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-er (nominal)
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The suffix -er/ər/ is a Germanic, cohering, unstressed, polysemous suffix that creates nouns of common gender denoting names of people and things from verbs, geographical names, abbreviations, cardinal numbers, and occasionally from stems of other categories. The semantics is diverse, with a preference for agentive readings in the case of verbal bases (Moortgat 1981), (Booij 1986). The plural form is usually in -s, the feminine counterpart (when applicable) in -ster (schrijfsterfemale writer).

-er is the most productive suffix to derive nouns of common gender from (native) verbs, either simplex (e.g. werker < werkento work) or complex (e.g. ontdekkerdiscoverer < ont-dekkento discover). The possible readings for deverbal nouns in -er include Agent (workerworker, i.e. someone who works), Instrument (stofzuigervacuum cleaner, i.e. something one vacuums with) and Patient (e.g. vegerbroom < vegento sweep); words like zendersender, transmitter are polysemous (both Agent and Impersonal Agent/Instrument readings are available). On the hand, certain other nominalization readings, such as Result or Event, are extremely rare.

er- also combines with other bases: geographical names (Amsterdammersomeone from Amsterdam, NederlanderDutchman), certain numerals (tienerten.erteenager, vijftigerfifty.ersomeone in his fiftiesouderold.erparent), some nouns (rechterright.erjudge), various subcategories of nouns such as abbreviations (PTT-erpostman) and sportsclub's names (FeyenoorderFeyenoord player, Feyenoord fan), as well as certain phrases (doe-het-zelverdo-it-self.erdo-it-yourselfer).

The suffix -er is also a very productive source of synthetic compounds, either with a verbal right-hand part (e.g. bevelhebbercommand.have.ercommander), or other (tientonnerten ton truck). In the first case, there is no complex verb *bevelhebben nor an -er derivation of the simplex verb *hebber; in the second case, *tienton nor *tonner is an existing word.

An allomorph -der occurs after verbal stems ending in <r>, e.g. in huurdertenant < hurento rent and (Belgian) droogzwierderdry-spin-derspin-dryer < droog.zwierento spin dry. There is a division of labor with the suffix -aar (as in molenaarmiller and tovenaarmagician.

In many varieties of Dutch, -(d)erd (/ərt/, as in knoeierdbungler < knoeiento mess) (also spelled -(d)ert as in brommertmoped < brommento hum) is an informal variant of nominal -(d)er.

Finally, note that we also find homophonous suffixes -(d)er that are found in, e.g.,

  • comparative forms, constructed productively from adjectives (grotergreater, larger, interessantermore interesting, raardermore strange < raarstrange);
  • adjectives derived from geographical names (Haarlemmerfrom Haarlem, Groningerfrom Groningen, Alkmaarderfrom Alkmaar) and from cardinal numerals ending in -tig (de twintiger jarenthe twenty.er yearsthe twenties);
  • verbs derived from nouns (klonterento clump < klontclot) or verbs (redderento put in order < reddento save).

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[+] Introduction

The suffix -er is the most frequent, the most productive and the most versatile of all Dutch affixes. It is found in nouns on the basis ofverbs, cardinal numbers, abbreviations, nouns, adjectives, and phrases; new derivations can be formed on bases of the first three categories. All -er derivations, irrespective of the category of the base, are nouns of common gender, selecting the singular definite article de, with a plural in -s (with a few exceptions).

When referring to a person - for instance schrijverwriter, author or lezerreader - the nouns are often not gender specific (Booij 2002). Still, in many cases where the gender of the referent is relevant, a femine form can be formed, typically by means of the suffix -ster, e.g. schrijfsterfemale writer, authoress (a case of affix substitution), sometimes with other suffixes (e.g -es in lezeresfemale reader).

[+] Verb as base

The suffix -er is extremely productive when it comes to building nouns out of native verbs. Non-native verbs occur as bases as well (e.g. investeerderinvestor < investerento invest), but for this input category, there is competion from non-native suffixes such as -(at)or as in inspiratorinspirer < inspirerento inspire. The semantics may differ: we find agentive readings, Patients, Themes and Instruments. All -er nouns are of common gender.

