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7.2.1.Syntactic functions and properties

The partitive genitive construction consists of an indefinite nominal-like element and an adjective ending in -s: iets bijzonders'something special' (although the -s ending has been reported to be increasingly omitted in the standard variety of Dutch spoken in Belgium; see taaladvies.net/taal/advies/vraag/1317). That the nominal and the adjectival part constitute a syntactic unit is clear from the fact that they can be placed in clause-initial position (the constituency test), although it should be noted that, due to the indefinite nonspecific interpretation of the whole construction, this triggers a contrastive interpretation. This is illustrated in (21a). Other constituency tests, like contrastive left dislocation in (21b) and coordination in (21c), also have a positive result.

a. [Iets groens] heb je voor de deur nodig (en [iets blauws] voor de kozijnen).
  something green  have  you  for the door  need  and  something blue  for the frames
  'You need something green for the door (and something blue for the frames).'
b. [Iets groens] dat heb je voor de deur nodig.
  something green  that  have  you  for the door  need
  'Something green, that is what you need for the door.'
c. Je hebt [[iets groens] en [iets roods]] nodig.
  you  have    something  green  and   something  red  need
  'You need something green and something red.'

That the two parts of the partitive genitive construction form a constituent is also supported by the fact that they are always strictly adjacent to each other, that is, they cannot be split by means of movement. This is illustrated in (22).

a. Hij heeft toen iets ellendigs meegemaakt.
  he  has  then  something terrible  prt.-experienced
  'Something terrible happened to him.'
b. * Hij heeft toen iets meegemaakt ellendigs.
c. * Iets heeft hij toen ellendigs meegemaakt.

There are various reasons for assuming that the nominal part functions as the syntactic head of the partitive genitive construction. The arguments in the subsections below are mainly based on the similarity in behavior between indefinite noun phrases and the partitive genitive construction.

[+]  I.  Partitive genitive constructions trigger singular agreement on verb

With respect to agreement with the finite verb, the partitive genitive construction behaves like the nominal part of the construction in isolation: it triggers singular agreement. This is illustrated in (23).

a. Er is/*zijn [iets spannends] gebeurd.
  there  is/are  something  exciting  happened
  'Something exciting has happened.'
a'. Er is/*zijn iets gebeurd.
  there  is/are  something  happened
  'Something has happened.'
b. Er staat/*staan [iets grappigs] op het bord.
  there  stands/stand   something  funny  on the blackboard
  'Something (funny) is written on the blackboard.'
b'. Er staat/*staan iets op het bord.
  there  stands/stand  something  on the blackboard
  'Something is written on the blackboard.'
[+]  II.  Partitive genitive constructions are indefinite

The presence of the expletive er'there' in example (23) from the previous subsection shows that both the quantificational pronoun iets and the partitive genitive construction can be nonspecific (cf. also the discussion of (21a)); in general, only nonspecific indefinite subjects license expletive er. If expletive er is not present, the partitive genitive construction is given a specific or a generic interpretation, just as is the case with other indefinite subjects. This is illustrated in (24): on its specific interpretation in (24a), which is marginal for some speakers, the partitive genitive construction refers to a certain exciting thing known to the speaker; on its generic reading in (24b), which is fully acceptable for all speakers, the sentence expresses that any exciting thing would be welcome.

a. % Iets spannends is gebeurd.
  something exciting  has  happened
b. Iets spannends is altijd welkom.
  something exciting  is always  welcome
[+]  III.  Partitive genitive constructions can be modified by a relative clause

Like other noun phrases, partitive genitive constructions can be modified by means of a relative clause. The examples in (25) show that relative clauses can also modify the quantificational pronoun (n)iets, that is, the partitive genitive adjective need not be present.

a. Jan heeft iets (handigs) [dat je daarvoor kan gebruiken].
  Jan has  something   handy   that  you  therefore  can  use
  'Jan has something handy that you can use for that.'
b. Ik heb niets (warms) [om aan te trekken].
  have  nothing   warm  comp  on  to put
  'I have nothing (warm) to wear.'

