1. The superlative PP construction in the title is relatively rare

Norbert Corver (UiL-OTS/Utrecht University) and Ora Matushansky (CNRS/Université Paris-8)
TIN-dag, February 4, 2006
The superlative PP construction in the title is relatively rare (though not unproductive) in English
and very productive in Dutch. Whereas in English PP superlatives may not contain a pronoun (as
in (1b-d), where a pronoun is ungrammatical) and often allow article drop (as in (1c, d)), Dutch
PP superlatives require a possessive pronoun:
(1) a.
Alice found herself at !her/*its/*the/*Ø loneliest.
She arrives on Sunday at *her/*its/!the/*Ø earliest/latest.
There were thirty people at *their/*its/!the/!Ø most/least.
At *your/*its/!the/!Ø worst/best, you will be beaten.
(2) a.
Naomi werd op d’r/*het
best aan het publiek getoond
Naomi was at 3FSG.POSS/the.NSG best to the audience shown
Naomi was shown to the audience at her best.
Sharon komt op z’n/*het
vroegst om 3 uur
Sharon comes at 3SG.POSS/the.NSG earliest at 3 o’clock
Sharon comes at 3 o’clock at the earliest.
The behavior of the Dutch possessive pronoun falls into two distinct categories: either it must be
locally bound, as in (2a) and (3a), or it may not be so, as in (2b) and (3b). We will refer to these
cases as reflexive PP superlative and pronominal PP superlative, respectively:
(3) a.
Marie keek op d’r/*z’n
boost naar mij
reflexive PP superlative
Marie looks at 3FSG.POSS/3SG.POSS angriest at
Marie is looking at me as angrily as she ever could.
Er waren op z’n/*hun
minst 30 mensen
pronominal PP superlative
there were at 3SG.POSS/3PL.POSS least 30 people
There were at least 30 people.
In (3a), the possessive pronoun must be coindexed with the subject, which is disallowed in (3b).
1. The reflexive PP superlative in (3a) is a predicate over individuals, while the pronominal
PP superlative in (3b) is a predicate over events (an adverbial).
2. PP superlatives contain a null abstract noun (cf. Ross 1964), with the meaning of stage in
reflexive PP superlatives.
3. PP superlatives interact with focus, possibly in different ways.
4. In English these two constructions show dramatically different behavior ((1a) vs. (1b-d)),
which shows that languages are sensitive to distinctions between abstract nouns
Acknowledgements: We thank Aafke Hulk for bringing the two authors together and Tony Blair for the title of the
talk (http://www.labour.org.uk/tbconfspeech/). We are also grateful to Eddy Ruys for help and discussion.
Abbreviations and conventions: The possessive z’n is used for both masculine third person referents and neuter or
underspecified ones, and is therefore glossed as 3SG.POSS throughout. The notations xVP, xAP and xNP (extended
projections of VP, AP and NP, respectively) are used to express our agnosticism as to the exact label of the node
under consideration.
Norbert Corver and Ora Matushansky
At our best when at our boldest, version 1.0 (February 4, 2006)
When a PP superlative appears as a primary predicate in a raising construction, as in (4a), or
with an ECM verb, as in (4b), the possessive pronoun must be bound by the nearest subject:
(4) a.
Marie lijkt me
nu op d’r/*z’n
Marie seems me-DAT now at 3FSG.POSS/3SG.POSS best
Marie seems to me to be at her best now.
Ik vind
Marie nu op d’r/*z’n
I consider Marie now at 3FSG.POSS/3SG.POSS best
I consider Marie to be at her best now.
The possessive pronoun must be bound by the Nominative subject in (4a) and by the small clause
subject in (4b). This makes it a weak reflexive similar to zich rather than zichzelf (see Reinhart
and Reuland 1993):
(5) Ik toonde Marie *zich/!zichzelf in de spiegel
I showed Marie *REFL/REFL.self in the mirror
I showed Marie herself in the mirror.
Local binding is also obligatory when a PP superlative functions as a secondary predicate:
(6) Ik toonde Jan
op d’r/*z’n
I showed Jan-DAT her-ACC at 3FSG.POSS/3SG.POSS best
I showed her to Jan at her best.