Table 1
Base form Derivation Type of reading
lopento walk loperwalker Agent someone who walks
arbeidento work arbeiderworker Agent someone who works
serverento serve serveerderwaiter Agent someone who serves
bijsluitento insert bijsluiterinformation leaflet Patient something that has been inserted
meezingento sing along meezingersing-along song Patient something that is sung along
meevallento exceed one's expectations meevallerpiece of good luck Theme something that exceeds one's expectations
uitschietento shoot out uitschieterhigh-flyer, outlier Theme someone or somethings that stands out
metento measure metermeasuring instrument Instrument something to measure with (Agent reading is possible as well, e.g. in landmeterland measurersurveyor
gietento poor gieterwatering can Instrument something to poor with
The table shows both simplex verbal bases ( lopen, arbeiden, meten, gieten), including an occasional non-native stem ( serveren), and complex ones ( bijsluiten, meezingen, meevallen, uitschieten).
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The monosyllabic verb ziento see, whose stem is ziesee, retains infinitival /n/ in this type of derivations: zienerseer, clairvoyant. The same holds for doenerdoer < doen/dun/to do. On the basis of staan/stan/to stand, however, we find staanderstyle, whereas gaan/gan/to go yields ganger (only in complex formations, cf. below).

Next to these separable complex verbs, more complex cases occur as well, with, again, various possible interpretations.
Table 2
Parts Derivation Type of reading
noun + verb + -er vioolbouwerviolin.build.erviolin maker Patient-Agent someone who builds violins
noun + verb + -er bevelhebbercommand.have.ercommander Patient-Agent someone who has the command
noun + verb + -er vrijheidsstrijderfreedom.fight.erfreedom fighter Goal-Agent someone who fights for freedom
noun + verb + -er landloperland.walk.ertramp Location-Agent someone who walks in the land
adverb + verb + -er buitenstaanderoutside.stand.eroutsider Location-Agent someone who stands outside
adverb + verb + -er alleenheerseralone.rule.erautocrat Manner-Agent someone who rules all by himself
quantifier + verb + -er veelschrijvermuch.write.erprolific writer Patient-Agent someone who writes much
noun + verb + -er bladblazerleaf.blow.erblower Patient-Instrument something to blow leaves with
noun + verb + -er deeltjesversnellerpart.DIM.s.accelerate.erparticle accelerator Patient-Instrument instrument to accelerate particles with
Some of these formations should be seen as synthetic compounds, e.g. bevelhebber: there is no complex verb *bevelhebben nor an -er derivation of the simplex verb *hebber (Hoeksema 1984).

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Moortgat (1981), Hoeksema (1984) and others have observed that if the left-hand part of such constructions takes an argument, this valency property may be inherited by the complex noun. A case in point is bevelhebber over de strijdkrachtencommander of the armed forces, where the complex compound selects the same preposition over as its left part (ze voert het bevel over de strijdkrachtenshe commands the armed forces). Given that in complex constructions, usually only properties of the head are inherited, these constructions are of considerable theoretical relevance.

There appears to be a certain division of labour between the various nominalizing suffixes. In the agentive reading, -er competes with -aar (after /ər/ (fluisteraarwhisperer) and /əl/ (huichelaarhypocrite) (tovenaarsorcerer < toveren is exceptional in various ways)), and the allomorph -der (after /r/ in stressed syllable (huurdertenant)). In more formal varieties of the language, the suffix -end(e) (the nominalizedpresent participle) can be used: inzittendepassenger, belangstellendeinterested person, omwonendenresidents, langstlevendesurviving partner. For Patient/ Result readings, -sel is the default suffix (e.g. knipselclipping, zaagselsaw dust, aanhangselappendix); Patient readings for -er (e.g. bijsluiterinformation leaflet) are rare. The event reading is extremely rare (or non-existant) with -er: -ing appears to be the default here (verkiezingelection).

