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8.1.4. Subject noun phrases in the expletive construction
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Expletive constructions are typically used to introduce a new entity into the domain of discourse. Generally speaking, these constructions are only possible if the subject is an indefinite or weak noun phrase; this is normally referred to as the definiteness effect. This is illustrated in(70): whereas the expletive construction with the indefinite noun phrase een man in (70a) is perfect, the corresponding construction with the definite noun phrase de man in (70b) is ungrammatical.

Example 70
a. Er staat een man voor de deur.
  there  stands  a man  in.front.of  the door
b. * Er staat de man voor de deur.
  there  stands  the man  in.front.of  the door

It is, however, not correct to claim that definite noun phrases are categorically excluded in the expletive construction. If the expletive construction contains a definite subject that is explicitly marked as introducing a new “topic”, the result is acceptable. This marking typically involves the adjective volgende'following', which is used to announce a list of “new” topics, as in (71a&b). Another option that seems to favor this construction is the adverb nog in (71b&b'). Note that examples such as (71b') are also possible with noun phrases introduced by the distal demonstrative pronoun, but not with the proximate one; this is discussed in Section 5.2.3.2, sub IIB.

Example 71
a. Er waren de volgende gastsprekers op de conferentie: ...
  there  were  the following invited.speakers  at the conference
b. .. en dan zijn er nog de volgende problemen: ten eerste, ...
  .. and  then  are  there  still  the following problems  first
  '.. and then we still have the following problems: first ...'
b'. .. maar dan/nu is er ook nog het probleem van de afvalverwerking.
  .. but  then/now  is there  also  still  the problem of the waste disposal
  '.. but then/now we still have the problem of waste disposal.'

It is generally assumed that the expletive er occupies the canonical subject position, and that the indefinite subject occupies some lower position in the clause, presumably its base-position within the VP. If so, the expletive construction is just another case (in addition to scrambling) that shows that indefinite noun phrases resist leftward movement within the middle field of the clause.

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[+]  I.  Specific/nonspecific readings

The indefinite noun phrase in an expletive construction can either be specific or nonspecific. The most plausible reading of (72a) is the one where the speaker is not able to identify the person in question, whereas the most plausible reading of (72b) is that at least the speaker is able to identify the person in question in discourse. These examples also show that the nonspecific indefinite noun phrase in (72a) must follow the adverb, that is, cannot be scrambled. The specific one in (72b), on the other hand, can more readily be placed in the position in front of the adverb, which indicates that it can at least marginally be scrambled. In the case of a quantifier like iemand'someone' in (72c), scrambling is even the normal means to make the distinction between the two interpretations: if the quantifier follows the adverb, it is preferably construed as nonspecific, whereas it must be construed specifically if it precedes it.

Example 72
a. Er is <*een man> gisteren <een man> overreden.
  there  is      a man  yesterday  run.over
  'A man was run over yesterday.'
b. Er is <?een broer van mij> gisteren <een broer van mij> overreden.
  there  is      a brother of mine  yesterday  run.over
c. Er is <iemand> gisteren <iemand> overreden.
  there  is  someone  yesterday  run.over

      The examples in (73) show that the nonspecific indefinite noun phrase is not commonly used without the expletive, whereas the specific one can be used without the expletive. For completeness’ sake, note that we have put aside the fact that in some varieties of Dutch, examples such as (73a) are also acceptable without the expletive; we are only discussing the varieties here that do not allow this.

Example 73
a. Gisteren is *(er) een man overreden.
b. Gisteren is (er) een broer van mij overreden.
c. Gisteren is (er) iemand overreden.

It should be noted, however, that the expletive is sensitive not only to the type of its subject, but also to the presence or absence of some presupposition in the clause; cf. Bennis (1986). Consider the examples in (74). In (74a) the adverbial phrase voor mijn huis follows the indefinite subject and is construed as part of the focus of the clause: since there is no other presupposition, the expletive must be realized. However, if the adverbial phrase precedes the subject, it can (but need not) be construed as the presupposition of the clause; if it is, the expletive may be dropped.

Example 74
a. Gisteren is *(er) een man voor mijn huis overreden.
  yesterday  is  there  a man  in.front.of  my house  run.over
  'Yesterday, a man was run over in front of my house.'
b. Gisteren is (er) voor mijn huis een man overreden.

