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Show all impersonal middle construction

The impersonal middle construction, which has not been studied much so far, is illustrated by means of the primed examples in (257). The construction owes its name to the fact that the subject is invariably the non-referential pronoun het'it'; replacing this pronoun by a referential one like the demonstrative dit'this' leads to ungrammaticality. Impersonal middles obligatorily contain an adverbial PP, as a result of which their meaning comes close to adjunct middles; it attributes properties to the instrument, the location or the time referred to by the nominal part of the adverbial phrase.

a. Jan snijdt graag met dat mes.
  Jan  cuts  readily  with that knife
a'. Het/*Dit snijdt lekker met dat mes.
  it/this  cuts  nicely  with that knife
b. Peter zit vaak op die stoel.
  Peter  sits  often  on that chair
b'. Het/*Dit zit lekker op die stoel.
  it/this  sits nicely  on that chair

The claim that the adverbial PPs in (257) are obligatory does not mean that their omission results in ungrammaticality, but that the resulting structures in (258) are not impersonal middles; we are dealing with, respectively, an adjunct and a regular middle, as is clear from the fact that the pronoun het is referential and can thus be replaced by the demonstrative dit or a referential noun phrase.

a. Het/Dit/Het krukje zit lekker.
  it/this/the stool  sits  nicely
b. Het/Dit/Het vlees snijdt lekker.
  it/this/the meat  cuts  easily

The following subsections discuss the impersonal middle construction in more detail, subsection I shows that impersonal middle formation exhibits the same restriction on the input verb as adjunct middle formation. The fact that the two middle constructions are very close semantically is accounted for in Subsection II by showing that the non-referential subject pronoun het of the impersonal middle functions as an anticipatory pronoun that is coindexed with an adverbial phrase that can also be the counterpart of the subject in an adjunct middle, subsection III continues with a discussion of these adverbial adjuncts, subsection IV concludes with a discussion of the (implicit) experiencer introduced by the evaluative modifier.

[+]  I.  The input verb is (pseudo-)intransitive

Impersonal middles are like adjunct middles and unlike regular middles in that they can readily take an intransitive verb as input. This may again be attributed to the fact that the subject of the impersonal middle does not correspond to the direct object of the input verbs.

a. Peter fietst graag op het fietspad.
  Peter cycles  readily  on the bikeway
  'Peter likes to cycle on the bikeway.'
a'. Het fietst lekker op het fietspad.
  it  cycles  nicely  on the bikeway
  'It is nice to cycle on the bikeway.'
b. Peter fietst op zijn nieuwe fiets.
  Peter cycles  on his new bicycle
  'Peter is cycling on his new bicycle.'
b'. Het fietst lekker op deze nieuwe fiets.
  it  cycles  nicely  on this new bicycle
  'It is nice to cycle on this new bicycle.'

The examples in (260) show that adjunct middles behave like regular middles and unlike passives in that the subject of the input verb cannot be expressed by means of an agentive door-phrase. Nevertheless, the notion of agent still seems to be implied; the evaluative modifier provides an assessment of some property of the subject in relation to the activity denoted by the verb, and thus indirectly introduces the notion of agentivity.

a. * Het fietst lekker op het fietspad door Peter.
  it  cycles  nicely  on the bikeway  by Peter
b. * Het fietst lekker op deze nieuwe fiets door Peter.
  it  cycles  nicely  on this new bicycle  by Peter

      Transitive verbs can only be used as input for impersonal middle formation if they can be used as pseudo-intransitives; overtly realizing the objects in the middle constructions in the primed examples in (261) leads to unacceptability.

a. Jan eet (zijn lunch) in een hoog tempo.
  Jan eats   his lunch  at a high speed
  'Jan is eating his lunch at high speed.'
a'. Het eet (*lunch) niet prettig in een hoog tempo.
  it  eats     lunch  not pleasantly  at a high speed
  'It isnʼt pleasant to eat at high speed.'
b. Jan leest graag (romans) op rustige middagen.
  Jan  reads  readily   novels  on quiet afternoons
  'Jan likes to read (novels) on quiet afternoons.'
b'. Het leest (*romans) het prettigst op rustige middagen.
  it  reads     novels  the most pleasant  on quiet afternoons
  'It is the most pleasant to read on quiet afternoons.'