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Homonymous derivations: given that the -er affix can express a number of meanings, it is not surprising that certain -er formations allow for more than one reading. A case in point is aanhanger that can be interpreted both as the Patient and as the Agent of the action (corresponding with a more literal reading of the verb in the first example, and a more figurative one in the second):

Example 1

a. Ik heb al een aanhanger aan de auto gekoppeld
I have already a trailer on the car connected
I've attached a trailer to the car already
b. Ze is een aanhanger van die nieuwe politieke partij
She is a supporter of that new political party
She is a supporter of that new political party

Likewise, the noun meezinger not only denotes a sing-along song (the Patient reading), but also someone who sings along (the Agent reading). Kijker < kijkento look even has (at least) three readings: spectator (Agent), telescope (Instrument, possible a clipping of verrekijker) and eye (Instrument?).

In a sense, it may look surprising that misunderstanding is relatively rare. Various factors may play a role in avoidig misunderstanding. First, there is almost always context to help in interpretation. E.g., in (this example), the noun phrase de autothe car favours the trailerreading of de aanhanger, whereas partijparty in the other example points towards the supporter reading. Next, there is lexicalization: many complex words, including many -er formations, belong to the lexical stock of language users. They are stored as linguistic signs, i.e. as a pairing of a fixed form and a preferred semantics. New -er derivations may be coined, as the suffix is productive, but stored -er derivations may block or impede other readings, and the suffix is only productive in the Agent reading: to coin nominalizations with other types of readings, other affixes are available, that is, there is a division of labour.

New -er formations on the basis of simple nouns are practically impossible (but easy for abbreviations, etc., cf. below): default affixes appear to be -ier ( herbergierinn keeper) and -aar ( molenaarmiller).

[+] Other bases

The suffix -er can also combine with members of word classes other than verbs. For instance with geographical and other names, abbreviations, cardinal numbers, and nouns.

  • The suffix -(d)er can be combined with geographical names to create inhabitant names: Amsterdammersomeone from AmsterdamNederlanderDutchman, Zoetermeerdersomeone from Zoetermeer. If the name ends in -en, stem reduction occurs: Groningersomeone from Groningen. Sometimes, the inhabitant noun is homophonous to the adjective (Groninger can also be used as an adjective denoting from or relating to Groningen), sometimes it isn't (Nederlander does not have an adjectival use). There are other suffixes to create inhabitant names as well (e.g. -aar in Hagenaarsomeone from The Hague and -ees in Hageneessomeone from The Hague); the mechanisms underlying the division of labour between the competing suffixes are unclear, most forms are lexicalized, are listed in dictionaries, etc., and are taught in school.

    The feminine counterpart of -er nouns derived from geographical nouns is not by means of -ster (no *Amsterdamster, *Nederlandster next to Amsterdammer, Nederlander), but the nominalized form of the derived adjective: Amsterdamsefrom Amsterdam (A), woman from Amsterdam (N), NederlandseDutch (A), Dutch woman (N).

  • The suffix -er can also be combined with names of sports clubs to create nouns that denote members or fans: (FeyenoorderFeyenoord player/fan, Lagaaiermember of (Delft student rowing club) Laga). There are other suffixes to create membership names as well (e.g. -ied in AjaxiedAjax player/fan and -ees in Tritoneesmember of (Utrecht student rowing club) Triton); the mechanisms underlying the distribution are unclear, many forms are lexicalized.
  • -er can also combine with abbreviations in which all letters are pronounced (initialisms) (PTT'er/pe.te.'te.(j)ər/postman, NCRV'er/ɛn.se.ɛr.'ve.(j)ər/member or employee of the Christian broadcasting union, KRO'er/ka.ɛr.'o.ər/member or employee of the Catholic broadcasting union), but not with abbreviations that are pronounced as words (acronyms) (*VARA'er/'va.ra.ər/member or employee of the Socialist broadcasting union, *AVRO'er/'a.vro.ər/member or employee of the Liberal broadcasting union).
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    The official spelling rules (Woordenlijst) insist that we spell these derivations with an apostrophe, but other spellings (PTT-er, PTTer) can be found as well.