Something similar can be observed in (75). Although for some unknown reason (75a) is perhaps somewhat marked on a nonspecific interpretation of the subject, it seems that this reading does require the expletive to be present, which is consistent with the fact that the object is preferably interpreted as a nonspecific indefinite noun phrase. In (75b), which may again be somewhat marked on a nonspecific interpretation of the subject, the expletive can be readily left out; this is related to the fact that the definite object het boek can (but need not) be interpreted as part of the presupposition of the clause. In (75c), which readily allows a nonspecific interpretation of the subject, the expletive cannot be used, which is due to the fact that the object pronoun het must be construed as part of the presupposition of the clause; see Broekhuis (2007/2008) for more discussion.

Example 75
a. dat ?(er) een man een boek gekocht heeft.
  that  there  a man  a book  bought  has
b. dat (?er) een man het boek gekocht heeft.
  that  there  a man  the book  bought  has
c. dat (*er) een man het gekocht heeft.
  that  there  a man  it  bought  has

      From the data in (73) to (75), we may conclude that, in the absence of a presupposition, the expletive must be realized if the subject is nonspecific. An exception must be made, however, for nonspecific indefinite noun phrases modified by certain attributive adjectives or restrictive relative clauses. The primed examples in (76) show that they can be placed in the regular subject position, that is, the position occupied by the expletive in the primeless examples. Probably, the attributive adjective/relative clause makes the noun phrase sufficiently specific to occupy this position.

Example 76
a. Daarna werd er nog een tachtig jaar oude man binnengelaten.
  after.that  was  there  prt  an eighty year old man  prt.-admitted
a'. Daarna werd een tachtig jaar oude man nog binnengelaten.
b. Daarna werd er nog een man die te laat kwam binnengelaten.
  after.that  was  there  prt  a man  who  too late  came  prt.-admitted
b'. Daarna werd een man die te laat kwam nog binnengelaten.

The examples in (77) show that modified noun phrases are even preferably placed in the regular subject position if the clause contains sentential negation. Note that these examples should not be confused with examples such as Er is een tachtig jaar oude man niet goed geworden'An eighty year old man became unwell', where the negative adverb is construed with the adjectival predicate. In these cases we are probably dealing with constituent negation ( niet goed'not well'onwel'ill').

Example 77
a. ? Er werd een tachtig jaar oude man niet binnengelaten.
  there  was  an eighty year old man  not  prt.-admitted
a'. Een tachtig jaar oude man werd niet binnengelaten.
b. ?? Er werd een man die te laat kwam niet binnengelaten.
  there  was  a man  who  too late  came  not  prt.-admitted
b'. Een man die te laat kwam, werd niet binnengelaten.

      A second exception involves examples in which the head of the indefinite subject receives contrastive accent. So whereas an indefinite subject like een man in (78a) normally cannot occur without the expletive, it can occur without it if the noun man is contrastively stressed, as in (78a'). If the noun phrase contains a numeral or quantifier, as in (78b), the expletive may also be dropped if contrastive accent is assigned to the numeral/quantifier, although in this case the noun phrase is likely to receive a partitive reading; cf. De Hoop (1992).

Example 78
a. *? Een man is gearresteerd.
  a man  has.been  arrested
a'. Een man is gearresteerd (niet een vrouw).
  a man  has.been  arrested   not a woman
b. Er zijn twee studenten gearresteerd.
  there  are  two students  arrested
  'Two students are arrested.'
b'. Twee studenten zijn gearresteerd (niet drie).
  two students  are  arrested   not three
  'Two (of the) students are arrested.'
[+]  II.  Partitive/non-partitive readings

That nonspecific indefinite noun phrases are normally preferably introduced by an expletive is also clear from the fact that such noun phrases may invoke special semantics when they occur in the regular subject position. Consider the (a)-examples in (79). Example (79a) merely claims that some student was arrested. If the indefinite noun phrase is placed in regular subject position, the indefinite article is preferably stressed so that we cannot immediately observe whether we are dealing with the article or the numeral één'one'. The preferred reading of the primed example is a partitive one: it is claimed that a certain student from a contextually determined set of students was arrested — the interpretation of the indefinite noun phrase comes rather close to één van de studenten'one of the students'; cf. Section 4.1.1.6, sub I. The (b)-examples in (79) show that the same phenomenon can be found in cases that unambiguously involve a numeral or a quantifier.

