• Dutch
  • Frisian
  • Saterfrisian
  • Afrikaans
Show all
Noun phrase arguments

Noun phrases are the most widely used structural type of arguments that combine with verbs. On the basis of the classification of noun phrases, an overall framework for the classification of all verb arguments can be made. The classification of prepositional arguments also relies on this framework.

At first approximation, the total number of arguments that a verb takes, can be used as basis of classification.

  • Verbs with a single argument are intransitive (see example (1)).
  • Verbs with two arguments are transitive (see example (2)).
  • Verbs with three arguments are ditransitive (see example (3)).

The verbs that adhere to this basic classification scheme are grouped together as the nominative-accusative or unergative subsystem. They have subjects that typically perform the thematic role of agent, or by extension the force or instrument of the action of the verb. The unergative subsystem is shown visually by Figure 1.

Figure 1: The three argument structure types in the nominative-accusative or unergative subsystem
[click image to enlarge]

The unergative verbs constitute the most typical group of argument constructions, but there are argument constructions that deviate from the typical pattern, because their subject performs another thematic role than agent. These additional construction types can be regarded as ergative verbs, if in a somewhat loose use of the term:

  • Unaccusative verbs, where the theme argument is selected as subject (see example (5) and (6)). If an unaccusative verb only has a theme argument and no other argument, it is called a monadic unaccusative verb, illustrated by example (5a). If an unaccusative verb has a recipient argument alongside the theme argument, then it is called a dyadic unaccusative verb, illustrated by example (5b).
  • Undative verbs, where the recipient argument is selected as subject (see example (7) and (8)).

The three ergative types are visualised in Figure 2.

Figure 2: .

Figure 2: The three argument structure types in the ergative subsystem
[click image to enlarge]

It is customary in a number of theoretical traditions to draw a distinction between internal and external arguments of the verb. An external argument is usually the subject, if that argument has the semantic role of agent, instrument or force. Theme and recipient arguments are internal arguments of the verb. Unergative (nominative-accusative) constructions – intransitive, monotransitive, and ditransitive – have an external argument as subject in their active form. Unaccusative and undative (ergative) constructions do not have an external argument in the clause, and therefore an internal argument is realised as subject of the clause in the active form.

Apart from argument constructions with one or more nominal arguments, there is also a small class of impersonal verbs that take no referential argument noun phrase, but take a dummy subjectdit it in Afrikaans (see example (9)).

[+]Unergative verbs

Unergative verbs have an external argument as subject, usually the agent of the verb, as illustrated by example (1) to (3).

Die mense praat maklik.
[(SUB) Die mense] praat maklik.
People talk easily.
Die mense steel ons goed.
[(SUB) Die mense] steel [(DO) ons goed].
The people steal our stuff.
Jy gee die mense verkeerde instruksies.
[(SUB) Jy] gee [(IO) die mense] [(DO) verkeerde instruksies].
You give people the wrong instructions.
[Ditransitive ]

This basic classification accounts for the vast majority of attested sentences in Afrikaans, which exhibit typical behaviour, such as the possibility of passivisation with transitives and ditransitives, or the dative alternation with ditransitives. These basic patterns are also usually agentive, such that the subject is the argument initiating the activity of the verb, and can be extended to a (inanimate) cause that is behind the action, as illustrated by (4).

Drie ontploffings het die Belgiese hoofstad Brussel Dinsdag geruk.
[(SUB) drie ontploffings] het [(DO) die Belgiese hoofstad Brussel] Dinsdag geruk
Three explosions rocked the Belgian capital Brussels on Tuesday.
[+]Unaccusative verbs

When an internal argument is selected as subject of the verb, a different construction results, with different properties. Where the theme argument is that internal argument, the construction is regarded as an unaccusative construction. For some verbs, such as arriveer/aankom to arrive, the subject is always the theme, as illustrated by (5); example (5a) illustrates a monadic unaccusative that only has a subject, while example (5b) illustrates a dyadic unaccusative with both subject and object. There are verbs that alternative between unaccusative and unergative use. In such cases, there is a verb-frame alternation where either an agent or a theme can function as subject, as illustrated by the pair in (6). Example (6a) represents a transitive construction, but (6b) is an unaccusative.

a. Die eerste setlaarsgroep het in 1787 aangekom.
[(SUB) die eerste setlaarsgroep] het in 1787 aangekom.
The first settler group arrived in 1787.
b. Die frikkadelle en rooisous geval my.
[(SUB) die frikkadelle en rooisous] geval [(IO) my]
The meatballs and red sauce please me. / I like the meatballs and red sauce.
a. Die hertog Albrecht breek Giselle se hart.
[(SUB) die hertog Albrecht] breek [(DO) Giselle se hart]
The duke Albrecht breaks Giselle's heart.
TK, adjusted
b. Giselle se hart breek.
[(SUB) Giselle se hart] breek.
Giselle's heart breaks.
[+]Undative verbs

The possibility of a class of undative verbs is described by the Syntax of Dutch(Broekhuis et al. 2015:213-227). The same possibility also applies to Afrikaans. Thus, the verb kry to get, as mirror image of gee to give, typically has the recipient in the syntactic role of subject, as illustrated by (7). Verbs of cognition, for instance ken to know in example (8), take an experiencer as subject, rather than an agent that actively performs an act in order to acquire knowledge. Undative verbs take the theme as their object, so they have two internal arguments and no external argument, which distinguishes them from transitive verbs.

a. Die sekretaresse gee vir haar 'n selnommer.
[(SUB) die sekretaresse] gee [(IO) vir haar] [(DO) 'n selnommer]
The secretary gives her a mobile number.
[Ditransitive ]
b. Sy kry 'n selnommer by die sekretaresse.
[(SUB) sy] kry [(DO) 'n selnommer] by die sekretaresse
She gets a mobile number from the secretary.
Ek ken die geblêr van skape.
[(SUB) ek] ken [(DO) die geblêr van skape]
I know the bleating of sheep.
[+]Impersonal verbs

Verbs that require no argument, typically verbs that denote weather conditions, are used with a dummy subject dit it in Afrikaans, as illustrated by (9).

Dit sneeu.
It snows.
  • Broekhuis, Hans, Corver, Norbert & Vos, Riet2015Syntax of Dutch. Verbs and verb phrasesComprehensive grammar resourcesAmsterdam University Press
printreport errorcite