For the same reason, ditransitive verbs normally cannot be the input verb for impersonal middle formation; this is only (at best marginally) possible if the direct object can be omitted, as in the (b)-examples of (262).

a. Marie geeft het Rode Kruis *(geld).
  Marie gives  the Red Cross    money
a'. * Het geeft het Rode Kruis gemakkelijk geld.
  it  gives  the Red Cross  easily  money
b. Marie geeft (geld) aan het Rode Kruis.
  Marie gives  money  to the Red Cross
b'. Het geeft gemakkelijk ?(*geld) aan het Rode Kruis.
  it  gives  easily    money  to the Red Cross

Impersonal middle formation is normally not possible on the basis of unaccusative verbs, although we may need to make an exception for unaccusative verbs allowing a stage context reading.

a. Jan valt prettiger op een judomat dan op de vloer.
  Jan  falls  more.pleasantly  on a judo.mat  than  on the floor
a'. ? Het valt prettiger op een judomat dan op de vloer.
  it  falls  more.pleasantly  on a judo.mat  than  on the floor
  'It is more pleasant to fall on a judo mat than on the floor.'
b. Oude officieren sterven in het bejaardenhuis.
  old officers  die  in an old.peopleʼs.home
b'. ?? Het sterft prettiger in een bejaardenhuis dan op het slagveld.
  it  dies  more.pleasantly  in an old.peopleʼs.home  than  on the battlefield
  'It is more pleasant to die in an old peopleʼs home than on the battlefield.'

The examples in (264) show that impersonal middles take the auxiliary hebben'to have' in the perfect tense; this also holds for middle verbs derived from unaccusative verbs like vallen, which normally take zijn.

a. Het heeft altijd al lekker gefietst op dit fietspad.
  it  has  all along  nicely  cycled  on this bikeway
  'It has always been nice to cycle on this bikeway.'
b. Het heeft nog nooit prettig gegeten in een snel tempo.
  it  has  prt  never  pleasantly  eaten at a high speed
  'It has never been pleasant to eat at high speed.'
c. Het ??heeft/*is altijd al beter gevallen op een judomat dan op de vloer.
  it    has/is  all along  better  fallen  on a judo.mat  than on the floor
  'It has always been more pleasant to fall on a judo mat than on the floor.'
[+]  II.  The non-referential pronoun het'it'

The discussion in the previous subsection has shown that impersonal and adjunct middles are similar in that they both take (pseudo-)intransitive verbs as input; cf. Section, sub I. Furthermore, we have seen that the two constructions are also very similar semantically. Let us therefore provisionally assume that impersonal middles are impersonal counterparts of adjunct middles; the non-referential pronoun het is an anticipatory pronoun that is associated with the adverbial PP which acts as the logical subject of the clause. The impersonal middles in (259) and (261) would then have the structures in (265), in which coindexing is used to express the proposed relation between the anticipatory pronoun het and the adverbial phrase; we refer the reader to Section A6.6 for a discussion of comparable copular constructions: Heti is warm [in de tropen]i'It is hot in the tropics'.

a. Heti fietst lekker [op het fietspad]i.
  it  cycles  nicely  on the bikeway
b. Heti fietst lekker [op deze nieuwe fiets]i.
  it  cycles  nicely  on this new bicycle
c. Heti eet niet prettig [in een hoog tempo]i.
  it  eats  not pleasantly   at a high speed
  'It isnʼt pleasant to eat at high speed.'
d. Heti leest het prettigst [op rustige middagen]i.
  it  read  the most pleasant   on quiet afternoons

The syntactic and semantic similarities between adjunct and impersonal middles can now be accounted for by assuming that subjects of adjunct middles correspond to adjuncts that can be coindexed with the anticipatory subject pronoun het in impersonal middle constructions. If this is on the right track, we correctly predict that impersonal middles are subject to restrictions similar to those on adjunct middles. Section, sub VC, has demonstrated, for example, that the unacceptability of examples such as (266b) shows that subjects of adjunct middles cannot correspond to the nominal part of a PP-complement. We therefore correctly predict that the same thing holds for the impersonal middle in (266c). Observe that the latter example improves considerably if we add a locational adverbial phrase, as in (266c'), but this is due to the fact that the anticipatory pronoun can then be construed with the adverbial phrase.