  • Cardinal numerals can be input to -er derivations as well. Most common bases are multiples of 10 (tienerteenager, twintiger, dertiger, negentigersomeone in his/her twenties/thirties/nineties), but formations on more complex numerals can be found as well, with a more or less transparent meaning (in context), e.g. zestiener16.ersomeone of 16 years old, time in the sixteen seconds/minutes region, negenenveertigersomeone born in 1949, (car) built in 1949,vierenzeventiger74.ercar built in 1974, battleship with 74 guns.
  • There are quite some nouns in -er formed on a nominal basis:

    Table 3
    Base form Derivation
    schipship schippercaptain, skipper
    daaddeed, act daderperpetrator
    rechtjustice rechterjudge
    New -er derivations on simple nominal bases are unlikely to be coined. In line with the majority of the formations on a verbal base, these derivations more or less carry an idea of agentivity. For example, a rechterjudge applies the law to court cases and oversees the legal process in courts.

    Denominal -er formations often occur as the right-hand member of noun-noun compounds (beurtschipperskipper of a trading barge, scheidsrechterreferee), but there is usually no reason to analyse these as synthetic compounds. Another class of complex denominal -er formations has a cardinal numeral as left-hand part, e.g. driepitterthree cylinder engine, three burner stove, viermasterfour-masted ship, twaalftonnertwelve ton car/machine/lift. Here, an analysis as synthetic compound is called for, given the exocentric reading and the non-existence of the binary parts *driepit, *viermast, *twaalfton, *pitter, *master, and *tonner.

    In denominal agent noun formation, -er competes with a number of suffixes, e.g. -ier as in winkelierwinkel.iershopkeeper, -aar as in molenaarmill.enaarmiller, -ist as in violistviool.istviolinist (especially with musical instruments as bases).

  • There are a few -er derivations with a phrasal basis: doe-het-zelverdo.it.self.erdo-it-yourselver, vierdeklasserfourth.class.erfourth-grader, ban-de-bommerban.the.bomb.erdisarmament activist.
  • There are a few -er derivations with a adjectival basis: ouderparent (oudold), vrijwilligervolunteer (< vrijwilligvoluntary(ly)). New cases are extremely rare, more common ways to derive nouns from adjectives are -erd (viezerd) , -aard (lafaard) , and especially -e (rooie) .
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    An alternative analysis of ouderparent (oudold) and vrijwilligervolunteer (< vrijwilligvoluntary(ly)) would be as nominalizations (conversions) of the comparitive form. This might work for the case of ouder, as a parent is by necessity older than someone else (his/her offspring), but a comparative semantics is lacking in the case of vrijwilliger. The same holds for misdadiger, from the derived adjective misdadigcriminal.

    Philippa (2003-2009) (Etymologiebank) mentions yet another suffix -er (< pgm -ran-) that is found in a number of names for male animals such as katertomcat (< katcat), doffercock (< duifdove, pigeon) and (obsolete) gandergander, male goose (< gansgoose).

    The form rederijkermember of chamber of rhetoric, rhetorician has been mentioned () as an another case of an -er derivation on a phrasal basis, but the WNT dictionary (Instituut voor Nederlandse Lexicologie 1995) ( http://gtb.inl.nl/iWDB/search?actie=article&wdb=WNT&id=M057941&lemmodern=rederijker) suggests that it is "a jocular adaption of" rhetoriekerrhetorician.

[+] Synthetic compounds

The suffix -er is a prolific source of synthetic compounds. Following Smessaert (2013: 137 ff) we may distinguish a number of subtypes:

  • Num+N+-er, e.g. tientonnerten.ton.erten ton (truck), driemasterthree.mast.erthree-master, driewielerthree.wheel.ertricycle, viervoeterfour.foot.erquadriped, duizendklapperthousand.hit.erfirecracker, string of bangers.
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    Formations like driewegstekkerthree.way.plugthree-way plug are either to be analyzed as a very complex synthetic compound [drie](Num) [weg](N) [steek](V) [er](aff) or as a three-part compound [drie](Num) [weg](N) [stekker](N).

