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Starting a Sentence in Dutch: A corpus study of subject- and object-fronting

21 February 2008


What causes a speaker of Dutch to front a particular constituent? Gerlof Bouma investigated this question for subjects, direct objects and indirect objects.

A prominent type of word order variation in Dutch is variation in the choice of the directly pre-verbal constituent. The Dutch sentence ‘Ik vertel jou dat nog wel’("I'll tell you later") has got two variations with the same meaning: ‘Jou vertel ik dat nog wel’ and ‘Dat vertel ik jou nog wel.’

What causes a speaker to front a particular constituent? Motivated by existing results on word order, a corpus study of spoken Dutch reveals that grammatical function, NP type, and grammatical complexity independently influence the chance a constituent is fronted. Speakers frequently front subjects, definite NPs and demonstrative pronouns, but not objects, indefinite NPs or personal pronouns. A preference to place complex material rightmost causes longer constituents to be fronted less.

For a hearer, word order variation means that the order of constituents does not fix their interpretation. Several languages constrain word order variation when there is not enough information to guide hearers to the correct interpretation. This constraint also seems present as a trend in Dutch fronting: Speakers use the object-initial word order less often when hearers are more likely to misinterpret a sentence because subject and object have atypical definiteness or animacy properties. Bouma argues that this constraint shows that a complete understanding of word order variation must comprise speaker and hearer perspectives.


Date and time: 21 februari 2008, 16.15 uur

PhD: G.J. Bouma

Dissertation: Starting a sentence in Dutch: A corpus study of subject- and object-fronting

Promotors: prof. J. Hoeksema en prof. H.E. de Swart

Faculty: arts


Last modified:15 September 2017 3.37 p.m.
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