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Adjectival inflection

Adjectives in Dutch can be used attributively or predicatively. In attributive position they precede the noun, as in een snelle eter a fast eater, in predicative position, they follow the verb, as in hij eet snel he eats fast. In their attributive function adjectives mark gender and number in agreement with the noun they modify. Compare, for example, the suffixed adjective that occurs with the common gender noun straat street in (1b) and the unsuffixed adjective occurring with neuter singular kind child in (1a). In definite contexts, the suffixed form is used with nouns of both genders and with plural nouns (see (1c) to (1e)). Adjectives with a predicative function are invariantly unsuffixed ((1f) to (1h)).

a. een klein kind
INDF.SG small child.N
a small child
b. een lang-e straat
INDF.SG long-SUFF street.C
a long street
c. het klein-e kind
DEF.SG.N small-SUFF child.N
the small child
d. de lang-e straat
DEF.SG.C long-SUFF street.C
the long street
e. lang-e strat-en
long.SUFF street.PL
long streets
f. het kind is klein
DEF.SG.N child.N be.3SG small
the child is small
g. de straat is lang
DEF.SG.C street.C be.3SG long
the street is long
h. de strat-en zijn lang
DEF.PL street.PL be.3PL long
the streets are long

Adjectives can be morphologically simplex (blauw blue) or complex. Complex adjectives are either compounds (eeuwen-oud age-old) or derivations (grapp-ig funny, from the noun grap joke) or indeed both (drie-hoek-ig three-corner-ed triangular).

Many adjectives show three degrees: licht light, lichter lighter, lichtst lightest. Moreover, adjectives can be intensified by compounding, as in kei-hard rock hard, pik-donker pitch dark or mier-zoet saccharine, cloyingly sweet.


Most adjectives can be used attributively and predicatively, but some are restricted to one of these contexts. For example, material adjectives such as ijzeren iron or plastic plastic can only be used within an NP, i.e. attributively: een ijzeren ring an iron ring, but not *de ring is ijzeren the ring is iron(in contrast to the English equivalent, ijzeren is unambiguously an adjective). Similar restrictions hold for relational adjectives such as vaderlands national and ouderlijk parental, as well as for temporal and spatial adjectives such as vierdaags four-day of maandelijks monthly. Maandelijks can appear adverbially in constructions such as het blad verschijnt maandelijks the paper appears monthly, but less readily as a proper predicate after a copula, as in ?het blad is maandelijks the paper is monthly.

Conversely, there are adjectives that do not occur attributively. Examples are:

a. braak liggen/braakliggen
fallow lay
to lay fallow
b. kwijt raken/kwijtraken
rid get
to lose
c. opgewassen zijn tegen
equal be to
be equal to, be up to, be able to cope with
d. het spoor bijster zijn
the track rid be
to be on the wrong track
e. bek-af
tired, knackered
f. on-wel
unwell, ill

See E-ANS for a more extensive list.

Attributive variants such as *de brake grond the fallow ground (though: de braakliggende grond), *de kwijte sok the lost sock (though: de kwijtgeraakte sok), *de opgewassen medewerker the colleague able to cope, *de bekaffe sporter the tired sportsman, het onwelle meisje the unwell girl do not occur (though kwijt very occasionally intrudes upon attributive terrain). The reason may be that the adjectives in question belong to a particular verb or a fixed expression (this holds for the first four examples).

[+]Contextual inflection: agreement in adjectives

Adjectives in attributive position agree with their head nouns in gender and number. This is an instance of contextual inflection. Expression of gender and number on the adjective is dependent on other elements in the noun phrase: a definite determiner or a possessive pronoun always causes the adjective to take the suffix –e, irrespective of the properties of the noun. Suffixless adjectives occur after indefinite articles with nouns that are neuter and singular.


There are more attributive elements that require the adjective to be unsuffixed when it modifies a neuter and singular noun: geen no, één one, genoeg enough,veel a lot of, weinig a little, wat a little, een beetje a little, ieder every, any, elk every, any, enig any, some, menig many a, zeker certain, zo'n such a, zulk een such a, wat een what a, wat voor een what kind of, welk which.

a. een klein kind
INDF.SG small child.N
a small child
b. een lang-e straat
INDF.SG long-SUFF street.C
a long street
c. het klein-e kind
DEF.SG.N small-SUFF child.N
the small child
d. de lang-e straat
DEF.SG.C long-SUFF street.C
the long street

Adjectives ending in /ən/, whether suffixal or not, do not take schwa. This means that adjectives based on participles of irregular verbs (gebonden soep bound soup creamy soup, gebroken gezin broken family) are inflectionally invariant. The reason is probably phonological: Dutch disprefers sequences of unstressed syllables ((Booij 1998)).