≠ I showed her to Jan at his best.
The fact that the PP superlative cannot modify an indirect object follows from its status as a
depictive: like most languages, Dutch disallows secondary predication with non-structural case:
(7) a. * I looked at her i [PRO i tired].
b. * Marie talked about Pierre i [PRO i sick].
Inanimate subjects may appear with the unmarked (masculine singular) pronoun in the reflexive
PP superlative (Haeseryn et al. 1987, henceforth ANS):
(8) a.
De bollenvelden zijn nu op hun/z’n
the bulb-fields
are now at 3PL.POSS/3SG.POSS beautiful-SUP
The flower fields are now at their best.
De ballerina’s zijn nu op hun/*z’n
the ballerinas are now at 3PL.POSS/3SG.POSS beautiful-SUP
The ballerinas are now at their best.
On the other hand, when a PP superlative appears as an adverbial (xVP modifier), coindexation
of the possessive with the (closest) subject or with any referential xNP is ungrammatical, and the
unmarked (masculine singular) pronoun is the only option.
(9) Ik
nodig op z’n/*hun/*m’n hoogst 10 mensen uit
invited at 3SG/their/my highest 10 people out
I invited 3 people at the most.
We conclude, therefore, that superficially we are dealing with two constructions:
(10) a.
reflexive PP superlative
op 3SG A-SUP
pronominal PP superlative
Norbert Corver and Ora Matushansky
At our best when at our boldest, version 1.0 (February 4, 2006)
The English PP superlative, when interpreted as primary or secondary predication requires a
reflexive pronoun:
(11) a.
Alice found [herself at !her/*its/*the/*Ø loneliest].
primary, ECM
Alice i seemed [t i at !her/*its/*the/*Ø loneliest].
primary, raising
Alice i confronted her secretary [PRO i at !her/*its/*the/*Ø angriest].
On the other hand, the English equivalents to (10b) in (1b-d) disallow any pronoun:
(1) b.
She arrives on Sunday at *her/*its/!the/*Ø earliest/latest.
There were thirty people at *their/*its/!the/!Ø most/least.
At *your/*its/!the/!Ø worst/best, you will be beaten.
This difference in behavior further supports the impression that we are dealing with two different
1. The possessive pronoun in (10a) is reflexive, while that in (10b) seems to be unable to be
(locally) bound.
2. The construction in (10a) can only be used as a primary or secondary predicate, while
(10b) has to be an adverbial.
3. The English equivalent of (10a) behaves in the same way, whereas those of (10b) show a
remarkably different behavior in that it disallows any pronoun.
The presence of a preposition and of the possessive pronoun strongly indicates the presence of
a null nominal head. We can also inquire as to the semantics of this head.
3.1. The head noun
Ross 1964: English superlatives, even when appearing in the predicate position, are attributive.
He suggests the presence of a null NP in adverbial superlatives as well.
Matushansky 2005: superlatives are obligatorily attributive cross-linguistically, with a null xNP
in the predicate position.
Russian long form adjectives: most Russian adjectives come in two forms. The long form is
derived from the short form via suffixation (on the morpho-phonology of long-form adjectives
see Halle and Matushansky 2006). The short form only appears as the predicate with the copular
be, while long-form adjectives are always attributive (Babby 1973, Bailyn 1994, Siegel 1976;
evidence comes from their interpretation and syntax), sometimes with a null noun.
Only long-form adjectives can form superlatives:
(12) a.
Marija byla krasivaja/krasivoj/krasiva
Maria was beautiful-LF-FSG.NOM/LF-FSG.INSTR/SF
Maria was beautiful.
Marija byla samaja krasivaja/ samoj krasivoj/*sama krasiva
Maria was most
Maria was the beautiful.
(13) a.
most-LF-FSG.NOM beautiful-LF-FSG.NOM woman-NOM
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At our best when at our boldest, version 1.0 (February 4, 2006)
over.EMPH-beautiful-SUP-LF-FSG.NOM woman-NOM
If long form-marking is what happens in the attributive position and superlatives are obligatorily
attributive (contain a null head noun), superlatives would only appear in the long form.