Example 79
a. Er is gisteren een student gearresteerd.
  there  is yesterday  a student  arrested
  'A student was arrested yesterday.'
a'. Eén student is gisteren gearresteerd.
b. Er zijn gisteren twee/enkele studenten gearresteerd.
  there  were  yesterday  two/some students  arrested
  'Two/some students were arrested yesterday.'
b'. Twee/enkele studenten zijn gisteren gearresteerd.
  two/some students  were  yesterday  arrested
  'Two/some of the students were arrested yesterday.'

As we noted above, it cannot be immediately be observed whether we are dealing in (79a') with the indefinite article or the numeral één'one'. The fact illustrated in (80) that the indefinite plural noun phrase studenten cannot occur in the regular subject position suggests the latter. This supports our earlier conclusion that unmodified nonspecific indefinite noun phrases normally cannot occur in regular subject position.

Example 80
a. Er zijn gisteren [NP studenten] gearresteerd.
  there  are  yesterday  students  arrested
  'Students were arrested yesterday.'
b. *? [NP ∅ Studenten] zijn gisteren gearresteerd.
[+]  III.  Generic/non-generic readings

A further difference between the expletive construction and the construction with the indefinite noun phrase in the regular subject position is that the noun phrase can never be interpreted generically in the former. Consider the examples in (81): the indefinite noun phrase in the expletive construction in (81a) cannot be interpreted generically, whereas example (81b) must be construed generically. The difference can be made clearer by putting the examples in the past tense: (81a') is still acceptable and expresses that it used to be the case that some hippo was lying in the water; (81b'), on the other hand, is weird since it suggests that hippos in general have changed their habit of normally lying in the water. Note that (81b') becomes acceptable on a specific or partitive interpretation if we stress een: it used to be the case that a certain hippo or one of the hippos was lying in the water.

Example 81
a. Er ligt meestal een nijlpaard in het water.
  there  lies  generally  a hippopotamus  in the water
a'. Er lag meestal een nijlpaard in het water.
  there  lay  generally  a hippopotamus  in the water
b. Een nijlpaard ligt meestal in het water.
  a hippopotamus  lies  generally  in the water
b'. % Een nijlpaard lag meestal in het water.
  a hippopotamus  lay  generally  in the water

The examples in (82) show that the same pattern arises in the case of plural indefinite noun phrases. Again, the primed (b)-example is unacceptable due to non-syntactic factors, given that it suggests that hippos in general have changed their habit of normally lying in the water.

Example 82
a. Er liggen meestal [NP ∅ nijlpaarden] in het water.
  there  lie  generally  ∅ hippopotami  in the water
a'. Er lagen meestal [NP ∅ nijlpaarden] in het water.
  there  lay  generally  ∅ hippopotami  in the water
b. [NP ∅ Nijlpaarden] liggen meestal in het water.
  ∅ hippopotami  lie  generally  in the water
b'. % [NP ∅ Nijlpaarden] lagen meestal in het water.
  ∅ hippopotami  lay  generally  in the water

Summarizing, we can say that (unmodified) nonspecific indefinite subjects introduced by the indefinite article een/∅ must normally be part of an expletive construction. Specific indefinite subjects, on the other hand, may either be part of an expletive construction or occupy the regular subject position. Indefinite subjects with a partitive or generic interpretation, finally, cannot occur in an expletive construction but must occupy the regular subject position.

Example 83
Filler of the regular subject position
  subject expletive
nonspecific indefinite subject +
specific indefinite subject + +
partitive/generic indefinite subject +

      To conclude this section on the expletive construction we want to mention that narratives pose an exception to the general rule that nonspecific indefinite noun phrases headed by an indefinite article do not occur in the regular subject position. A story might well begin as in (84), where the function of the noun phrase een man is clearly to introduce some new discourse entity without the implication that the speakers would be able to uniquely identify the intended referent. The sentence in (84) is acceptable only if the discourse is continued with a story about this person sitting in the waiting room.

Example 84
Een man zit in de wachtkamer bij de dokter en ...
  a man  sits  in the waiting.room of the doctor  and
'A man is sitting in the waiting room of the doctor, and ...'
References:
  • Bennis, Hans1986Gaps and dummiesDordrechtForis Publications
  • Broekhuis, Hans2007Subject shift and object shiftJournal of Comparative Germanic Linguistics10109-141
  • Broekhuis, Hans2008Derivations and evaluations: object shift in the Germanic languagesStudies in Generative GrammarBerlin/New YorkMouton de Gruyter
  • Hoop, Helen de1992Case configuration and noun phrase interpretationGroningenUniversity of GroningenThesis
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