a. het open boek
DEF.SG.N open book.N
the open book
b. het houten paard
DEF.SG.N wooden horse.N
the wooden horse

This rule partly overlaps with another, which is semantic in nature: adjectives that denote materials do not take schwa, either. While many of these end in /ən/ and can therefore be accounted for by the phonological rule, the generalization also holds for material adjectives without /ən/, such as plastic plastic. In still other cases, the restriction is phonological again: /ə/ is blocked in loanwords ending in a vowel. Cases in point are lila purple, albino albino, sexy sexy. Predicative adjectives do not agree, so they are always morphologically invariant.

a. het kind is klein
DEF.SG.N child.N is small
the child is small
b. de straat is lang
DEF.SG.C street.N is long
the street is long

There are a small number of adjectives that do not inflect. These are the words linker left and rechter right, standaard standard and doorsnee average and a small cluster of words ending in –bloed blood: halfbloed half-blood, half-breed, volbloed full-blood, thoroughbred, warmbloed warm-blooded, crossbreed, koudbloed coldblood, underbred. The question is whether these are true adjectives. An alternative interpretation is that they constitute the left part of a nominal compound. Indeed, many combinations are spelled as a single word: linkerarm left arm, rechterhand right hand, standaarduitrusting standard equipment, doorsneegezin average family, volbloedpaard thoroughbred (horse). Standaard and doorsnee, however, can occur predicatively, as in dit is ontzettend standaard this is awfully standard or dit is erg doorsnee this is very average. Similar issues arise with three further contexts in which attributive adjectives lack the expected schwa. All three can be explained by semantics rather than by morphology or phonology. First, the schwa is absent in adjective-noun combinations denoting a specific profession or function. Note that this holds for the singular and the plural:

a. controlerend geneesheer/geneesheren
controlling physician.SG/PL
medical officer/officers
b. toegepast taalkundige/taalkundigen
applied linguist.SG/PL
applied linguist/linguists

Such combinations can be interpreted as AN-compounds, which explains the uninflected adjective. Yet, they have certain phrasal aspects. First, their stress pattern (main stress on the noun) is that of nominal phrases, and not that of AN-compounds (main stress on the left constituent) (Schultink 1962, Blom 1994, but cf. Odijk 1993, provide a formal analysis of such combinations). Second, the A in such constructions can be complex, unlike in normal compounds with adjectives in the left-hand position. Following the terminology in Booij (2010) such combinations might be termed “syntactic compounds”.

Schwa-less adjectives also occur in combination with singular nouns denoting persons (though in each case, suffixed adjectives are acceptable as well).

a. een wijs man
a wise man
b. een Frans filosoof
a French philosopher
c. een slecht docent
a bad teacher (someone who teaches badly)
d. een goed vader
a good father (someone who performs his duties as a father well)
e. een goed docente
a good female teacher (a woman who teaches well)
f. een begenadigd violiste
a gifted female violinist
g. *een goed moeder
a good mother

The construction is dispreferred for nouns that denote female persons but lack a feminizing suffix. As argued in Blom (1994), the semantic difference between the use of a schwa-less and schwa-bearing adjective is that in the former case, the property mentioned by the adjective is not a property of the individual referred to by the head noun, but modifies the stereotype associated with that noun. For instance, een goed vader a good father refers to someone who performs his role as a father well, it does not refer to a person, who is a father and is also good. Third, the inflectional schwa is also absent in AN-combinations with neuter nouns as head that function as names. Examples are

a. het oudheidkundig museum
the archeological museum
a.' *de oudheidkundig afdeling
the archeological department
b. het bijvoeglijk naamwoord
the adjective
b.' *de bijvoeglijk bijzin
the attributive clause

In such contexts, it is impossible to omit the inflectional schwa in the plural: *de oudheidkundig museums, de bijvoeglijk naamwoorden. Many of the AN-combinations in (8) are lexicalized names.

[+]Inherent inflection: expression of degree

There are three degrees of comparison: the positive or absolutive, the comparative and the superlative. This is an instantiation of inherent inflection, as it depends on communicative intentions rather than on the syntactic context. The positive is the citation form. Comparative and superlative are marked by the suffixes –er or –der and –st, respectively.

Table 1
positive comparative superlative
lang long langer longer langst longest


The distribution of –er versus –der in the comparative could be formulated as a condition on the input: –der always occurs with adjectives ending in /r/. However, the same fact can also be expressed as an output condition: –der is chosen in order to avoid the sequence /rər/. The latter account has the advantage that it lines up with the more general observation that /rər/ is dispreferred in Dutch anyway. This can be seen in the nominalizing suffix –er that also appears in allomorphic variants after /r/. For example, the verb leren to learn, to teach has the nouns leerder learner and leraar teacher, but not *lerer (but compare German Lehrerteacher).

