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4.2. Syntactic uses of equatives, comparatives and superlatives

Set-denoting adjectives can be used in attributive, predicative and adverbial position, and may occur in the so-called partitive genitive construction. This section investigates whether the comparative and superlative forms of the gradable set-denoting adjectives have the same distribution as the positive form.

[+]  I.  Attributive use

Both comparatives and superlatives may occur in attributive position. In (121), it is demonstrated that the attributive -e ending, which appears on the adjective in the positive degree in (121a), is added to the majorative/maximative affix -er/-st in (121c&d). If we are dealing with periphrastic forms, the -e ending appears on the adjective itself, which is illustrated for the equative in (121b) and for the minorative/minimative in (121c'&d'). The (d)-examples show that the element het, which obligatory co-occurs with predicatively used superlatives, cannot be used if the superlative is used attributively.

Example 121
a. de/een intelligent-e vrouw
  the/an  intelligent  woman
b. een even intelligent-e vrouw (als Marie)
  an  as  intelligent  woman   as Marie
c. een intelligent-er-e vrouw (dan/als Marie)
  more.intelligent  woman   than Marie
c'. een minder intelligent-e vrouw (dan/als Marie)
  less  intelligent  woman   than Marie
d. de (*het) intelligent-st-e vrouw (van de club)
  the      the  most.intelligent  woman   of the club
d'. de (*het) minst intelligent-e vrouw (van de club)
  the     the  least  intelligent  woman   of the club

The following subsections will show that attributive use of the equative, comparative and superlative may have an effect on the determiner that is selected by the noun phrase.

[+]  A.  Superlative form

Example (121a) has shown that noun phrases with an attributively used adjective in the positive form may take either the indefinite article een'a' or the definite article de/het'the'. However, if we replace the positive form by a superlative counterpart, only the definite determiner like de'the' can be used; the examples in (122) give rise to an unacceptable result with the indefinite article een. This is probably due to semantics; the meaning of the indefinite determiner is not compatible with the meaning of the superlative, which picks out one specific entity (or group of entities) from the domain of discourse.

Example 122
a. de/*een intelligent-st-e vrouw (van de club)
  the/a  most.intelligent  woman   of the club
a'. de/*een intelligent-st-e vrouwen (van de club)
  the/Ø  most.intelligent  women   of the club
b. de/*een minst intelligent-e vrouw (van de club)
  the/a  least  intelligent woman   of the club
b'. de/*een minst intelligent-e vrouwen (van de club)
  the/Ø  least  intelligent women   of the club

An apparent exceptional case is given in (123), but the “comparative" forms hoogst and uiterst are actual adverbial amplifiers that lack a corresponding positive and comparative form; cf. Section 3.1.2, sub I. Note in passing that, in contrast to English most, the superlative form meest cannot be used in this function: cf. a most interesting woman versus *een meest interessante vrouw (Carole Boster, p.c.).

Example 123
een hoogst/uiterst intelligente vrouw
  an  extremely  intelligent   woman
'a most intelligent woman'
[+]  B.  Equative form

The examples in (124) show that attributive use of equatives is excluded in definite singular, but allowed in definite plural noun phrases. This is related to the fact that the comparison implied by the two examples in (124) differs. In (124a), the comparison set is expressed by means of the als-phrase: the woman we are referring to is as intelligent as Marie. In (124b), on the other hand, the comparison set consists of the two women that we are referring to, and it is claimed that they are equally intelligent. This implies that an als-phrase is not needed to express the comparison set and, as a result of that, it cannot actually be used.

Example 124
a. een/*de/??deze even intelligente vrouw (als Marie)
  an/the/this  as  intelligent  woman   as Marie
b. Ø/de/deze twee even intelligente vrouwen (*als ...)
  Ø/the/these  two  as  intelligent  women     as
[+]  C.  Comparative form

Attributively used comparatives are normally found in indefinite noun phrases. Definite noun phrases with attributively comparative forms do occur, but this triggers certain special effects. First, (125b) shows that adding a comparative dan/als-phrase to a definite noun phrase with an attributively used comparative form leads to ungrammaticality.

Example 125
a. de intelligentere vrouw
  the  more.intelligent  woman
b. * de intelligentere vrouw dan/als Marie
  the  more.intelligent  woman  than Marie

Second, examples such as (125a) receive a kind of “superlative" meaning. A first indication of this is that adding a superlative van-phrase to (125a) gives rise to a reasonably acceptable result, whereas this is completely excluded if the noun phrase has an indefinite article; cf. (126). Further, the meaning of (126a) is virtually identical to that of (126a'), which involves a superlative; note that the head noun is preferably dropped in the two (a)-examples.

