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Show full table of contents personal pronouns

The quantificational personal pronouns can also be divided into +human and -human forms. The former consist of the existential quantifier iemand'someone' and the universally quantified pronoun iedereen (in writing, the formal forms ( een)ieder and elkeen can also be found, the latter of which is generally considered archaic). The -human counterparts of these pronouns are iets'something', or its more colloquial alternate wat, and alles'all'. Both the +human and -human existential quantifiers have negative counterparts, which are, respectively, niemand'nobody' and niets or its more colloquial alternant, niks'nothing'.

Table 7: Quantificational personal pronouns
  [+human] [-human]
existential positive iemand‘someone’ iets/wat‘something’
  negative niemand‘nobody’ niets/niks‘something’
universal iedereen‘everybody’ alles‘everything’

The following subsections will discuss some properties of the quantificational nouns shown in Table 7. Before we do this we want to note that in traditional grammar, forms like sommige(n)'some', vele(n)'many' and alle(n)'all' are also categorized as personal pronouns. However, since these forms can be considered nominalizations of the corresponding quantificational modifiers, they will be discussed in Section 6.2.

[+]  I.  Meaning

The easiest way of explaining the core meaning of quantification personal pronouns is by using Figure 1 from Section 1.1.2, sub IIA, repeated below, to represent the subject-predicate relation in a clause. In this figure “A” represents the set denoted by the subject NP and “B” the set denoted by the verb phrase. The intersection A ∩ B denotes the set of entities for which the proposition expressed by the clause is claimed to be true. In an example such as Jan wandelt op straat, for example, it is claimed that the set denoted by A, viz. {Jan}, is properly included in set B, which is constituted by the people walking in the street. In other words, it expresses that A - (A ∩ B) = ∅.

Figure 1: Set-theoretic representation of the subject-predicate relation

      In the discussion below we will not be interested in the fact that the +human and-human pronouns are associated with two mutually exclusive denotation sets: with the former, set A is a (possibly contextually defined) set of individuals, whereas with the latter set A is a (possibly contextually defined) set of non-human entities. We will rather focus on the implication of the pronouns for the intersection A ∩ B and the remainder of set A, that is, A - (A ∩ B).
      The existential pronouns iemand and iets behave in a way similar to indefinite noun phrases in that they indicate that A ∩ B is not empty, and do not imply anything about the set A - (A ∩ B), which may or may not be empty.

Example 339
a. Er loopt iemand op straat.
  there  walks  someone  in the.street
  'There is someone walking in the street.'
a'. iemand: |A ∩ B| ≥ 1
b. Er zit iets in die doos.
  there  sits  something  in that box
  'There is something in that box.'
b'. iets: |A ∩ B| ≥ 1

In contrast to what we did with singular indefinite noun phrases in Section, we follow the philosophical tradition here in assuming that these quantification pronouns have the cardinality ≥ 1. The reason for this is that the existential pronouns can be used in yes/no-questions without the implication that there is at most one individual/entity that satisfies the description provided by the verb phrase. This will be clear from the fact that the question-answers pairs given in () constitute a perfectly coherent piece of interaction.

Example 340
a. Komt er vanavond iemand? Ja, Jan en Peter met hun partner.
  comes  there  tonight  someone  yes  Jan and Peter  with their partner
  'Is there anyone coming tonight? Yes, Jan and Peter with their partner.'
b. Zit er nog iets in die doos? Ja, een paar boeken.
  sits  there  still  something  in that box  yes  a couple of books
  'Is there still something in that box? Yes, a couple of books.'

      Whereas the semantic contribution of the existential quantifiers resembles that of the indefinite noun phrases, the universal quantifiers instead resemble the definite noun phrase: they express that in the domain of discourse (domain D), all entities that satisfy the description of the pronoun (human/non-human) are included in the intersection A ∩ B, that is, that A - (A ∩ B) = ∅.

