• Dutch
  • Frisian
  • Saterfrisian
  • Afrikaans
Show all
1.2.2.Syntactic classification of main verbs

The main part of this section consists of developing a partly novel classification of main verbs based on the number and the type of arguments they take. Before we take up this issue in Subsection II, we will briefly introduce a number of basic notions and conventions that will be used in the discussion.

[+]  I.  Lexical properties of verbs

Like all lexical items, verbs have unpredictable properties (like the Saussurean arbitrary form-meaning pairing) that are listed in the mental lexicon. Among these properties there are also properties relevant to syntax, like the number of arguments selected by the verb and the form these arguments take. Although Section 1.2.4 will show that some of these properties are closely related to the meanings of the verbs in question and that it therefore remains to be seen whether these properties are semantic or syntactic in nature, we will introduce in this subsection a number of notions and conventions that are used in the syntactic literature (including this grammar) to refer to these properties.

[+]  A.  Subcategorization

Main verbs are normally syntactically classified on the basis of the number and the kind of arguments they take. These properties are sometimes formalized by assigning main verbs subcategorization frames, which specify the number of arguments as well as the categories (e.g., NP or PP) and the thematic roles of these arguments: an intransitive verb like lachen'to laugh' has one nominal argument with the thematic role of agent; a transitive verb like lezen'to read' has two nominal arguments with the thematic roles of, respectively, agent and theme; a ditransitive verb like geven'to give' has three nominal arguments with the thematic roles of agent, theme and recipient; we will return to the fact that the recipient of geven can also be expressed as a PP in Subsection D below.

a. lopenV: NPAgent
a'. Jan loopt.
  Jan walks
b. lezenV: NPAgent, NPTheme
b'. Marie leest een krant.
  Marie reads  a newspaper
c. gevenV: NPAgent, NPTheme, PPRecipient
c'. Jan geeft een boek aan Marie.
  Jan gives  a book  to Marie

At least some of the information in these subcategorization frames is systematically related to the meanings of the verbs in question. This is evident from the fact that the arguments mentioned in (23) fill slots in the semantic predicate frames implied by the verbs: lachen is a one-place predicate lachen (x) and the agentive argument fills the single argument slot; lezen is a two-place predicate and the agent and the theme argument fill, respectively, the x and the y slot in the predicate frame lezen (x,y); geven is a three-place predicate and again the three arguments fill the slots in the predicate frame geven (x,y,z).
      The arguments that fill the slots in the predicate frames of two- and three-place predicates are not all on an equal footing: filling the y and z slots in a sense creates one-place predicates, which can be predicated of the arguments placed in the x slot. If we rephrase this in syntactic terms, we can say that fillers of y and/or z correspond to the objects of the clause, and that fillers of x correspond to subjects. Since addition of the object(s) to the verb creates a predicate in the traditional, Aristotelian sense, the objects are often referred to as the complements or internal arguments of the verb, subjects, on the other hand, are the arguments that these one-place predicate are predicated of and they are therefore also referred to as externalarguments of the verb. In (24), the subcategorization frames in (23) are repeated with the external arguments underlined in order to distinguish them from the internal arguments.

a. lopenV: NPAgent
a'. Jan [loopt]Pred
  Jan   walks
b. lezenV: NPAgent, NPTheme
b'. Marie [leest een krant]Pred
  Marie   reads  a newspaper
c. gevenV: NPAgent, NPTheme, NPrecipient
c'. Jan [geeft een boek aan Marie]Pred
  Jan  gives  a book  to Marie

There are several complications that are not discussed here, subsection II, for example, will show that so-called unaccusative and undative verbs do not have an external argument but are predicated of an internal argument; cf. Table 2 below.