In predicative use, the superlative is accompanied by the neuter definite article het: Jan is het langst John is the tallest, unless it agrees with an implicit common gender noun Jan is de langste (jongen/ man) John is the tallest (boy/ man).

Some adjectives express degree periphrastically by means of the preposed words meer more and meest most. This can have syntactic, morphological or phonological reasons. Syntactically, periphrastic equivalents are used for adjectives that do not appear in the attributive domain but only as predicates, such as bereid ready. Morphological reasons can be advanced for participles used as adjectives, such as onderschat underestimated. Such participial forms often express degree periphrastically. Finally, adjectives ending in /ə/, /s/, /sk/ or /st/ do not easily express degree affixally, but take periphrastic forms in the superlative in order to avoid awkward phonetic clusters (see table for an example). Last, but not least, there can be stratal preferences: non-native adjectives such as spectaculair spectacular often express degree periphrastically. In most cases, this is a matter of preferences rather than hard and fast rules. Indeed, tendencies may also differ between the comparative and the superlative of the same adjective.

Table 2
positive comparative superlative
bereid ready meer bereid more ready meest bereid most ready
vast fixed, solid vaster more fixed, more solid meest vast most fixed, most solid
spectaculair spectacular spectaculairder/meer spectaculair most spectacular spectaculairst/ meest spectaculair most spectacular

A few adjectives have suppletive forms for comparative and superlative.

Table 3
positive comparative superlative
goed good beter better best best
veel much, many meer more meest most
weinig few, a little minder less minst least

The superlative can be further intensified with the prefix aller-, as in allermooist most beautiful of all. Interestingly, such formations can be used attributively with an indefinite determiner, in which case they lose their superlative reading and just mean very.

Table 4
positive superlative indefinitve article + superlative
lief dear, sweet allerliefst dearest, sweetest een allerliefst meisje a very sweet girl
aardig nice, kind alleraardigst nicest, most kind een alleraardigst idee a charming idea (disparaging)

The expression of degree is restricted to gradable adjectives. For relational and absolute adjectives, comparation is blocked on semantic grounds, as these words denote a property which is either present or absent rather than present to a certain degree. This rules out *doder deader or *zwangerst most pregnant, but also *een buitenlandsere reis a more abroad journey or een taalkundiger project a more linguistic project.


If an absolute or relational adjective is used in the comparative or superlative, this forces a gradable reading. For relational adjectives, gradability involves prototypicality: Mijn tante zag er het Amerikaanst uit van allemaal My aunt looked the most American of all necessitates the interpretation the most prototypically American. The process of a formal operation imposing a particular reinterpretation on the stem has been termed type coercion (Pustejovsky 1993, 1995: 111). A similar effect occurs with cases such as het dodelijkste ongeluk the most fatal accident. As dodelijk fatal, lethal is non-gradable, the ordinary superlative interpretation is impossible. The superlative form therefore imposes a reinterpretation on the stem, which now means pertaining to the number of victims killed.

[+] Morphological potential: inflected adjectives as input for word formation and constructions

Degree forms of adjectives can feed word formation. The commonest are nominalizations in –e which use the positive, the comparative or the superlative as input:

Table 5
adjective degree form noun
klein small kleiner smaller de kleine the little one, the child
jong young jonger younger de jongere the youngster
mooi beautiful mooier more beautiful de mooiste the most beautiful (person)

Note the difference between the two genders: -e-nominalizations belonging to the common gender (and taking the definite article de) denote a person, while the same formation in the neuter gender (recognizable by the article het) refers to a thing. Other derivations using inflected adjectival forms are verbs with the prefix ver-.

Table 6
adjective degree form verb
erg bad erger worse verergeren to get worse
oud old ouder older verouderen to get older
goed good beter better verbeteren to get better

More information can be found in 't Hart and Cohen (1973), Aboh (2004), Axel (2009), Abraham (1996), Hoekstra (1992), Zec (1988), Van Bergen et al. (2010).

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  • Abraham, Werner1996'Ersatzinfinitiv' und Verbanhebung in der WestgermaniaPetersen, Adeline & Nielsen, Hans Frede (eds.)A Frisian and Germanic Miscellany. Published in Honour of Nils Århammar on his sixty-fifth birthday, 7 August 1996BredstedtOdense University Press; Nordfriisk Instituut273-295
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