Example 341
a. Iedereen loopt op straat.
  everyone  walks  in the.street
a'. iedereen: A - (A ∩ B) = ∅ & |A ∩ B| ≥ 1
b. Alles zit in de doos.
  everything  is  in the box
b'. alles: A - (A ∩ B) = ∅ & |A ∩ B| ≥ 1

      Now that we have seen that the existential and the universal personal pronouns resemble noun phrases containing, respectively, an indefinite and a definite article, it will probably not come as a surprise that the negative existential personal pronouns resemble noun phrases containing the negative article geen: they express that the intersection (A ∩ B) is empty.

Example 342
a. Er loopt niemand op straat.
  there  walks  no.one  in the.street
  'There is no one walking in the street.'
a'. niemand: |A ∩ B| = ∅
b. Er zit niets in die doos.
  there  sits  nothing  in that box
  'There is nothing in that box.'
b'. niets: |A ∩ B| = ∅
[+]  II.  Number

The examples in (343) and (344) show that the quantificational pronouns are, formally, third person, singular pronouns. This is clear from subject agreement with the finite verb, which must also be third person singular, and from the fact that the third person singular possessive pronoun zijn'his' can take these pronouns as its antecedent.

Example 343
a. Er heeft/*hebben iemandi zijni auto verkeerd geparkeerd.
  there  has/have  someone  his car  wrongly  parked
b. Er heeft/*hebben niemandi zijni auto verkeerd geparkeerd.
  there  has/have  no.one  his car  wrongly  parked
c. Iedereeni heeft/*hebben zijni auto verkeerd geparkeerd.
  everyone  has/have  his car  wrongly  parked
Example 344
a. Er ligt/*liggen ietsi uit zijni doos.
  there  lies/lie  something  out.of  his box
  'There is something out of its box.'
b. Er ligt/*liggen nietsi uit zijni doos.
  there  lies/lie  nothing  out.of  his box
  'There is nothing out of its box.'
c. Allesi ligt/*liggen in zijni doos.
  everything  lies/lie  in his box
  'Everything is in its box.'
[+]  III.  Nonspecific and specific readings of the existential pronouns

The fact that the existentially quantified subject pronouns in (343a) and (344a) co-occur with the expletive er'there' shows that they can be weak noun phrases. The examples in (345) show, however, that these quantificational pronouns can also be strong, that is, can also appear in the regular subject position.

Example 345
a. Er heeft iemand gebeld.
  there  has  someone  called
  'Someone has called.'
b. Er is iets gevallen.
  there  is  something  fallen
  'Something has fallen.'
a'. ? Iemand heeft gebeld.
b'. ?? Iets is gevallen.

The primed examples are marked, however, in the sense that they require a special intonation pattern: they are only natural if the quantificational pronoun is assigned accent. The pronouns in the primed examples then receive a specific indefinite reading, which can be paraphrased by means of een zeker persoon/ding'a certain person/thing'. The pronouns in the primeless examples, on the other hand, can be interpreted non-specifically, which is clear from the fact that they can be paraphrased by means of een of ander persoon/ding'some person/thing'. The examples in (346) show that the more colloquial existential pronoun wat differs from iets in that it can only occur with the expletive, which shows that wat can only be interpreted non-specifically.

Example 346
a. Er is wat gevallen.
  there  is  something  fallen
  'Something has fallen.'
b. * Wat is gevallen.

      The fact that the quantificational pronouns in (345a&b) can be interpreted non-specifically does not mean that they must be interpreted this way. Actually, there is reason for assuming that they can have both a nonspecific and a specific reading. The two readings can be made prominent by adding a quantified adverbial phrase like verschillende keren'several times' to the sentence. If the existential quantifier follows the adverbial phrase, as in (347a), it can only be interpreted non-specifically, which is clear from the fact that the quantifier may then range over a non-singleton set of entities, that is, that several persons have called or several things have fallen. This reading is normally expressed by assuming that the existential quantifier is in the scope of the quantified adverbial phrase verschillende keren.