Spanish ser vs. estar (Roldán 1974, Lema 1992, Schmitt 1992, Costa 1998, Escandell-Vidal and
Leonetti 2002, etc.): Only ser can be used with nominal predicates; estar implies more transience
of the adjectival predicate, though coercion is always possible. Superlatives, of any adjectives,
can only appear with ser:
(14) María Callas es/*está
la más alta/disponible.
Maria Callas is
the more tall/available
Maria Callas is the tallest/the most available.
If superlatives are always attributive and the predicates in (14) are xNPs, the pattern is naturally
German and Dutch agreement: German and Dutch predicative adjectives do not agree with the
subject. Attributive adjectives show agreement with the head noun (concord). So while German
and Dutch have no mechanism to trigger agreement between the subject and the AP predicate,
superlatives in predicate position show attributive marking:
(15) a.
Das ist die
this is the-F most beautiful snake
This is the most beautiful snake.
Diese Schlange ist die
is the-F most beautiful
This snake is the most beautiful.
Dutch PP predicative superlatives conform to this generalization, given that usually xAPs cannot
appear as complements to prepositions or be modified by a possessive:
(16) a.
op d’r boost
possessive PP superlative
at her angriest
at her angriest
*PP adjective
b. * op boos
at angry
*possessive adjective
c. * d’r boos
her angry
The standard assumptions about c-selection argue that the superlative constructions in (3) contain
a null head noun. Several questions arise:
What is the semantics of this head noun?
Why is the possessive obligatory?
We will argue for the existence of abstract empty nouns in Dutch and show that their semantics
allows us to explain the obligatoriness of the possessive pronoun.
3.2. Anaphoric head nouns (“NP-ellipsis”)
Matushansky 2005: all superlatives are contained in an xNP, sometimes with a null head noun:
Norbert Corver and Ora Matushansky
At our best when at our boldest, version 1.0 (February 4, 2006)
(17) a.
We considered several candidates. Pamela was the sexiest Ø NP.
The worst Ø NP of the spies will be eliminated.
The null head noun is anaphoric to the discourse in a way analogous to the so-called NP-ellipsis:
(18) a.
Parmi ses
robes il n’y
avait pas de noires Ø NP.
among her/his dresses, it NEG+there was NEG of black-PL
Among her/his dresses, there was no black *(one).
want-2SG a/one-MSG
Want *(one)?
Whereas English has a special process of one-insertion (also available in Frisian and Breton), in
most languages “NP-ellipsis” is relatively free and only constrained by recoverability (whatever
it might mean). Given that Dutch allows it, can the null head noun in PP superlatives be another
case of NP-ellipsis?
The answer is no: NP-ellipsis in Dutch requires agreement marking on the adjective:
(19) a.
Jan kocht een grot*(-e) boot en Marie kocht een klein*(-e)
Jan bought a big-AGR boat and Marie bought a small-AGR
Jan bought a big boat and Marie bought a small one.
b. * Jan kocht een grot(-*e) huis en Marie kocht een klein(-*e)
Jan bought a big-AGR house and Marie bought a small-AGR
PP superlatives are incompatible with agreement marking on the superlative, showing that we are
dealing here with a process other than NP-ellipsis, and indeed, the null xNP is not anaphoric.
3.3. Abstract head nouns
Emonds 1985 argues for the existence of grammatical nouns, such as one, person, self or thing,
and Fukui 1987 and Noguchi 1997 analyze Japanese pronouns as null nouns. Such null nouns
bear semantically non-vacuous features such as [+human] for person, or [-animate] for thing, and
can trigger agreement (e.g., honorific agreement in Japanese).
Proposal: the inventory of null nouns also includes abstract concepts. Some of such concepts
function as head nouns in PP superlatives. Because there are different concepts, superlatives with
different head nouns will function differently from the semantic and syntactic point of view.
Not all of these nouns are instantiated in every language, and some languages do not have them
at all.