a. Jan kijkt graag naar schilderijen.
  Jan looks  readily  to paintings
  'Jan likes to look at paintings.'
b. * Schilderijen kijken prettig.
  paintings  look  pleasantly
c. * Heti kijkt prettig [naar schilderijen]i.
  it  looks  pleasantly   at paintings
c'. ? Heti kijkt [in dat museum]i prettig naar schilderijen.
  it  looks   in that museum  pleasantly  at paintings

Section, sub VC, also argued that the subject of an adjunct middle cannot correspond to the nominal part of a predicative PP. This was illustrated by means of the examples in (255), repeated here as (267), which show that the adverbial and predicative PPs can be distinguished by their meaning: an adverbial PP simply indicates where the activity denoted by the verb takes place, whereas the predicative PP refers to the new location that the subject of the clause obtains by performing the action denoted by the verb.

a. Jan heeft op de trampoline gesprongen.
adverbial PP
  Jan has  on the trampoline  jumped
  'Jan has jumped on the trampoline.'
b. Jan is op de trampoline gesprongen.
predicative PP
  Jan is onto the trampoline  jumped
  'Jan has jumped onto the trampoline.'

The subject in the adjunct middle construction in (256), repeated here as (268a), clearly corresponds to the adverbial PP: it is the jumping on the trampoline that is claimed to be nice, not the jumping onto the trampoline. Example (268b) shows that the same thing holds for the corresponding impersonal middle.

a. De trampoline springt lekker.
  the trampoline jumps  nicely
  Available reading: 'It is nice to jump on the trampoline.'
  Impossible reading: 'It is nice to jump onto the trampoline.'
b. Heti springt lekker [op de trampoline]i.
  it  jumps  nicely   on the trampoline
  Available reading: 'It is nice to jump on the trampoline.'
  Impossible reading: 'It is nice to jump onto the trampoline.'

We conclude from the discussion above that anticipatory pronouns in impersonal middles can only be coindexed with adverbial phrases. This may have interesting results for cases in which the status of a certain PP is unclear, like the locational PP that co-occurs with the verb wonen'to live' in example (269a). Given that this PP is obligatory, it has been suggested that it is a PP-complement or a complementive selected by the verb. The fact that this example has an impersonal middle counterpart strongly suggests, however, that the PP is a regular adverbial phrase.

a. Jan woont *(in Amsterdam).
  Jan  lives     in Amsterdam
b. Heti woont prettig [in Amsterdam]i.
  it  lives  pleasantly   in Amsterdam

In relation to the hypothesis that the non-referential pronoun het in the impersonal middle functions as an anticipatory pronoun associated with an adverbial PP that acts as the logical subject of the clause, it may be useful to note that impersonal middles are special in that their nominalizations can be readily used as nominal predicates. The resulting copular constructions in (270) are likewise impersonal in nature; the subject pronoun het cannot be replaced by, e.g., a deictic pronoun and seems to function as an anticipatory pronoun co-indexed with the adverbial PP; we refer the reader again to Section A6.6 for a discussion of comparable constructions.

a. dat heti lekker fietsen is [op het fietspad]i.
  that  it  nicely  cycling  is  on the bikeway
  'that cycling is nice on the bikeway.'
b. dat heti lekker fietsen is [op deze nieuwe fiets]i.
  that  it  nicely  cycling is   on this new bicycle
  'that cycling is nice on this new bicycle.'

      To conclude this discussion on the anticipatory subject pronoun het of the impersonal middle construction, we want to note that impersonal middles do not have corresponding constructions in which participles are used as attributive modifiers or secondary predicates. This is, of course, not due to the verb but to the fact that the subject pronoun het is non-referential and can therefore not be modified or function as an argument of a predicate.

[+]  III.  The adverbial phrase

The previous subsection suggested that adjunct middles always have an impersonal middle counterpart. It does not seem to be the case, however, that the inverse holds as well; impersonal middles seem possible with a somewhat wider range of adjunct types than adjunct middles. This will become clear by comparing the examples in (271); the non-middle construction in (271a) has an impersonal but not an adjunct middle counterpart.

a. Peter eet prettig aan die tafel.
  Peter  eats  pleasantly  at that table
b. Heti eet prettig [aan die tafel]i.
  it  eats  pleasantly  at that table
b'. *? Die tafel eet prettig.
  that table eats  pleasantly