Example 347
a. Er heeft verschillende keren iemand gebeld.
  there  has  several times  someone  called
b. Er is verschillende keren iets/wat gevallen.
  there  has  several times  something  fallen

If the existential quantifier precedes the adverbial phrase, on the other hand, it must receive a specific interpretation; in (348a) the phone calls were all made by the same person, the identity of whom is concealed by the speaker; in (348b) it is a certain thing, which is not further specified, which has fallen several times. Note that iets in (348b) cannot be replaced by wat, which supports the claim made on basis of (346) that wat is inherently nonspecific.

Example 348
a. Er heeft iemand verschillende keren gebeld.
  there  has  someone  several times  called
b. Er is iets/*wat verschillende keren gevallen.
  there  has  something  several times  fallen

Although the specific interpretation can in principle be expressed by assuming that the existential quantifier takes the quantified phrase in its scope, doing this may be beside the point given that a similar meaning difference can be found in (349), in which the adverbial phrase is not quantificational in nature. It therefore seems easier to simply assign iemand/iets the reading “a certain person/thing” if it occurs in front of a clausal adverb; see Hornstein (1984) for a similar claim concerning English existentially quantified noun phrases.

Example 349
a. Er heeft gisteren iemand gebeld.
  there  has  yesterday  someone  called
b. Er heeft iemand gisteren gebeld.
  there  has  someone  yesterday  called

      Note that although we can paraphrase the specific and nonspecific readings of iemand and iets by means of indefinite noun phrases preceded by the indefinite article een, the former differs from the latter in not allowing a generic interpretation: whereas the generic sentence in (350a) is fully acceptable, example (350b) can certainly not be interpreted generically.

Example 350
a. Een mens is sterfelijk.
  a human being  is mortal
  'Man is mortal.'
b. *? Iemand is sterfelijk.
  someone  is mortal

Possible exceptions to the general rule that iemand and iets cannot be used generically are given in (351), taken from Haeseryn et al. (1997), which are special in that they contain two conjoined predicates that are mutually exclusive.

Example 351
a. Iemand is getrouwd of ongetrouwd.
  someone  is married or not.married
b. Iets is waar of niet waar.
  something  is true or not true

Of course, generic meanings can be and are in fact typically expressed by means of the universal personal pronouns: cf. Iedereen is sterfelijk'Everyone is mortal' and Alles is vergankelijk'Everything is fleeting'.

[+]  IV.  Negative existential subject pronouns

The negative existential pronouns niemand'no one' and niets/niks'nothing' are normally used as weak quantifiers, which is clear from the fact that, as subjects, they are preferably used in an expletive construction. Examples like (352a'&b') are acceptable, but generally require emphatic focus: the quantifier then receives an emphatic reading comparable with the “not a single N” reading of noun phrases with geen; cf. Section, sub III.

Example 352
a. Er heeft niemand gebeld.
  there  has  nobody  called
  'Nobody has called.'
b. Er is niets gevallen.
  there  is  nothing  fallen
  'Nothing has fallen.'
a'. Niemand heeft gebeld.
  nobody  has  called
  'Not a single person called.'
b'. Niets is gevallen.
  nothing  is fallen
  'Not a single thing fell.'

      The negative quantifiers niemand and niets can probably best be considered as the negative counterparts of the nonspecific quantifiers iemand and iets: if we want to negate a sentence containing the specific forms of these quantifiers, negation is not expressed on the quantifier, but by means of the negative adverb niet. Example (353)s show that the specific quantificational pronoun must precede this adverb. For completeness’ sake, note that, in accordance with the earlier suggestion that it is inherently nonspecific, wat cannot substitute for iets in (353b).

Example 353
a. Er heeft iemand niet gebeld.
  there  has  someone  not  called
  'A certain person didnʼt call.'
b. Er is iets/*wat niet gevallen.
  there  is something  not  fallen
  'A certain thing didnʼt fall.'

      In contrast to the existential quantifiers (cf. (350b)), the negative existential quantifiers in (354) can readily be used in generic statements. In examples like these, the negative quantifiers behave like strong quantifiers, that is, they cannot be used in an expletive construction.