[+]  B.  Semantic selection

The fact that the three arguments selected by a verb like geven'to give' function as, respectively, an agent, a theme and a recipient is often referred to as semantic selection. Semantic selection may, however, be much more specific than that; verbs like zich verzamelen'to gather', zich verspreiden'to spread' and omsingelen'to surround' in (25), for example, normally require their subject to be plural when headed by a count noun unless the noun denotes a collection of entities like menigte'crowd'.

a. De studenten verspreiden zich.
  the students  spread  refl
a'. De menigte/*student verspreidt zich.
  the crowd/student  spread  refl
b. De studenten omsingelen het gebouw.
  the students  surround  the building
b'. De menigte/*student omsingelt het gebouw.
  the crowd/student  surrounds  the building

There are also verbs like verzamelen'to collect' and (op)stapelen'to stack/pile up' that impose similar selection restrictions on their objects: the object of such verbs can be a plural noun phrase or a singular noun phrase headed by a count noun denoting collections of entities, but not a singular noun phrase headed by a count noun denoting discrete entities.

a. Jan verzamelt gouden munten.
  Jan collects  golden coins
  'Jan is collecting golden coins.'
a'. Jan verzamelt porselein/*een gouden munt.
  Jan collects  china/a golden coin
  'Jan is collecting china.'
b. Jan stapelt de borden op.
  Jan piles  the plates  up
  'Jan is piling up the plates.'
b'. Jan stapelt het servies/*het bord op.
  Jan piles  the dinnerware/the plate  up
  'Jan is piling up the dinnerware.'

The examples in (27) show that the information may be of an even more idiosyncratic nature: verbs of animal sound emissions often select an external argument that refers to a specific or at least very small set of animal species, verbs that take an agentive external argument normally require their subject to be animate, and verbs of consumption normally require their object to be edible, drinkable, etc.

a. Honden, vossen en reeën blaffen, ganzen gakken en paarden hinniken.
  dogs, foxes and roe deer  bark,  geese honk  and  horses  neigh
b. Jan/$de auto eet spaghetti.
  Jan/the car  eats  spaghetti
  'Jan is eating spaghetti.'
c. Jan eet spaghetti/$staal.
  Jan eats  spaghetti/steel
  'Jan is eating spaghetti/steel.'

Given that restrictions of the kind illustrated in (25) through (27) do not enter into the verb classifications that we will discuss here, we need not delve into the question as to whether such semantic selection restrictions must be encoded in the subcategorization frames of the verbs or whether they follow from our knowledge of the world and/or our understanding of the meaning of the verb in question; see Grimshaw (1979) and Pesetsky (1991) for related discussion.

[+]  C.  Categorial selection

Subcategorization frames normally provide information about the categories of the arguments, that is, about whether they must be realized as a noun phrase, a prepositional phrase, a clause, etc. That this is needed can be motivated by the fact that languages may have different subcategorization frames for similar verbs; the fact that the Dutch verb houden requires a PP-complement whereas the English verb to like takes a direct object shows that the category of the internal argument(s) cannot immediately be inferred from the meaning of the verb but may be a language-specific matter.

a. houdenV: NPExperiencer, [PP van NPTheme]
a'. Jan houdt van spaghetti.
b. likeV: NPExperiencer, NPTheme
b'. John likes spaghetti.

That the category of the internal argument(s) cannot immediately be inferred from the meaning of the verb is also suggested by the fact that verbs like verafschuwen'to loathe', walgen'to loathe', which express more or less similar meanings, do have different subcategorization frames.

a. JanExperiencer verafschuwt spaghettiTheme.
  Jan  loathes  spaghetti
b. JanExperiencer walgt van spaghettiTheme.
  Jan  loathes  spaghetti

      Furthermore, subcategorization frames must provide more specific information about, e.g., the prepositions that head PP-complements. This can again be motivated by comparing some Dutch and English examples; although the Dutch translation of the English preposition for provided by dictionaries is voor, the examples in (30) show that in many (if not most) cases English for in PP-complements does not appear as voor in the Dutch renderings of these examples, and, vice versa, that Dutch voor often has a counterpart different from for. This again shows that the choice of preposition is an idiosyncratic property of the verb, which cannot be inferred from the meaning of the clause.

a. hopen op NP
a'. to hope for NP
b. verlangen naar NP
b'. to long for NP
c. behoeden voor NP
c'. to guard from
d. zwichten voor NP
d'. to knuckle under NP

      The above, of course, does not imply that the choice between nominal and PP-complements is completely random. There are certainly a number of systematic correlations between the semantics of the verb and the category of its internal arguments; cf. Section 1.2.4. The examples in (31), for instance, show that incremental themes (themes that refer to entities that gradually come into existence as the result of the event denoted by the verb) are typically realized as noun phrases, whereas themes that exist independently of the event denoted by the verb often appear as PP-complements.

a. Jan schreef gisteren een gedicht.
  Jan wrote  yesterday  a poem
  'Jan wrote a poem yesterday.'
b. Jan schreef gisteren over de oorlog.
  Jan wrote  yesterday  about the war
  'Jan wrote about the war yesterday.'