Dutch has at least two null abstract relational nouns: one for reflexive PP superlatives
and another one for pronominal PP superlatives.
English has (at least) a null abstract relational noun for reflexive PP superlatives and
a non-relational one for pronominal PP superlatives.
Russian has no null abstract nouns (which is why it has no adverbial superlatives)
German has null abstract nouns, but they are not relational.
Do we have any evidence for abstract nouns?
The fact that in some languages (e.g. Hebrew) adverbials are instantiated by adjectives suggests
the existence of the null noun manner or way.
Norbert Corver and Ora Matushansky
At our best when at our boldest, version 1.0 (February 4, 2006)
3.4. The syntax of PP superlatives
The productivity of reflexive PP superlatives argues against treating them as fixed expressions; it
can be shown that the preposition and the possessive can be disassociated from the superlative:
(20) a.
op d’r
vrolijkst en op d’r
at 3FSG.POSS joyful- SUP and at 3FSG.POSS happiest
b. ?? op d’r
vrolijkst en d’r
at 3FSG.POSS joyful- SUP and 3FSG.POSS happiest
op d’r
vrolijkst en gelukkigst
at 3FSG.POSS joyful- SUP and happiest
at her most joyful and at her happiest
With pronominal PP superlatives coordination is impossible for semantic reasons.
The preposition is real: PP superlatives can undergo PP-over-V (Koster 1973):
(21) a.
Marie heeft toen [op d’r
luidst]/ [het
luidst] gelachen
Marie has
then at 3FSG.POSS loudest/ DEF.NSG loudest laughed
Marie heeft toen gelachen [op d’r
luidst]/ *[het
Marie has
then laughed at 3FSG.POSS loudest/ DEF.NSG loudest
Mary then laughed as loud as she could.
The strong version of the possessive may not be used (probably because there’s interaction with
(22) a. * Marie keek op haar
boost naar mij
reflexive PP superlative
Marie looks at 3FSG.POSS angriest at
b. *Er
waren op zijn
minst 30 mensen
pronominal PP superlative
there were at 3SG.POSS least 30 people
The adjective may not take a complement, possibly because such a complement would be in
focus and we already know that these superlatives interact with focus:
(23) a.
Jan was het
boost op zijn
Jan was DEF.NSG angriest at 3MSG.POSS father
Jan was as angry at his father as he could possibly be.
b. *? Jan was op z’n
boost op zijn
Jan was at 3MSG.POSS angriest at 3MSG.POSS father
Alternative: the restriction is phonological, akin to the interdiction to incorporate branching or
heavy APs into the verbal cluster (Neeleman 1994 and references cited) and as a left member of
a compound (see de Haas and Trommelen 1993, Ruys 2004).
Comparison can be external (between different entities) and internal (between different stages
of the same entity). Reflexive PP superlatives require internal comparison (Broekhuis 1999:168,
no distinction between the two types of PP superlatives):
Norbert Corver and Ora Matushansky
At our best when at our boldest, version 1.0 (February 4, 2006)
(24) a.
Hij zingt het
van het hele koor.
external comparison
he sings the.NSG beautiful-SUP-AGR of the entire choir
He sings the best in the entire choir.
Onder de douche zingt zij het
internal comparison
under the shower sings she the.NSG beautiful-SUP
He sings the best under the shower.
(25) a. * Marie werkt op d’r
hardst van de hele klas
Marie works at 3FSG.POSS hardest of the whole class
Marie werkt ’s avonds
op d’r
Marie works in.the.evening at 3FSG.POSS hardest
Marie works the hardest in the evening.
Carlson 1977: stage-level predicates such as on the lawn or ill apply not to entities but to spatiotemporal slices thereof (stages).