Example 354
a. Niemand is onsterfelijk.
  nobody  is  immortal
  'Nobody is immortal.'
b'. Niets is tevergeefs.
  nothing  is in.vain
  'Nothing is in vain.'
a'. *? Er is niemand onsterfelijk.
b'. *? Er is niets tevergeefs.
[+]  V.  Syntactic distribution

Quantificational pronouns can be used in all regular argument positions. In (355) and (356) this is illustrated for, respectively, the subject and the object position.

Example 355
a. Er ligt iemand/iets op mijn bed.
  there  lies  someone/something  on my bed
  'There is someone/something lying on my bed.'
b. Er ligt niemand/niets op mijn bed.
  there  lies  no.one/nothing  on my bed
  'There is no one/nothing lying on my bed.'
c. Iedereen/Alles ligt op mijn bed.
  everybody/everything  lies  on my bed
Example 356
a. Jan heeft iemand/iets weggebracht.
  Jan has  someone/something  brought.away
  'Jan has brought away someone/something.'
b. Jan heeft niemand/niets weggebracht.
  Jan has  no.one/nothing  brought.away
  'Jan has brought away no one/nothing.'
c. Jan heeft iedereen/alles weggebracht.
  Jan has  everyone/everything  brought.away
  'Jan has brought everyone/everything away.'

The examples in (357) show that +human quantificational personal pronouns can also be used as the complement of a preposition. The existential pronoun in (357a) can be either specific or nonspecific, and the negative existential pronoun in (357b) is interpreted with its normal, non-emphatic, reading.

Example 357
a. Jan wil op iemand wachten.
  Jan wants  for someone  wait
  'Jan wants to wait for someone.'
b. Jan wil op niemand wachten.
  Jan wants  for no.one wait
  'Jan doesnʼt want to wait for anyone.'
c. Jan wil op iedereen wachten.
  Jan wants  for everyone  wait
  'Jan wants to wait for everyone.'

The situation is somewhat more complex with the -human pronouns due to the fact that they can undergo R-pronominalization, that is, the primeless examples in (358) alternate with the primed examples.

Example 358
a. P iets
a'. ergens ... P
b. P niets
b'. nergens ... P
negative existential
c. P alles
c'. overal ... P

The examples in (359) show that the existential pronoun iets alternates with the R-word. Although judgments are somewhat subtle, it seems that (359a) is preferably construed as specific, whereas (359b) instead receives a nonspecific interpretation.

Example 359
a. Jan wil op iets wachten.
  Jan wants  for something  wait
  'Jan wants to wait for something.'
b. Jan wil ergens op wachten.
  Jan wants  somewhere  for wait
  'Jan wants to wait for something.'

With the negative existential pronouns, R-pronominalization seems to be the unmarked option. Realizing the pronoun as the complement of the preposition seems to give rise to a “not a single thing” reading.

Example 360
a. Jan wil op niets wachten.
  Jan has  for nothing  wait
  'Jan doesnʼt want to wait for anything.'
b. Jan wil nergens op wachten.
  Jan wants  nowhere  for wait
  'Jan doesnʼt want to wait for anything.'

With the universal pronoun, R-pronominalization may also be the unmarked option. Realizing the pronoun as the complement of the preposition seems to give rise to an emphatic “each and every thing” reading.

Example 361
a. Jan wil op alles wachten.
  Jan wants  for everything  waited
  'Jan wants to wait for everything.'
b. Jan wil overal op wachten.
  Jan wants  everywhere  for  wait
  'Jan wants to wait for everything.'

Given that the above observations are rather impressionistic, more research is needed to establish whether the R-forms are indeed unmarked and whether the two forms indeed exhibit systematic meaning differences of the sort suggested here.
      Finally, it can be noted that the positive and negative existential pronouns can also be used as the predicate in a copular construction, although they normally require some form of modification. This is illustrated in (362) for the nonspecific use of the pronouns; it is probably not surprising that the negative existential pronouns have a more or less idiomatic interpretation.

