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1.1. General characterization

This section gives a brief and general characterization of Dutch verbs and verb phrases by means of some of their more conspicuous properties. We do not aim at providing an exhaustive list of properties so the discussion will necessarily be sketchy and incomplete. Nevertheless, the information provided here will help the reader to identify Dutch verbs and to gain some basic insights into their semantic, morphological and syntactic behavior, subsection I will begin by introducing the distinction between main and non-main verbs and by discussing the semantic contribution each type makes to their clauses, subsection II will show that verbs are morphologically characterized by their inflection: finite verbs agree with the subjects of their clauses and are marked for ±past tense, subsection III, finally, will show that verbs are also characterized by their position within the clause; non-finite verbs are normally placed in the right periphery of their clause and typically follow their nominal arguments; finite verbs also occupy the right periphery of embedded clauses but are typically placed in the so-called second position of main clauses.

[+]  I.  Semantic characterization

It is very hard to provide a watertight semantic characterization of the category of verbs due to the fact that verbs fall into two main groups with quite distinctive semantic properties: main and non-main verbs. Main verbs can be characterized as verbs denoting specific states of affairs in which one or more participants are involved, that is, they can be semantically characterized as n-place predicates in the sense of predicate calculus. Verbs thus function as the semantic heads of their clause and form propositions by combining with one or more argument(s).

Example 1
a. Jan lacht .
  Jan laughs
  'Jan is laughing.'
a'. lachen (Jan)
b. Jan leest het boek.
  Jan reads  the book
  'Jan is reading the book.'
b'. lezen (Jan, het boek)
c. Jan vertelt het verhaal aan Els.
  Jan tells  the story to Els
  'Jan is telling the story to Els.'
c'. vertellen (Jan, het verhaal, Els)

Non-main verbs do not function as predicates in the sense of predicate calculus: the perfect auxiliaries hebben'to have' and zijn'to be', aspectual verbs like gaan'to go' and modal verbs like willen'to want' are not (or at least not primarily) argument taking predicates, but instead add additional information to the proposition expressed by the main verb and its arguments: the auxiliary hebben in (2a) expresses that the event of Jan reading the book was completed before the speech time, and the aspectual verb gaan in (2b) focuses on the starting point of the event of Jan reading the book.

Example 2
a. Jan heeft het boek gelezen.
  Jan has  the book  read
  'Jan has read the book.'
b. Jan gaat het boek lezen.
aspectual verb
  Jan goes  the book  read
  'Jan is going to read the book.'

Since it is difficult, if not impossible, to find a semantic characterization of verbs that can be applied equally well to both main and non-main verbs, it seems advisable to look elsewhere in order to find a proper characterization of the category of verbs, and Subsections II and III will show that morphology and syntax provide better means of characterizing this set. We return to the semantic properties of verbs as well as the distinction between main and non-main verbs in Section 1.2.

[+]  II.  Morphological characterization

Verbs are characterized by the fact that they can be inflected in certain particular ways. We will restrict ourselves here to the inflection of finite verbs, which can be either main or non-main verbs; for more extensive discussion of verbal inflection, see Section 1.3. Finite verbs are characterized by the fact that they agree in person and number with the subject of their clause and can be marked for ±past tense. Table 1 provides the finite inflection of the so-called regular (or weak) verbs. A note on the translations given in this table may be in order: Dutch present and past tenses have different conditions on their use than the English present and past tenses. Here we provide translations that correspond to the (default) progressive reading of the simple present/past forms; we refer the reader to Section 1.5 for a detailed discussion of the actual use of the Dutch tenses.

Table 1: Regular finite inflection
  present past
  singular plural singular plural
1p Ik huil-Ø
'I am crying'
Wij huil-en
'We are crying'
Ik huil-de
'I was crying'
Wij huil-de-n
'We were crying'
2p Jij huil-t
'You are crying'
Jullie huil-en
'You are crying'
Jij huil-de
'You were crying'
Jullie huil-de-n
'You were crying'
3p Hij huil-t
'He is crying'
Zij huil-en
'They are crying'
Hij huil-de
'He was crying'
Zij huil-de-n
'They were crying'

Table 1 shows that past tense is expressed by means of the affix -de, which must be directly adjacent to the verb stem. This marker has the allomorph -te, which appears if the verb stem ends in a voiceless consonant: Ik vis-te'I was fishing', ik pak-te een koekje'I took a cookie', etc. Table 1 also shows that there are two agreement markers in Dutch. First, we find the invariant plural marker -en, which is phonologically reduced to -n after the past suffix -te/-de. Second, we find the singular marker -t for second and third person subject; there is no morphologically realized affix for first person, singular agreement. Besides the regular pattern in Table 1 there are a number of irregular patterns, which will be discussed in Section 1.3; here we just wanted to highlight the fact that exhibiting finite inflection is sufficient for concluding that we are dealing with a verb.