Similarly, affected themes are normally realized as direct objects, whereas themes that are not (necessarily) affected by the event can often be realized as PP-complements. Example (32a), for instance, implies that Jan hit the hare, whereas (32b) does not have such an implication; cf. Section 3.3.2, sub I.

a. Jan schoot de haas.
  Jan shot/hit  the hare
b. Jan schoot op de haas.
  Jan shot  at the hare

The same thing holds for the choice between a nominal and a clausal complement. The examples in (33), for instance, show that verbs like zeggen'to say' or denken'to think', which select a proposition as their complement, typically take declarative clauses and not noun phrases as their complement, since the former but not the latter are the canonical expression of propositions.

a. Jan zei/dacht dat zwanen altijd wit zijn.
  Jan said thought  that  swans  always  white  are
  'Jan said/thought that swans are always white.'
b. * Jan zei/dacht het verhaal.
  Jan said/thought  the story

The examples in (34) show that something similar holds for verbs like vragen or zich afvragen, which typically select a question.

a. Jan vroeg/vroeg zich af of zwanen altijd wit zijn.
  Jan asked/wondered  refl  prt.  whether  swans  always  white  are
  'Jan asked/wondered whether swans are always white.'
b. * Jan vroeg het probleem/vroeg zich het probleem af.
  Jan asked the problem/wondered  refl  the problem  prt.

Finally, it can be noted that the choice for a specific preposition as the head of a PP-complement need not be entirely idiosyncratic either; there are several subregularities (Loonen 2003) and in some cases the (original) locational meaning of the preposition used in PP-complements of the verb can still be recognized; see Schermer-Vermeer (2006). Two examples are volgen uit'to follow from' and zondigen tegen'to sin against'.

[+]  D.  Verb frame alternations

Some verbs can occur in more than one "verb frame"; cf. the examples in (31) and (32). A familiar example of such verb frame alternations is given in (35), which shows that verbs like schenken'to give/present' can realize their internal recipient argument either as a noun phrase or as an aan-PP.

a. Peter schenkt het museumRec zijn verzamelingTheme.
  Peter gives  the museum  his collection
b. Peter schenkt zijn verzamelingTheme aan het museumRec.
  Peter gives  his collection  to the museum

In early generative grammar this alternation was accounted for by assuming that the subcategorization frame of the verb schenken was as in (36), in which the braces indicate that the NP and PP are alternative realizations of the recipient argument.

schenkenV: NPAgent, NPTheme,

There are, however, alternative ways of accounting for this alternation. One way is to derive example (35a) from (35b) by means of a transformation normally referred to as dative shift; see Emonds (1972/1976) and many others. Another way is to assume that there is just a single underlying semantic representation but that the syntactic mapping of the arguments may vary. We refer the reader to Levin & Rappaport Hovav (2005:ch.7) for a review of these and other theoretical approaches to verb frame alternations, and to Chapter 3 for an extensive discussion of the verb frame alternations that can be found in Dutch.

[+]  II.  Basic classification of main verbs

This subsection takes the traditional classification of main verbs as its starting point, which is based on the adicity (or valency) of these verbs, that is, the number of nominal arguments they take: intransitive verbs have a subject but do not select any object, transitive verbs select an additional direct object, and ditransitive verbs select a direct and an indirect object. We will show, however, that this classification is inadequate and that a better way of classifying verbs is by also appealing to the semantic roles that they assign to their nominal arguments.