The examples in (272) suggest that the contrast in acceptability between impersonal and adjunct middles can at least sometimes be related to meaning. The nominal part of the adverbial met-PP in (272a) can readily be used as the subject of an adjunct middle, whereas the nominal part of the zonder-PP in (272b) cannot. This is clearly related to the fact that the implicit negation expressed by zonder is irrecoverably lost in the adjunct middle in (272b''). Note that Zonder helm rijdt lekker is more or less acceptable; this is, however, not a middle construction, but a construction with a PP subject.

a. Jan rijdt altijd met autohandschoenen.
  Jan drives  always  with car.gloves
a'. Het rijdt prettig met autohandschoenen.
  it  drives  pleasantly  with car.gloves
a''. Autohandschoenen rijden prettig.
  car.gloves  drive  pleasantly
b. Jan rijdt altijd zonder helm.
  Jan  drives  always  without  a.helmet
b'. Het rijdt prettiger zonder helm.
  it  drives  more.pleasantly  without  a.helmet
b''. # Een helm rijdt prettiger.
  a helmet  drive  more.pleasantly

In other cases, it is less clear what determines the contrast, although the examples in (273) suggest that the nominal part of the adjunct must refer to an entity/entities that is/are in some conventional relation to the activity denoted by the verb in order to be able to appear as the subject of an adjunct middle.

a. Het schrijft lekker op dit papier/bij deze lamp.
  it  writes  nicely  on this paper/near this lamp
a'. Dit papier/??Deze lamp schrijft lekker.
  this paper/this lamp  writes  nicely
b. Het breit lekker met deze naalden/deze regen.
  it knits  pleasantly  with these needles/this rain
b'. Deze naalden/??Deze regen breit lekker.
  these needles/this rain  knits  pleasantly

Ackema & Schoorlemmer (1994/2006:169-171) suggest that the contrast may also be related to the adjunct's ability to undergo preposition stranding; see the examples in (274).

a. het papier waar Jan op schrijft
  the paper  that  Jan on  writes
  'the paper Jan is writing on'
a'. ? de lamp waar Jan bij schrijft
  the lamp  that  Jan near  writes
  'the lamp near which Jan is writing'
b. de naalden waar ik mee brei
  the needles  that  with  knit
  'the needles Iʼm knitting with'
b'. * de regen waar ik mee brei
  the rain  that  during  knits
  'the rain during which Iʼm knitting'

They further suggest that the subject of adjunct middles corresponds to argument-PPs, not adjuncts, which would make the adjunct middle into a kind of regular middle. However, this runs afoul of the observation from Section, sub IA, that subjects of regular middles never correspond to the nominal part of a run-of-the mill PP-complement of the input verb.

[+]  IV.  The evaluative modifier

Impersonal middles normally require the presence of an evaluative modifier like gemakkelijk'easily' or others listed in (170), although, just as in the case of adjunct middles, impersonal middles sometimes also occur with adjectives like snel'fast' and vlot'smoothly' that do not select an experiencer voor-phrase; compare the impersonal construction in (275b) with example (248b), repeated here as (275a).

a. Deze weg rijdt snel/vlot.
  this road  drives  fast/smoothly
b. Het rijdt snel/vlot op deze weg.
  it  drives  fast/smoothly  on this road

The examples in (276) show that the experiencer selected by adjectives like gemakkelijk'easily' normally cannot be overtly realized (with the same proviso made in Section, sub IC, for the regular middle).

a. ?? Het zit voor iedereen lekker op die stoel.
  it  sits  for everybody  nicely  in that chair
b. ?? Het snijdt voor iedereen prettig met dat mes.
  it  cuts  for everybody  pleasantly  with that knife
c. ?? Het werkt voor iedereen prettig in dat tempo.
  it  works  for everybody  pleasantly  in that tempo

The examples in (277) show that, as in the case of adjunct middles, the evaluative modifier can at least marginally be left out if the negative adverb niet'not' is present, if the verb is emphatically accented, or if the evaluation is expressed by some other means.

a. ? Het schrijft niet op dit papier.
  it  writes  not  on this paper
b. ? Het breit met deze wol. Pfff!
  it  needles  with this wool  Pfff
c. ? Het werkt als een trein in de vakantie.
  it  works  like  a train  in the vacation
  • Ackema, Peter & Schoorlemmer, Maaike1994The middle construction and the syntax-semantics interfaceLingua9359-90
  • Ackema, Peter & Schoorlemmer, Maaike2006MiddlesEveraert, Martin & Riemsdijk, Henk van (eds.)The Blackwell companion to syntax3Malden, MA/OxfordBlackwell Publishing131-203
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