  • P+N+-er, e.g. tegenvoeteragainst.foot.erantipode, onderzeeërunder.see.ersubmarine;
  • A/Adv+V+-er, e.g. veelschrijvermuch.write.erprolific writer, langslaperlong.sleep.erlong sleeper, dooddoenerdead.do.erclincher;
  • N+V+-er, geldschietermoney.shoot.ermoneylender, kustvaardercoast.sail.ercoaster, sportbeoefenaarsport.practice.ersportsman, woordvoerderword.carry.erspokesman.

[+] Input restrictions

According to De Haas and Trommelen (1993: 42), deverbal -er derivations are rare on the basis of ergative verbs, which explains the (virtual) absence of formations like *valler (< vallento fall), ?blijver (< blijvento stay) and *sterver (< stervento die). Note that this restriction is not absolute, witness forms like dalerdescender (< dalento descend) and stijgerclimber (< stijgento rise) (Booij 1986). Moreover, when certain ergative verbs, such as vallen, have a verbal particle, as in meevallen or afvallen, -er formations can be ok, witness meevallerpiece of good luck and afvallersomeone not qualifying, loser. Derivations on the basis of modal verbs are rare as well, but complex formations on the basis of light verbs do occur, e.g. alleskunnerall.can.erallrounder, nietwillernot.will.erdownturner, achterblijversbehind.stay.ersstragglers, dwarsliggercross.ly.ersleeper, obstructionist, crossbar, and tegenstanderagainst.stand.eropponent.

[+] Semantic issues

In agentive readings, -er derivations often get a pregnant (marked) reading: a schrijverwriter is not just someone who occasionally writes, but a professional writer; a drinkerdrinker is not someone who drinks to quench his thirst but an alcoholic; a buitenstaanderouside.stand.er is not someone who happens to stand out, but an toutsider, an etereater is not just someone who eats but a dinner guest. This effect, incidentally, is not restricted to -er derivation: as everyone drinks everyday, an utterance such as hij drinkthe drinks has no news value. Therefore it can be used as a euphemistic way to express he is an alcoholic.

[+] Phonological properties

-er never carries stress, as its vowel is a schwa. The affix is cohering: syllabification does not align with morphological structure (e.g. werk.er/'wεr-kər/worker). The stress pattern of -er derivations follows that of the base (ver'radertraitor < ver'radento betray, 'onderkruiperbackstabber < 'onder.kruipento undercut); in synthetic compounds with -er, main stress is on the leftmost part (be'velhebbercommand havercommander, 'tientonnerten ton truck), as is common in nominal compounds.

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In informal varieties of Dutch, especially from the Holland area, the allomorph -erd (also spelled -ert) may replace -er, sometimes with a jocular effect: voetballertfootball player, brommerdmoped, vrijheidsstrijdert freedom fighter. Note that the variant sometimes even occurs in simplex words and loans, e.g. gozerd for gozerguy, bloke (< Jiddish chosenbridegroom, son in law) and computerdcomputer.

With a few verbs, we see stem allomorphy: zangersinger < zingento sing (but also meezingersing-along-song, someone who sings along), diendercop < dienento serve (but also dienaarservant), uitgaandersgadders < uitgaanto go out (but also the synthetic compounds voetgangerpedestrian, kerkgangerchurch.go.erworshipper and telgangercount.go.erambler from the same base verb gaanto go), buitenstaanderoutsider and tegenstanderopponent both from the base verb staanto stand

[+] Morphological potential

Nominal -er derivations can be input for new derivations, e.g. the formation of abstract nouns by means of the suffix -schap (leiderschapleadership, ouderschapparenthood < oud.erold.erparent, bevelhebberschapcaptaincy), or diminutive formation with the suffix -tje (leidertjeleader.DIM). Nominal -er derivations can also be part of nominal compounds, both left-hand part (e.g. ouderraadparent council); often, a link phoneme s is inserted (aandeelhoudersvergaderingshare.holder.s.meetingshareholder's meeting) and right-hand part (e.g. kinderrechterjuvenile judge). In certain cases, it may be hard to decide whether the formation should be analysed as a compound or as a synthetic compound, e.g. vrijheidsstrijderfreedom fighter.