[+]  A.  Monadic, dyadic and triadic verbs

Traditional grammar normally classifies main verbs on the basis of the adicity of these verbs, that is, the number of nominal arguments they take. For reasons that will become clear in what follows, we will use the notions given in (37) to refer to the three subclasses traditionally distinguished and reserve the traditional notions of intransitive, transitive and ditransitive verbs to refer to specific subsets of these classes.

a. Monadic verbs: lachen'to laugh', arriveren'to arrive'
b. Dyadic verbs: eten'to eat', bevallen'to please'
c. Triadic verbs: geven'to give', aanbieden'to offer'

The classification of main verbs in (37) is crucially based on the notions of subject and object. This has been criticized by pointing out that in this way verbs are lumped together with quite different properties; see the discussion in Subsection B. This is due to the fact that whether an argument is realized as a subject or an object is determined by the syntactic properties of the construction as a whole and not by the semantic function of the arguments. This can be readily illustrated by means of the active/passive pair in (38): in (38a), the subject de bij'the bee' is an external argument, which is clear from the fact that it has the prototypical subject role of agent, whereas in (38b) the subject de kat'the cat' is an internal argument, as is clear from the fact that it has the prototypical direct object role of patient.

a. De bij stak de kat.
  the bee  stung  the cat
b. De kat werd (door de bij) gestoken.
  the cat  was    by the bee  stung

In generative grammar, the semantic difference between the subjects of the examples in (38) is often expressed by saying that the subject de bij'the bee' in (38a) is a "logical" subject, whereas the subject de kat in (38b) is a "derived" subject. We will from now on refer to the derived subjects as DO-subjects, since the discussion of the examples in (40) and (42) in Subsection B will show that such derived subjects originate in the same structural position in the clause as direct objects.

[+]  B.  Unaccusative verbs

Perlmutter (1978) and Burzio (1986) have shown that the set of monadic verbs in (37a) can be divided into two distinct subclasses. Besides run-of-the-mill intransitive verbs like lachen'to laugh', there is a class of so-called unaccusative verbs like arriveren'to arrive' with a number of distinctive properties (which may differ from language to language). The examples in (39) illustrate some of the differences between the two types of monadic verbs that are normally given as typical for Dutch; cf. Hoekstra (1984a).

a. Jan heeft/*is gelachen.
  Jan has/is  laughed
a'. Jan is/*heeft gearriveerd.
  Jan is/has  arrived
b. * de gelachen jongen
  the  laughed  boy
b'. de gearriveerde jongen
  the  arrived  boy
c. Er werd gelachen.
  there  was  laughed
c'. * Er werd gearriveerd.
  there  was  arrived

The first property involves auxiliary selection in the perfect tense: the (a)-examples show that intransitive verbs like lachen take the perfect auxiliary hebben'to have', whereas unaccusative verbs like arriveren take the auxiliary zijn'to be'. The second property involves the attributive use of past/passive participles: the (b)-examples show that past/passive participles of unaccusative verbs can be used attributively to modify a head noun that corresponds to the subject of the verbal construction, whereas past/passive participles of intransitive verbs lack this ability. The third property involves impersonal passivization: the (c)-examples show that this is possible with intransitive but not with unaccusative verbs.
      Like monadic verbs, dyadic verbs can be divided into two distinct subclasses. Besides run-of-the-mill transitive verbs like kussen'to kiss' with an accusative object, we find so-called nom-dat verbs like bevallen'to please' taking a dative object; since Dutch has no morphological case, we illustrate the case property of the nom-dat verbs by means of the German verb gefallen'to please' in (40a'). Lenerz (1977) and Den Besten (1985) have shown that these nom-dat verbs are special in that the subject follows the object in the unmarked case, as in the (b)-examples.

a. Dutch: dat jouw verhalen mijn broer niet bevallen.
a'. German: dass deine Geschichtennom meinem Bruderdat nicht gefallen.
  literal:  that  your stories  my brother  not  please
  'that your stories donʼt please my brother.'
b. Dutch: dat mijn broer jouw verhalen niet bevallen.
b'. German: dass meinem Bruderdat deine Geschichtennom nicht gefallen.
  literal:  that  my brother  your stories  not  please
  'that your stories donʼt please my brother.'

