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1.2.1. Main and non-main verbs

This section discusses the distinction between main and non-main verbs, subsections I and II will consider a number of semantic and syntactic criteria that can be used to establish to what class a specific verb belongs. Despite the fact that speakers normally have clear intuitions about the dividing line between the two groups of verbs, Section 4.6 will show that this line is not always as sharp as one may think and that there are many cases in which one cannot immediately tell whether we are dealing with a main or a non-main verb.

[+]  I.  Main verbs

The set of main verbs can be characterized semantically by the fact that they function as n-place predicates that denote certain states of affairs; see Section 1.2.3 for a more detailed discussion of the latter notion, which is a cover term for states and several types of events.

Example 12
a. lachen : lachen (x) 'to laugh'
b. lezen : lezen (x,y) 'to read'
c. vertellen : vertellen (x,y,z) 'to tell'

This semantic property is reflected syntactically by the fact that main verbs normally function as argument-taking heads of clauses. That main verbs function as the head of their clause is clear from the fact that they are normally indispensable; the primeless examples in (13) would normally not be recognizable as clauses without the verb. The arguments of the verbs are of course needed in order to express a proposition, but they are not as indispensable as the verb. This will be clear from the fact that the imperatives in the primed examples are completely acceptable despite the fact that the arguments of the verb remain implicit.

Example 13
a. Marie *(lacht).
  Marie   laughs
  'Marie is laughing.'
a'. Lach!
b. Jan *(leest) het boek.
  Jan    reads  the book
  'Jan is reading the book.'
b'. Lees nou maar!
  read  now  prt
  'Just read it!'
c. Jan *(vertelde) me het verhaal.
  Jan     told  me the story
  'Jan told me the story.'
c'. Vertel op!
  tell  prt
  'Tell me!'

That main verbs function as the semantic heads of clauses is also clear from the fact that clauses contain at most a single main verb; sentences that contain more than one main verb are normally construed as involving more than one clause. The examples in (14), for instance, are cases of embedding: the bracketed phrases function as embedded direct object clauses of the matrix verbs vermoeden'to suspect' and vertellen'to tell'.

Example 14
a. Marie vermoedt [dat Jan het boek leest].
  Marie suspects   that  Jan the book reads
  'Marie suspects that Jan is reading the book.'
b. Jan vertelde me [dat Marie morgen komt].
  Jan told  me   that  Marie tomorrow  comes
  'Jan told me that Marie will come tomorrow.'

      Given that copular verbs can occur as the single verb of a clause, they are normally also considered main verbs even though they do not meet the semantic criterion of denoting states of affairs; they are not n-place predicates on a par with the predicates in (12) but instead resemble the non-main verbs discussed in the next subsection in that they express specific temporal, aspectual or modal notions. The copular verb zijn in (15a), for example, situates the state expressed by the proposition ill(Jan) in a particular position on the time axis by carrying a tense marking ±past: the present tense marking on is in (15a) expresses that the state of Jan being ill holds at the speech time. The copulas worden and blijven in (15b) in addition express aspectual information: worden'to become' is mutative in that it indicates that Jan is in the process of obtaining the state of being ill; blijven'to stay' is in a sense the opposite of worden in that it expresses that the state of Jan being ill continues to exist. Copular verbs like lijken'to appear' or blijken'to turn out' in (15c) are modal in nature given that these examples specify the attitude of the speaker with respect to the truth value of the proposition.

Example 15
Copular verbs
a. Jan is ziek.
  Jan is ill
b. Jan wordt/blijft ziek.
  Jan becomes/stays  ill
  'Jan is getting/continues to be ill.'
c. Jan lijkt/blijkt ziek.
  Jan seems/turns.out  ill
  'Jan seems/turns out to be ill.'
[+]  II.  Non-main verbs

Although the distinction between main and non-main verbs seems to be relatively clear-cut, it is not easy to provide an operational definition of the distinction, so it is not surprising that grammars on Dutch may differ in where they draw the dividing line between the two categories. Like many other Dutch grammars, Haeseryn et al. (1997:46) assume that main verbs are predicative, that is, "express the core meaning of the verbal complex", whereas non-main verbs function as modifiers that provide supplementary information; they give the verb types in (16) as typical examples of non-main verbs. In order to fully appreciate what follows, it is necessary to point out that we used the term verbal complex in the quotation above as a translation of the Dutch notion werkwoordelijk gezegde from traditional grammar, which cannot readily be translated in English.

Example 16
a. Perfect auxiliaries: hebben'to have', zijn'to be'
b. Passive auxiliary: worden'to be'
c. Modal verbs: kunnen'can', moeten'must', mogen'may', willen'want'

Haeseryn et al. (1997:47) try to use the essentially semantic characterization of main and non-main verbs to provide an operational definition in syntactic terms. The crucial criterion they mention is that any verbal complex contains exactly one main verb. When we apply this criterion to a perfect tense or passive example, this characterization goes in two ways: if we assume that the participles in (17) are main verbs, we should conclude that the temporal/passive auxiliaries are non-main verbs; if we assume that temporal/passive auxiliaries are non-main verbs, we should conclude that the participles are main verbs.