Note in passing that it is not the case that all clauses that follow the partitive genitive construction modify the noun phrase as a whole. Comparative dan-clauses, for example, follow the noun phrase as well, but since they are dependent on the comparative -er morpheme on the adjective, the adjective is obligatorily present. Something similar holds for intensifying phrases licensed by the modifier te.

a. iets *(harders) [dan ik had gedacht]
  something     harder   than  had  thought
b. iets *(?te leuks) [om waar te zijn]
  something      too nice  comp  true  to be
  'Something too nice to be true.'
[+]  IV.  Partitive genitive constructions occurs in most regular NP-positions

The fact that the partitive genitive construction may occur in most regular NP-positions has already been illustrated for the subject and object positions in (23) and (21), respectively. In (27), this is illustrated for the prepositional object position: (27a) involves a prepositional complement of the verb and (27b) an adverbial adjunct.

a. Zij zocht naar iets spannends in de bibliotheek.
  she looked  for something exciting  in the library
b. Zij liep met iets zwaars de trap op.
  she  walked  with something heavy  the stairs  up
  'She climbed the stairs with something heavy.'

Partitive genitive constructions are not readily used as indirect objects, which is related to the fact that indirect objects generally refer to +animate entities or institutions, whereas the partitive genitive construction generally refers to -animate entities; cf. the discussion of the examples in (57) to (62). Some relatively acceptable examples are given in (28), in which the partitive genitive construction refers to some sort of institution.

a. ? Hij heeft iets vaags al zijn geld geschonken.
  he  has  something vague  all his money  given
  'He gave all his money to something vague.'
b. ? Hij heeft al zijn geld aan iets liefdadigs geschonken.
  he  has  all his money  to something charitable  given
  'He gave all his money to charity.'
[+]  V.  Conclusion

Given the similarity in syntactic behavior and distribution between indefinite noun phrases and the partitive genitive construction, it seems safe to conclude that the quantificational pronoun iets is the head of the complex construction. This of course coincides with the fact that the partitive genitive adjective cannot be used in isolation in the NP-positions in (21) to (27); the noun iets is obligatorily present in these examples (see the discussion of (4)). The fact that the partitive genitive construction is headed by the indefinite noun does not imply, however, that it is always possible to omit the adjective; omitting the adjective in (29a&b), for example, causes the example to be less acceptable under the intended reading. The fact that the two (c)-examples are fully acceptable shows, however, that something special is going on in the (a)- and (b)-examples.

a. Ik denk niet graag aan iets naars.
  think  not gladly about  something  nasty
  'I donʼt like to think about something nasty.'
a'. ?? Ik denk niet graag aan iets.
b. Je kan bij deze mensen niet met iets goedkoops aankomen.
  one  can  at these people  not  with  something  cheap  prt.-arrive
  'One cannot give these people something cheap.'
b'. *? Je kan bij deze mensen niet met iets aankomen.
c. Jan dacht aan iets (naars).
  Jan thought  about  something  nasty
c'. Jan dacht aan iets.

The difference in acceptability between (29a'&b') and (29c') is probably related to the presence of the sentential negation in the first two examples. The examples in (30) show that the quantificational pronoun iets'something' normally cannot be preceded by the sentential negator niet'not'; instead, the negative pronoun niets'nothing' is used.

a. *? Ik zie niet iets.
  see  not  something
b. Ik zie niets.
  see  nothing

If we apply the same merging rule to (29a'), we get the result in (31a). However, this structure expresses constituent negation, and not sentential negation. In order to express sentential negation, the negative noun phrase must be moved into the position that is otherwise occupied by the negative marker; cf. the discussion of the examples in (67) in Section 2.3.1, sub IIB2. This can be done can by applying R-pronominalization and R-extraction. This results in the acceptable structure in (31a'), and for the same reason, (29b') surfaces as (31b).

a. Ik denk graag aan niets.
  think  gladly  about nothing
  'I like to think about trivial things.'
a'. Ik denk nergens graag aan.
  think  nowhere  gladly  about
  'I donʼt like to think about anything.'
b. Je kan (bij deze mensen) nergens mee aankomen.
  one  can   at these people  nowhere  with  prt.-arrive
  'One cannot give (these people) anything.'

The fact that the sentential negator is possible in (29a&b) may be related to the fact that R-pronominalization is not possible if the pronoun is part of a larger phrase: the examples in (32) are therefore ungrammatical, and this leaves us with (29a&b) as the only means to express the intended meanings. This may account for the contrast in acceptability between (29a'&b') and (29c').

a. * Ik denk nergensi graag aan [ti naars].
  think  nowhere  gladly  about  nasty
b. * Je kan (bij deze mensen) nergens mee [ti goedkoops] aankomen.
  one  can   at these people  nowhere  with  cheap  prt.-arrive
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