter.
  Jan received  three  books  more/less than Peter
b. Jan kreeg drie boeken te veel/weinig.
  Jan received  three books  too many/few
c. Jan kreeg drie boeken extra.
  Jan received  three  books  extra

Alternatively, one might argue that the noun phrase consisting of the numeral and the noun acts as a modifier of the postnominal phrase, that is, by assuming that the function of the noun phrase drie boeken is similar to that of the measure phrase drie centimeter in examples such as het zwembad is drie centimeter te lang'the swimming pool is three centimeters too long', where the noun phrase clearly modifies the AP (cf. Section A3.1.4, sub II). A characteristic of these nominal measure phrases is that they can be separated from the phrase they modify by means of wh-movement: Hoeveel centimeteri is het zwembad [AP ti te lang]?'How many centimeters is the swimming pool too long?' Since the noun phrases in (60) exhibit the same property, it seems plausible that they, too, act as modifiers.

Example 61
a. Hoeveel boekeni kreeg Jan [APti meer/minder dan Peter].
  how.many books  received  Jan  more/less  than Peter
b. Hoeveel boekeni kreeg Jan [APti te veel/weinig].
  how.many books  received  Jan  too many/few
c. Hoeveel boekeni kreeg Jan [APti extra].
  how.many books  received  Jan  extra

Note that the noun phrase drie boeken can be omitted in the examples in (60a&b), which seems to support the analysis suggested in (61). The fact that this is not readily possible in example (60c), however, constitutes a potential problem for the suggested analysis.

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