This word order property readily distinguishes nom-dat verbs from transitive verbs since the latter do not allow the subject after the object; transitive constructions normally have a strict nom-acc order (unless the object undergoes wh-movement or topicalization).

a. dat mijn broernom jouw verhalenacc leest.
  that  my brother  your stories  reads
  'that my brother is reading your stories.'
b. * dat jouw verhalenacc mijn broernom leest.

The (b)-examples in (42) show that the same word order variation as with nom-dat verbs is found with passivized ditransitive verbs, in which case the dat-nom order is again the unmarked one.

a. Jannom bood de meisjesdat de krantacc aan.
  Jan  offered  the girls  the newspaper  prt.
  'Jan offered the girls the newspaper.'
b. dat de meisjesdat de krantnom aangeboden werd.
  that  the girls  the newspaper  prt.-offered  was
  'that the newspaper was offered to the girls.'
b'. dat de krantnom de meisjesdat aangeboden werd.
  that  the newspaper  the girls  prt.-offered  was
  'that the newspaper was offered to the girls.'

Den Besten (1985) analyzes the word order variation in these examples by assuming that the DO-subject originates in the regular direct object position and optionally moves into subject position; see the representations in (43), in which the em-dash indicates the empty subject position of the clause and the trace the original position of the nominative phrase. Broekhuis (1992/2008) has shown that this movement is not really optional but subject to conditions related to the information structure of the clause; the subject remains in its original position if it is part of the focus (new information) of the clause but moves into the regular subject position if it is part of the presupposition (old information) of the clause.

a. dat-nom order: [dat — IO DO-subject V]
b. nom-dat order: [dat DO-subject IO ti V]

The word order similarities between (40) and (42) show that nom-dat verbs also take DO-subjects; the dat-nom orders in the (b)-examples in (40) are the base-generated ones and the nom-dat orders in the (a)-examples are derived by movement of the DO-subject into the regular subject position of the clause.
      Monadic unaccusative verbs like arriveren'to arrive' are like nom-dat verbs in that they take a DO-subject. This can be illustrated by means of the examples in (44). The (b)-examples show that the past/passive participle of a transitive verb like kopen'to buy' can be used as an attributive modifier of a noun that corresponds to the internal theme argument (here: direct object) of the verb, but not to the external argument (subject) of the verb.

a. Het meisje kocht het boek.
  the girl  bought  the book
b. het gekochte boek
  the  bought  book
b'. * het gekochte meisje
  the bought  girl

The fact that the past participle of arriveren in (39b') can be used as an attributive modifier of a noun that corresponds to the subject of the verb therefore provides strong evidence in favor of the claim that the subject of an unaccusative verb is also an internal theme argument of the verb. That subjects of unaccusative verbs are not assigned the prototypical semantic role of external arguments (= agent) can furthermore be supported by the fact that unaccusative verbs never allow agentive er-nominalization, that is, they cannot be used as the input of the derivational process that derives person nouns by means of the suffix -er; the primed examples in (45) show that whereas many subjects of intransitive and (di-)transitive verbs can undergo this process, unaccusative and nom-dat verbs never do. See N1.3.1.5 and N2.2.3.1 for a more detailed discussion of agentive er-nominalization.

a. snurken 'to snore'
a'. snurker 'snorer'
b. arriveren 'to arrive'
b'. *arriveerder 'arriver'
c. kopen 'to buy'
c'. koper 'buyer'
d. bevallen 'to please'
d'. *bevaller 'pleaser'
e. aanbieden 'to offer'
e'. aanbieder 'provider'

We will discuss here one final argument for claiming that subjects of unaccusative verbs are internal arguments. This is provided by causative-inchoative pairs such as (46), which show that the subject of the unaccusative construction in (46b) stands in a similar semantic relation with the (inchoative) verb breken as the direct object of the corresponding transitive construction with the (causative) verb breken in (46a); cf. Mulder (1992), Levin (1993) and Levin & Rappaport Hovav (1995:ch.2).

a. Jan heeft het raam gebroken.
  Jan  has  the window  broken
  'Jan has broken the window.'
b. Het raam is gebroken.
  the window  is broken
  'The window has broken.'