Example 362
a. Jan is iemand van mijn school.
  Jan is someone from my school
a'. Die gewoonte is nog iets uit mijn schooltijd.
  that habit  is  still  something  from my school.days
b. Jan is niemand.
  Jan is no.one
  'Jan is a nobody.'
b'. Dat probleem is niets.
  that problem  is nothing
  'That problem is of no importance.'

The predicatively used, existentially quantified pronouns in the primeless examples of (363) receive a specific interpretation, which is clear from the fact that their negative counterparts in the (b)-examples do not involve the negative existential pronouns, which are preferably construed as nonspecific, but the negative adverb niet.

Example 363
a. Hij is iemand [met wie je gemakkelijk kan praten].
  he  is  someone   with whom  you  easily  talk can
  'Heʼs someone with whom one can talk easily.'
a'. Hij is niet iemand [met wie je gemakkelijk kan praten].
  he  is  not  someone   with whom  you  easily  talk can
b. Dat is iets [om rekening mee te houden].
  that is something  comp  account  with  to keep
  'This is something to take into account.'
b'. Dat is niet iets [om rekening mee te houden].
  that  is not  something  comp  account  with  to keep
[+]  VI.  Modification

Quantificational personal pronouns often occur with postmodifiers, which then function to restrict the set denoted by the pronoun. This is illustrated in (364) by means of the +human pronouns. In all these examples, the set of persons is restricted to a subset of it.

Example 364
a. Iemand uit de keuken/daar heeft een mes in zijn hand gestoken.
  someone from the kitchen/there  has  a knife  into his hand  stuck
  'Someone from the kitchen/over there has stuck a knife into his hand.'
a'. Iemand die niet goed oplette, heeft een mes in zijn hand gestoken.
  someone  who  not well  prt.-attended  has  a knife  into his hand  stuck
  'Someone who didnʼt pay attention has stuck a knife into his hand.'
b. Iedereen op mijn werk/hier is ziek.
  everyone at my work/here  is ill
b'. Iedereen die goed oplet, zal het examen zeker halen.
  everyone  who  well  prt.-attends  will  the exam  certainly  pass
  'Everyone who pays attention in class will certainly pass the exam.'

      Premodification by means of an attributive adjective, on the other hand, seems to be excluded. Note that an example such as (365a) is only an apparent counterexample to this claim: the fact that the form iemand is preceded by an indefinite article indicates that the pronoun is simply used as a noun comparable in meaning to a noun like persoon'person'. Although the result feels somewhat marked, example (365b) shows iets can be used in a similar way with the meaning “thing”; wat is, however, completely unacceptable in such constructions. Note that the constructions in (365) actually require the presence of an attributive modifier: cf. *een iemand and *een iets.

Example 365
a. een keurig/aardig iemand
  neat/nice  someone
  'a neat/nice person'
b. een leuk ?iets/*wat
  nice   something
  'a nice thing'

      Existential pronouns can be modified in two other ways. First, these pronouns can be followed by the element anders'else'. These constructions are discussed more extensively in Section A7.4.

Example 366
a. iemand anders
  someone  else
b. iets/wat anders
  something  else

Second, the existential pronouns iemand and iets can be premodified with zo'such', which results in a “type” reading of the quantifier. The pronoun wat lacks this option, which is clear from the fact that whereas a Google search (12/1/2015) on the string [ook zo iets gelezen] resulted in 31 hits, no relevant results were obtained for the string [ook zo wat gelezen].

Example 367
a. Ik ken ook zo iemand.
  know  also  such someone
  'I also know a person like that.'
b. Ik heb onlangs ook zo iets/*?wat gelezen.
  have  recently  also  such something  read
  'Iʼve also read a thing like that recently.'
  • Haeseryn, Walter, Romijn, Kirsten, Geerts, Guido, Rooij, Jaap de & Toorn, Maarten C. van den1997Algemene Nederlandse spraakkunstGroningenNijhoff
  • Hornstein, Norbert1984Logic as grammarCambridge, MAMIT Press