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In N-N compounds with a deverbal -er derivation as the right-hand part, the left-hand part usually has a preferred interpretation as a (semantic) argument of the base verb (c.f. (Davidson 1967), (Hoeksema 1984)), but which exact argument its is, cannot be predicted, cf. platenspelerdisc player, grammophone (Patient), poppenspelerpuppet player (Instrument), vleugelspelerwing player (Location). In the appropriate context (music), the left-hand part in the last example can moreover also get a Patient reading (as vleugel can also mean grand piano).

Feminine forms of deverbal -er formations are usually with -ster replacing -er (affix substitution): paardrijdsterhorse.drive.sterhorsewoman, scriptiebegeleidsterthesis.be.lead.sterfemale thesis supervisor, occasionally in -es (e.g. lezeresfemale reader next to lezerreader). Sometimes there is meaning specialisation (e.g. werksterlit. female worker, cleaning lady). The feminine counterpart of -er nouns derived from geographical nouns, however, is not by means of -ster (no *Amsterdamster, *Nederlandster next to Amsterdammer, Nederlander but the inflected form of the derived adjective: Amsterdamsefrom Amsterdam (A), woman from Amsterdam (N), NederlandseDutch (A), Dutch woman (N).

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Denominal -er derivations usually have no morphologically marked counterpart (De Haas and Trommelen 1993: 177) (no *rechtster next to rechterjudge < rechtjustice, law), and the same holds for denumeral ones (no *dertigster next to dertigersomeone in his thirties).

Verbal -er formations can be input to new derivation, e.g. the derived noun gesnottersobbing (< snotterento snivel < snotsnot) and the derived verb ontredderento puzzle, to bring in disarray (obsolete, but the past participle ontredderdupset and the derived noun ontredderingupheavel are still in use).

[+] Inflectional properties

Nominal formations in -er have a plural in -s: arbeidersworkers, vijftigerspeople in their fifties, tientonnersten ton trucks, bijsluiters.

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An exceptional plural in -en is found in bestuurderendirectors, governors (next to regular bestuurders), parallel to equally obsolete vaderenfathers next to regular vaderfathers from simplex vader. Ouderenolder people is not a case in point as it is the plural form of a nominalisation of the comparative ouderean older person.

References:
  • Booij, Geert1986Form and meaning in morphology: the case of Dutch 'agent nouns'Linguistics24503-518
  • Booij, Geert1986Form and meaning in morphology: the case of Dutch 'agent nouns'Linguistics24503-518
  • Booij, Geert2002The morphology of DutchOxfordOxford University Press
  • Davidson, Donald1967The logical form of action sentencesThe logic of decision and actionThe University of Pittsburgh Press81-95
  • Haas, Wim de & Trommelen, Mieke1993Morfologisch handboek van het Nederlands. Een overzicht van de woordvormingSDU Uitgeverij
  • Haas, Wim de & Trommelen, Mieke1993Morfologisch handboek van het Nederlands. Een overzicht van de woordvormingSDU Uitgeverij
  • Hoeksema, Jack1984Categorial morphologyGroningenPh. D. dissertation, University of Groningen
  • Hoeksema, Jack1984Categorial morphologyGroningenPh. D. dissertation, University of Groningen
  • Hoeksema, Jack1984Categorial morphologyGroningenPh. D. dissertation, University of Groningen
  • Instituut voor Nederlandse Lexicologie1995Het Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal (WNT)
  • Moortgat, Michael1981Subcategorization and the notion 'Lexical Head'Linguistics in the Netherlands 1981Amsterdam
  • Moortgat, Michael & Hulst, Harry van der1981Geïnterpreteerde morfologieGlot4179-214
  • Philippa, Marlies, Debrabandere, Frans, Quak, Arend, Schoonheim, Tanneke & Sijs, Nicoline van der2003-2009Etymologisch Woordenboek van het NederlandsAmsterdam University Press
  • Smessaert, Hans2013Basisbegrippen morfologieBasisbegrippen taalkundeLeuven/Den HaagACCO
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