[+]  III.  Syntactic characterization

Verbs are also characterized by their position in the clause; main verbs always occur in the right periphery of embedded clauses and typically follow the nominal arguments in the clause. Note, however, that verbs must be followed by clausal complements and can optionally be followed by, e.g., PP-complements; the claim that verbs are in the right periphery of the clause must therefore not be construed as a claim that verbs are the rightmost elements in the clause. Nevertheless the literature normally refers to the main verbs in (3) as clause-final verbs or verbs in clause-final position.

Example 3
a. dat Jan het boek leest.
  that  Jan  the book  reads
  'that Jan is reading the book.'
b. dat Jan mij vertelde [dat hij ziek is].
  that  Jan me  told   that  he  ill  is
  'that Jan told me that he is ill.'
c. dat Jan <op Peter> wacht <op Peter>.
  that  Jan    for Peter  waits
  'that Jan is waiting for Peter.'

The examples in (4) show that non-main verbs like auxiliaries and aspectual verbs are also clause-final in embedded clauses.

Example 4
a. dat Jan het boek gelezen heeft.
  that  Jan the book  read  has
  'that Jan has read the book.'
b. dat Jan dat boek gaat lezen.
  that  Jan  that book  goes  read
  'that Jan is going to read the book.'

In the Northern varieties of Standard Dutch, clause-final non-main verbs behave like main verbs in that they normally follow the nominal arguments of the clause, but this does not hold for the Southern varieties; in particular, the varieties spoken in Belgium allow nominal arguments to intervene between modal/aspectual verbs and the main verbs. Another complicating factor is that other elements, like certain particles and predicative phrases, also tend to be placed in the right periphery of the clause.

Example 5
a. dat Jan <dat boek> wil <*dat boek> lezen.
Northern Standard Dutch
  that  Jan    that book  want  read
  'that Jan wants to read the book.'
b. dat Jan <dat boek> wil <dat boek> lezen.
Southern Standard Dutch
  that  Jan    that book  want  read
  'that Jan wants to read the book.'

      Non-finite verbs also occupy a clause-final position in main clauses. This is illustrated in (6a) for the past participle gelezen'read' and in (6b) for the infinitive lezen'read'.

Example 6
a. Jan heeft dat boek gelezen.
  Jan has  that book  read
b. Jan wil dat boek lezen.
  Jan wants  that book  read

Finite verbs, on the other hand, do not. In yes/no-questions, for example, they occupy the first position of the clause. This is illustrated in the examples in (7), which are often referred to as verb-first (V1) sentences.

Example 7
a. Geef jij Marie morgen dat boek?
  give  you  Marie tomorrow  that book
  'Will you give Marie the book tomorrow?'
b. Wil jij Marie morgen dat boek geven?
  want  you  Marie tomorrow  that book  give
  'Are you willing to give Marie the book tomorrow?'

In wh-questions the finite verb occupies the so-called second position of the clause, that is, the position after the preposed wh-phrase. This is illustrated in the examples in (8), which are often referred to as verb-second (V2) sentences.

Example 8
a. Welk boek geef je Marie morgen?
  which book  give  you  Marie  tomorrow
  'Which book will you give to Marie tomorrow?'
b. Welk boek wil je Marie morgen geven?
  which book  want  you  Marie tomorrow  give
  'Which book do you want to give to Marie tomorrow?'

In declarative clauses the finite verb likewise occupies the second position, that is, the position immediately after a clause-initial subject or some topicalized phrase. This is illustrated by the V2-sentences in (9); the (a)-examples are subject-initial sentences and the (b)-examples involve topicalization.

Example 9
a. Jan geeft Marie morgen het boek.
  Jan gives  Marie tomorrow  the book
  'Jan will give Marie the book tomorrow.'
a'. Jan wil Marie morgen het boek geven.
  Jan wants  Marie tomorrow  the book give
  'Jan wants to give Marie the book tomorrow.'
b. Morgen geeft Jan Marie het boek.
  tomorrow  gives Jan Marie the book
  'Tomorrow Jan will give Marie the book.'
b'. Morgen wil Jan Marie het boek geven.
  tomorrow  wants  Jan Marie the book  give
  'Tomorrow Jan wants to give Marie the book.'

Note in passing that the technical notions verb-first and verb-second are used in strict opposition to the notion verb-final. This leads to the somewhat strange conclusion that certain verbs that are in final position of a clause do not count as verb-final but as verb-first or verb-second. For example, main clauses such as (10a) consisting of no more than an intransitive verb and its subject do not count as verb-final clauses in the technical sense given that the verb must appear in second position if more material is added; this is shown in (10b).

Example 10
a. Jan wandelt.
  Jan walks
  'Jan is walking.'
b. Jan <*graag> wandelt <graag>.
  Jan     gladly  walks
  'Jan likes to walk.'

If a verb occupies the first or second position in main clauses, this is normally sufficient to conclude that this element is a (finite) verb. The global structure of main clauses is therefore as indicated in (11), in which XP refers to the clause-initial constituent that we find in declarative clauses and wh-questions; NP, PP, and Clause refer to complements selected by the verb; the dots, finally, stand for an indeterminate number of other constituents. For a more detailed discussion of word order in clauses, we refer the reader to Section 9.1.

Example 11
(XP) V[+finite] ..... (NP/PP) V[-finite] (PP/Clause) ....
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