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8.2.3. Copular constructions with a singular neuter pronoun as subject

This section concludes the discussion of nominal complementives with a look at of copular constructions such as (126), which have given rise to a debate about whether the neuter pronoun het/dat/dit or the noun phrase aardige jongens functions as subject of the construction. In our discussion below, we will use examples headed by the copula zijn'to be', but such constructions also occur witbh other copulas like worden'become' or blijven'to stay'.

Example 126
a. Het is een aardige jongen.
  it  is  a nice boy
a'. Het zijn aardige jongens.
  it  are  nice boys
b. Dat/Dit is een aardige jongen.
  that/this is a nice boy
b'. Dat/Dit zijn aardige jongens.
  that/this  are  nice boys

Bos (1961), following De Groot (1949:153), argued that it is the noun phrase that functions as subject and the pronoun that functions as predicate. One reason is that the finite verb in the primed examples in (126) agrees in number with the plural noun phrase, not with the singular pronoun; the examples in (127) show that plural agreement is normally not possible if the pronoun het/dat/dit functions as subject of an adjectival or prepositional copular construction.

Example 127
a. Het/Dit/Dat is/*zijn kapot.
  it/this/that  is/are  broken
b. Het/Dit/Dat is/*zijn in de tuin.
  it/this/that  is/are  in the garden

Another reason for assuming that the pronouns function as predicates is that if the nominal predicate is replaced by a pronoun, the latter will appear in its nominal form; this cannot, of course, be shown for the second person, plural pronoun given that the subject and object form are identical.

Example 128
a. Dat ben ik/*mij.
  that am I/me
a'. Dat zijn wij/*ons.
  that are we/us
b. Dat ben jij/*jou.
  that are you/you
b'. Dat zijn jullie.
  that are you
c. Dat is zij/*haar.
  that is she/her
c'. Dat zijn zij/*hen.
  that are they/them

      The claim that the pronouns in (126) function as predicates of the copular constructions was challenged by Merckens (1961), who argued that these examples are actually ambiguous. This is illustrated by the examples in (129), the meanings of which will become clear from the English translations. The function of the left-dislocated constituents in these and the following examples is to force the intended subject/predicate reading on the pronoun dat.

Example 129
a. Jan en Piet, dat zijn aardige jongens.
dat = subject
  Jan and Piet  that  are  nice boys
  'Jan and Piet are nice boys.'
b. Behulpzaam, dat zijn aardige jongens.
dat = predicate
  helpful that are nice boys
  'Nice boys are helpful.'

The same ambiguity is apparent from embedded clauses like those in (130). given that subject pronouns are normally right-adjacent to the complementizer and predicates left-adjacent to the verbs in clause-final position; cf. Ik vind dat dat mooi is'I think that that is beautiful' versus *Ik vind dat mooi dat is. This means that dat functions as a subject in (130a) and as a predicate in (130b). The primed examples show that this conclusion is supported by the interpretation of these examples.

Example 130
a. Jan en Piet, ik denk dat dat aardige jongens zijn.
dat = subject
  Jan and Piet  think  that  that  nice boys  are
a'. * Behulpzaam, ik denk dat dat aardige jongens zijn.
  helpful  think  that  that  nice boys  are
b. Behulpzaam, ik denk dat aardige jongens dat zijn.
dat = predicate
  helpful  think  that  nice boys  that  are
b. * Jan en Piet, ik denk dat aardige jongens dat zijn.
  Jan and Piet  think  that  nice boys  that  are

A similar contrast can be found in yes- no questions, where the subject pronoun normally appears right-adjacent to the verb in sentence initial position: Is dat mooi?'Is that beautiful?' versus *Is mooi dat?. This means that dat functions as a subject in (131a) and as a predicate in (131b). The primed examples show again that this conclusion is supported by the interpretation of these examples.

Example 131
a. Jan en Piet, zijn dat aardige jongens?
dat = subject
  Jan and Piet,  are  that  nice boys
a'. * Behulpzaam, zijn dat aardige jongens?
  helpful are  that  nice boys
b. Behulpzaam, zijn aardige jongens dat?
dat = predicate
  helpful  are  nice boys  that
b'. * Jan en Piet, zijn aardige jongens dat?
  Jan and Piet  are  nice boys  that

A piece of indirect evidence not mentioned by Merckens in favor of the claim that we are dealing with ambiguous structures is provided by the vinden-constructions in (132). Given that the complementive always follows its logical subject in the middle field of the clause, the fact that both orders are possible in (132) show that dat may function either as the subject or as the complementive of the construction; again this is supported by the interpretations of these examples.