Proposal: the abstract noun in Dutch reflexive PP superlatives is a relational stage:
(26) Alice found [herself at her loneliest Ø stage].
loneliest N
Ø stage
Under this assumption, the meaning of the PP superlative emerges compositionally:
(28) [[ the loneliest stage of x ]] = ιh [h is a stage of x ∧ ∀h′ [h′ is a stage of x → [h = h′ ∨ MAX
(λd . lonely (d)(h)) > MAX (λd . lonely (d)(h′))]]]
(28) denotes a moment in time and can combine with the spatio-temporal preposition at to result
in the right meaning
Internal superlatives must be comparative (see Ross 1964, Hoeksema 1983, Szabolcsi 1986,
Gawron 1995, Heim 1985, 1999, Farkas and É. Kiss 2000, Sharvit and Stateva 2002, etc.)
4.1. Possessive
If Ø stage is relational, a possessive is obligatory. The impossibility of a post-nominal possessive
(van x ‘of x’) is probably due to the same factors as the incompatibility with a strong pronoun:
(29) a. *op het
boost van haar
at the.NSG angriest of her
b. * de
(beste) vriend van haar
the.CSG best-AGR friend of her
The fact that the possessive pronoun must be reflexive is due to the pragmatics of the situation in
the same way it is in the semi-idiomatic examples (30), (31) and the fully compositional (32):
Norbert Corver and Ora Matushansky
At our best when at our boldest, version 1.0 (February 4, 2006)
(30) a.
(31) a.
I kept my/*her calm.
Keep your/*my head on your/*my shoulders.
You’ll try your damnedest for this sort of money. (Dick Francis, Reflex, p. 21)
Jan liep
op z’n
gemak/* op m’n gemak naar huis
Jan walked at 3MSG.POSS ease/
at my ease to
Jan walked home at his ease.
Jan was uit
z’n humeur
Jan was out of his humor
Jan was in bad temper.
(32) a.
Sue brought her/#my own book.
You can leave your/#my hat on.
Using a non-reflexive pronoun in reflexive PP superlatives results in the same kind of pragmatic
(33) a. # Callas sang [PRO3sg at Pavarotti’s best].
b. # [PRO1pl at our best] when [PRO3pl at their boldest].
(33) is clearly interpretable.
It may also be an alternative explanation for why strong pronouns are impossible: no alternatives
are available and so the pronoun cannot be focused.
4.2. Temporality
We can also explain the fact that an indication of time is required (Broekhuis 1999) and overt
introduction of comparison set is allowed only if this set is temporal:
(34) a. * op z’n boost van allen/iedereen
at 3SG angriest of all/everyone
* at her/his angriest among/of all/everyone
op z’n allerboost
at 3SG all-angriest
at her/his angriest ever
Prediction: reflexive PP superlatives cannot appear with individual-level adjectives (though
coercion is always an option):
op d’r
(35) a.?(?) Marie was gisteren
Marie was yesterday at 3FSG.POSS smartest
Marie was gisteren
op d’r
Marie was yesterday at 3FSG.POSS illest
Marie was the most sick yesterday.
Regular superlatives when interpreted internally are virtually undistinguishable from reflexive
PP superlatives.
4.3. Concord
Dutch attributive adjectives, including superlatives, are inflected with the agreement marker -e
unless the DP is [neuter][indefinite][singular], as in (36a):
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een !groot/*grot-e stoeltje
a large
a large little chair
een *groot/!grot-e stoel
the large
the large little chair
het *groot/!grot-e stoeltje
the large
the large little chair
d. * groot/!grote stoeltjes
large little chairs
Dutch superlatives show the regular concord pattern with the head noun, even if the head noun is
covert. In PP superlatives, however, the concord marker must be absent. In this they differ from
other adverbial superlatives including the “stage-superlative”:
(37) a.
Marie keek op d’r boost (*-e)
naar mij
reflexive PP superlative
Marie looks at 3FSG angriest-AGR R at
Marie is looking at me as angrily as she ever could.
Marie komt op z’n vroegst (*-e) om 3 uur
pronominal PP superlative
Marie comes at 3SG earliest-AGR at 3 o’clock
Marie comes at 3 o’clock at the earliest.
Ik ben het
gelukkigst(-e) als
ik syntaxis doe.
stage superlative
I am the.NSG happiest-AGR when I syntax
I am happiest when I am doing syntax.