Example 126
a. de intelligentere (?vrouw) van de twee
  the  more.intelligent    woman  of the two
a'. de intelligentste (?vrouw) van de twee
  the  most.intelligent    woman  of the two
b. * een intelligentere vrouw van de twee
  more.intelligent  woman  of the two

Finally, the examples in (127), which involve the majorative beter'better', are special in a somewhat different way. These examples do not denote a specific token, but a type: they refer to a subset of the set denoted by the head noun with the special property of satisfying a certain standard. Example (127a), for example, refers to the belles-lettres and (127b) refers to bookshops that have a wide assortment or a certain standing.

Example 127
a. het betere boek
  the  better  book
  'quality books'
b. de betere boekwinkel
  the  better  bookshop
  'a well-stocked bookshop'
[+]  II.  Predicative use

All three degrees of comparison can occur in predicative position. A special property of the superlative in this position is that it must be preceded by the element het, which is not the case if it appears in attributive position; cf. (121d). So, whereas the (b)- and (c)-examples in (128) show that the equative form even intelligent and the comparative form intelligenter can be used in the copular construction as such, the (d)-examples show that the superlative forms intelligentst and minst intelligent must be preceded by het.

Example 128
a. Marie is intelligent.
  Marie is intelligent
b. Marie is even intelligent.
  Marie is as intelligent
c. Marie is intelligenter.
  Marie is more.intelligent
c'. Marie is minder intelligent.
  Marie is less  intelligent
d. Marie is *(het) intelligentst.
  Marie is   the  most.intelligent
d'. Marie is *(het) minst intelligent.
  Marie is    the  least intelligent

That the superlative must be preceded by het holds not only for the copular construction, but also for the resultative and vinden-constructions in (129).

Example 129
a. Jan streek die broek *(het) gladst.
  Jan ironed  those trousers    the  smoothest
a'. Jan streek die broek *(het) minst glad.
  Jan ironed  those trousers    the  least smooth
b. Jan vond de eerste foto *(het) mooist.
  Jan considered  the first picture     the  most.beautiful
b'. Jan vond de eerste foto *(het) minst mooi.
  Jan considered  the first picture    the  least beautiful

However, if a superlative predicative adjective is used in an attributively used participle phrase (PartP), the element het is preferably dropped if it is adjacent to the determiner. This will be clear by comparing the (a)-examples in (129) to example (130a). If the determiner and het are separated by another phrase, as in (130b), het must be realized.

Example 130
a. de [PartP (?het) gladst/minst glad gestreken] broek
  the      the  smoothest/least smooth  ironed  trousers
  'the trousers that were ironed the smoothest/least smooth'
b. de [PartP door Peter *(het) gladst/minst glad gestreken] broek
  the  by Peter    the  smoothest/least smooth  ironed  trousers

      Note that it is sometimes not immediately clear whether we are dealing with a predicatively or an attributively used adjective. This is due to the fact that in certain contexts, noun phrases of the form determiner–adjective–noun may undergo N-ellipsis, which results in the string determiner–adjective. For instance, the noun phrase de blauwe avondjurk'the blue evening gown' can occasionally surface as de blauwe [e]'the blue one', in which e stands for the phonetically empty head noun; cf. Section 5.4. For our present topic, it is relevant to note that N-ellipsis may also apply in predicative constructions such as (131).

Example 131
a. De eerste foto is [NP de mooiste [e]].
  'The first picture is the most beautiful one.'
b. Jan vond de eerste foto [NP de mooiste [e]].
  'Jan considered the first picture the most beautiful one.'

Consequently, when we are dealing with a neuter noun, predicative constructions like (132a&a'), which take a reduced noun phrase like het mooiste [e] as their predicate, can easily be confused with predicative constructions like (132b&b'), which take the superlative form het mooist as their predicate.

Example 132
a. Het eerste boek is [NP het mooiste [e]].
  'The first book is the most beautiful one.'
a'. Jan vond het eerste boek [NP het mooiste [e]]
  'Jan considered the first book the most beautiful one.'
b. Het eerste boek is [AP het mooist].
  'The first book is the most beautiful.'
b'. Jan vond het eerste boek [AP het mooist].
  'Jan considered the first book the most beautiful.'