Example 132
a. Marie zal [SC dat aardige jongens] vinden.
dat = subject
  Marie will  that  nice boys  consider
b. Marie zal [SC aardige jongens dat] vinden.
dat = predicate
  Marie will  nice boys  that  consider

A final piece of evidence involves pronominalization. Consider the discourse chunk in (133), in which participant B is backing up participant Aʼs claim that Jan and Piet are nice boys. In Bʼs reaction the noun phrase aardige jongens is not replaced by the referential personal pronoun zij, as would be expected if this noun phrase were the subject of the sentence, but by dat, as would normally be the case when we are dealing with a predicate. Observe that the copula is plural in this case despite the fact that normally the pronouns het and dat are both syntactically singular.

Example 133
a. Het zijn aardige jongens.
speaker A
  it  are  nice boys
b. Dat zijn het zeker!
speaker B
  that are  it  for.sure

The discussion above has conclusively shown that Bos’ claim that the neuter pronouns in the copular constructions in (126) can only function as the predicate of the construction cannot be maintained; the structures are syntactically ambiguous in the sense that the pronoun can function either as the subject or as the predicate of the copular construction. In fact, there is even reason for assuming that, due to its sentence-initial position, the pronoun het'it' in example (126a) must be interpreted as the subject of the copular construction. The reason for this is that sentence-initial het normally functions as subject; the object pronoun het, for example, cannot be topicalized as will be clear from the grammaticality contrast between Hij zag het'He saw it' and *Het zag hij. The (b)-examples in (134) show that the ban on topicalization also holds for het if it functions as a complementive; whereas the primeless example is ungrammatical with, the corresponding primed example without topicalization is fully acceptable (although perhaps less preferred than its counterpart with dat, which is indicated here with a question mark.

Example 134
a. Jan en Piet, dat/het zijn aardige jongens.
dat/ he t = subject
  Jan and Piet  that/it  are  nice boys
  'Jan and Piet are nice boys.'
b. * Behulpzaam, day/*het zijn aardige jongens.
dat/ he t = predicate
  helpful that/it  are  nice boys
b'. Behulpzaam, aardige jongens zijn dat/ ?het.
dat/ he t = predicate
  helpful nice boys  are  that/it

      The remainder of this section will pinpoint some special properties of the copular construction under discussion. We have already seen in (126) and (127) that the predicate must be nominal; adjectival and prepositional complementives are excluded. The contrast between the primeless and primed examples in (135) show, however, that it is not the case that any nominal predicate can be used: whereas the predicate can either contain an article or be bare if the subject is a noun phrase or a regular pronoun, the pronouns het, dat, and dit require that an article be present.

Example 135
a. Jan/Hij is een aardige jongen.
  Jan/he  is a kind person
a'. Het/Dat/Dit is een aardige jongen.
  it/that/this  is a nice boy
b. Jan/Hij is leraar.
  Jan/he  is teacher.
  'Jan is a teacher.'
b'. * Het/Dat/Dit is leraar.
  it/that/this  is teacher

The examples in (127) show again that although the pronouns het, dit and dat are syntactically singular, the examples in (136) can be used to refer to sets of entities.

Example 136
a. Jan, dat is een aardige jongen.
  Jan  that  is a nice boy
b. Jan en Peter, dat zijn aardige jongens.
  Jan and Peter  that  are  nice boys

Although the pronouns het, dit and dat are syntactically neuter, they can be used to refer to non-neuter antecedents. This is already clear from example (136a) but even more conspicuous in examples such as (137a) where the predicate does agree in gender with the antecedent of the pronoun dat. For completeness’ sake, (137b) provides an example in which the antecedent differs both in number and gender from the pronoun dat.

Example 137
a. De snelste auto, dat is deze/die.
  the fastest car  that  is this.one/that.one
b. De snelste autoʼs, dat zijn deze/die.
  'the fastest cars that are this.one/that.one'

In the examples above, the antecedent of the neuter pronoun is referential in the sense that it denotes a (possibly singleton) set of entities. The examples in (138) show that the antecedent can also be generic, although it seems that the indefinite generic noun phrase in (138c) is somewhat marked.

Example 138
a. De walvis, dat is een zoogdier.
  the whale  that  is  a mammal
b. Walvissen, dat zijn zoogdieren.
  whales  that  are  mammals
c. ? Een walvis, dat is een zoogdier.
  a whale that  is  a mammal

The markedness of (138c) may be related to the fact that examples in which the antecedent of the neuter pronoun is quantified are also marked; whereas the generic example in (139a) is fully acceptable, the corresponding quantificational construction in (139b) is degraded.

Example 139
a. Katten, dat zijn leuke huisdieren.
  Cats  that  are  nice pets
b. ?? Sommige/alle katten, dat zijn leuke huisdieren.
  some/all cats  that  are  nice pets
  • Bos, G.F1961"Dat zijn kooplieden"De Nieuwe Taalgids5423-27
  • Groot, A.W. de1949Structurele Syntaxis (2nd impression, 1965)Den HaagServire
  • Merckens, P.J1961Zijn dat Kooplieden of Zijn kooplieden dat?De Nieuwe Taalgids54153-154
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