Example 17
a. Jan heeft de kat geaaid.
  Jan has  the cat  petted
  'Jan has petted the cat.'
b. De kat wordt geaaid.
  the cat  is  petted

The one-main-verb criterion implies that main verbs crucially differ from non-main verbs in that they may but do not need to combine with other verbs into a verbal complex, whereas non-main verbs must always be combined with some other verb. This seems to work fine in the case of the examples in (17): the verb aaien'to pet' may indeed occur as the verbal head of a clause, whereas the temporal and passive auxiliaries cannot (although one must keep in mind that hebben can be used as a main verb meaning "to have/possess" and worden can also be used as a main verb if it is used as a copular expressing "to become", hence the number sign).

Example 18
a. Jan aait de kat.
  Jan pets  the cat
  'Jan is petting the cat.'
b. #Jan heeft/wordt de kat.
  Jan has/becomes  the cat

One may also welcome the one-main-verb criterion since it coincides nicely with our intuition that we are dealing with two predicational relationships in examples such as (19) and, hence, that it consists of two verbal complexes. That the verb horen'to hear' functions as a separate predicate can also be made visible by pronominalization of the italicized phrase in (19a); since horen is the only verb in (19b), it must be a main verb.

Example 19
a. Jan hoorde Marie haar auto starten.
  Jan heard  Marie  her car  start
  'Jan heard Marie start her car.'
b. Jan hoorde dat.
  Jan heard  that

However, if we apply the same test to the examples in (20), we have to conclude that modal verbs like moeten'must' and mogen'may' are main verbs as well. This means that we can only maintain the claim that modal verbs are non-main verbs if we claim that clauses with modal verbs are exceptions the general rule that non-main verbs must be combined with a main verb; see Klooster (2001:55) for discussion.

Example 20
a. Jan kan/moet/mag/wil zijn werk inleveren.
  Jan can/must/may/wants.to  his work  hand.in
  'Jan can/must/may/wants to hand in his work.'
b. Jan kan/moet/mag/wil dat.
  Jan can/must/may/wants  that
  'Jan can/must/may/wants to do that.'

There are many difficulties with maintaining that modal verbs are non-main verbs. First, it means we should assume that whereas example (19a) contains two separate verbal complexes, example (20a) consists of just one single verbal complex. Since there is to our knowledge no syntactic evidence to support this, adopting this conclusion voids the notion of verbal complex from any empirical content. For example, the embedded clauses in (21) show that the finite and non-finite verbs in (19a) and (20a) are part of a single verbal complex: the structure exhibits monoclausal behavior in the sense that the arguments of the infinitive must precede the finite verb in clause-final position (in the Northern varieties of Dutch).

Example 21
a. dat Jan <Marie haar auto> hoorde <*Marie haar auto> starten.
  that  Jan    Marie  her car  heard  start
  'that Jan heard Marie start her car.'
b. dat Jan <zijn werk> moet/mag <*zijn werk> inleveren.
  that  Jan    his work  must/may  hand.in
  'that Jan must/may hand in his work.'

For English it may perhaps be argued that modals like can are non-main verbs because they are like perfect auxiliaries in that they can precede negation and may undergo inversion with the subject in, e.g., questions (although this may also be a side effect of the accidental morphological property of modal verbs that they do not have an infinitival form, as is clear from * to can, as a result of which they are incompatible with do-support). See Quirk et al. (1979:120ff) and Huddleston & Pullum (2002:92ff.) for reviews of the criteria that are often used for distinguishing English auxiliaries, and Palmer (2001:100) for a more specific discussion of the English modal verbs.

Example 22
a. John cannot lift this table.
b. Can John lift this table?

In Dutch, however, there is no such syntactic evidence to indicate that the modal verbs in (16c) differ from that of run-of-the-mill main verbs; the only difference is that modal verbs have a defective present tense paradigm (there is no -t ending on the second and third person, singular forms). For this reason, we will not follow the characterization of the distinction of main and non-main verbs in Haeseryn et al. but simply assume that any verb must be considered a main verb that is predicative (has an argument structure) and can thus function as the head of a clause on its own; this reduces the set of non-main verbs by excluding, e.g., modal verbs like moeten'must'. See Section 4.6 for a more detailed discussion of the distinction between main and non-main verbs.

  • Huddleston, Rodney & Pullum, Geoffrey (eds.)2002The Cambridge grammar of the English languageCambridgeCambridge University Press
  • Haeseryn, Walter, Romijn, Kirsten, Geerts, Guido, Rooij, Jaap de & Toorn, Maarten C. van den1997Algemene Nederlandse spraakkunstGroningenNijhoff
  • Haeseryn, Walter, Romijn, Kirsten, Geerts, Guido, Rooij, Jaap de & Toorn, Maarten C. van den1997Algemene Nederlandse spraakkunstGroningenNijhoff
  • Klooster, Wim2001Grammatica van het hedendaags Nederlands. Een volledig overzichtDen HaagSDU Uitgeverij
  • Palmer, F.R2001Mood and ModalityCambridge University Press
  • Quirk, Randolph, Greenbaum, Sidney, Leech, Geoffrey & Svartvik, Jan1979A grammar of comtemporary EnglishLondonLongman
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