This problem of confusing the two constructions is even enhanced by the fact that, in colloquial speech, the predicatively used superlative is also occasionally realized with a schwa ending. An example such as De eerste foto is het mooist(e) cannot be analyzed as in (133a), given that the empty noun e must be construed as identical with the noun foto and hence trigger the non-neuter article de, which leaves us only the analysis in (133b). This suggests that the strings in the (a)-examples of (132) may also be assigned an alternative analysis involving a predicative AP.

Example 133
a. * De eerste foto is [NP het mooist(e) [e]].
b. De eerste foto is [AP het mooist(e)].
  'The first picture is the most beautiful.'

      A special case of predicative use of the majorative is given in (134). In this construction the copula verb worden'to become' or the causative verb maken'to make' must be used. If the adjective is positively valued, as in (134a), (quasi-)negation must be present. If the adjective denotes a negatively valued property, as in (134b), an adverbial phrase like alleen maar'only' must be present. The preposition phrase er ... op is non-referential and can never be replace by a PP of the form P + NP.

Example 134
a. De situatie wordt er niet/weinig beter/*slechter op.
  the situation  becomes  ER  not/little  better/worse  op
  'The situation isnʼt getting better/is getting worse.'
a'. Dat maakt de situatie er niet/weinig beter/*slechter op.
  that  makes  the situation  ER  not/little better/worse  op
  'That doesnʼt make the situation better/makes the situation worse.'
b. Die situatie wordt er alleen maar slechter/??beter op.
  the situation  becomes  ER  only  worse/better  op
  'The situation is only getting worse.'
b'. Dat maakt de situatie er alleen maar slechter/*beter op.
  that  makes  the situation  ER  only  worse/better  op
  'That only makes the situation worse.'

In the case of a minorative, the situation is reversed: negatively evaluated adjectives require negation to be present, and positively evaluated adjectives require the presence of alleen maar. Quasi-negation yields a marked result in (135a&a'), and therefore we have not included it here.

Example 135
a. De situatie wordt er niet minder slecht/*goed op.
  the situation  becomes  ER  not  less  bad/good  op
  'The situation doesnʼt get better.'
a'. Dat maakt de situatie er niet minder slecht/*goed op.
  that  makes  the situation  ER  not  less  bad/good  op
  'That doesnʼt make the situation better.'
b. Die situatie wordt er alleen maar minder goed/*slecht op.
  the situation  becomes  ER  only  less  good/bad  op
  'The situation is only getting worse.'
b'. Dat maakt de situatie er alleen maar minder goed/*slecht op.
  that  makes  the situation  ER  only  less  good/bad  op
  'That only makes the situation worse.'
[+]  III.  Adverbial use

The three degrees of comparison can also occur in adverbial position. Example (136d) shows that just like predicatively used superlatives, adverbially used superlatives normally must be preceded by het.

Example 136
a. Peter liep hard.
  Peter ran  fast
  'Peter was running fast.'
b. Peter liep even hard.
  Peter ran  as fast
c. Peter liep harder/minder hard.
  Peter ran  faster/less fast
d. Peter liep *(het) hardst/minst hard.
  Peter ran     the  fastest/least fast

However, if a superlative adverbial phrase is contained in an attributively used participle phrase, the element het is preferably omitted if the superlative is adjacent to the determiner de. This will become clear by comparing (136d) to example (137a). If the determiner and het are separated by some other phrase, as in (137b), het becomes compulsory again.

Example 137
a. de [PartP (?het) hardst/minst hard lopende] jongen
  the    the  fastest/least  fast  running  boy
  'the boy that runs the fastest/least fast'
b. de [PartP steeds weer *(het) hardst lopende] jongen
  the  always  again     the  fastest  running  boy
[+]  IV.  The partitive genitive construction

In the partitive genitive construction, equatives or comparatives can be used, but superlatives are blocked. We return to this fact, which is illustrated in (138), in Section 7.2.3, sub IE.

Example 138
a. iets moois
  something  beautiful
e. iets leuks
  something  funny
b. iets even moois
  something  as beautiful
f. iets even leuks
   something  as funny
c. iets mooiers
  something  more.beautiful
g. iets leukers
  something  more.funny
d. * iets (het) mooist
  something  the  most.beautiful
h. * iets (het) leukst
  something  the  funniest
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