These facts are explained if (a) the null noun in PP superlatives is obligatorily [neuter][singular]
(the default noun specification for Dutch) and (b) if PP superlatives are comparative superlatives,
because comparative superlatives are indefinite.
(36) a.
NB: This doesn’t explain the optionality of agreement marking elsewhere, though.
Alternative: the null noun in reflexive PP superlatives belongs to the group of nouns that do not
trigger definite agreement (Odijk 1992, Menuzzi 1994, Broekhuis 1999:208, etc.). However,
these A + N combinations are usually described as non-compositional.
Probably different null abstract head nouns in Dutch (despite superficial similarity with reflexive
PP superlatives): because differ in English with respect to the ability to drop/insert a possessive:
(1) b.
She arrives on Sunday at *her/*its/!the/*Ø earliest/latest.
There were thirty people at *their/*its/!the/!Ø most/least.
At *your/*its/!the/!Ø worst/best, you will be beaten.
There are only three pairs of adjectives that allow this construction (early/late, much/little, and
good/bad). The question is why these three?
The pattern appears to be the same cross-linguistically, although it is not always expressed by a
superlative (cf. French au minimum/maximum).
Norbert Corver and Ora Matushansky
At our best when at our boldest, version 1.0 (February 4, 2006)
5.1. Focus
Krifka 1999: at most/at least must associate with ordered alternatives and therefore frequently
associate with focus (unless appearing with numerals).
It looks like at the earliest/at the latest and at best/at worst also associate with focus:
(i) They do not occur in questions (except with second occurrence focus, on which see
Rooth 1996, Partee 1999, Krifka 2004, Féry and Ishihara to appear, among others)
(ii) They do not co-occur with overt focus (except with paired foci)
Association with focus correctly predicts that pronominal PP superlatives do not co-occur with
each other, and explains
Association with focus can probably explain why the strong pronoun is impossible with reflexive
PP superlatives as well. If true, it provides a possible explanation for the impossibility of analytic
reflexive PP superlatives:
(38) a.
Ze ziet er
op d’r
indrukwekkendst uit
she looks there at 3FSG.POSS impressive-st
She is looking as impressive as she possibly could.
b. * Ze ziet er
op d’r
meest indrukwekkend uit
she looks there at 3FSG.POSS most impressive
Under the assumption that in Dutch analytic superlatives are used for emphasis, they should not
be compatible with focus, which would explain their ungrammaticality. Interestingly, analytic
superlatives with least are also out:
(38) c. * Ze ziet er
op d’r
minst indrukwekkend uit
she looks there at 3FSG.POSS least impressive
Other adverbial superlatives are not only compatible with focus elsewhere, but in fact require it
(since they are comparative superlatives, which are licensed by focus (see Ross 1964, Hoeksema
1983, Szabolcsi 1986, Gawron 1995, Heim 1985, 1999, Farkas and É. Kiss 2000, Sharvit and
Stateva 2002, etc.)):
(39) Wie reed het
who drove the.NSG fastest-AGR
Who drove the fastest?
Regular adverbial superlatives contain no preposition (in Dutch or in English, unlike in German)
and no possessive pronoun.
5.2. Other constructions with a P 3SG.POSS X sequence
Adjuncts with the meaning ‘in the way as indicated by X’ (data drawn from ANS, p. 293):
(40) a.
Ze zei het op z’n/
* d’r
she said it at 3SG.POSS/ 3FSG.POSS Amsterdam-ADJ
She said in the Amsterdam manner.
Koken jullie altijd op z’n/
* jullie
cook you.PL always at 3SG.POSS/ 2PL.POSS Flemish
You always cook Flemish-style.
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At our best when at our boldest, version 1.0 (February 4, 2006)
Het ging daar echt op z’n
it went there really at 3SG.POSS farmer-ADJ PRT
Things were organized there in a farmerish way.
This meaning seems to replicated in the French construction à la française ‘in the French way’
without a pronoun, which supports our intuition that the pronoun probably has no semantic role.
Similar to the pronominal PP superlative in that (a) there’s the obligatory neuter pronoun, (b) the
preposition, (c) the adjective is not marked for agreement despite the apparent definiteness and
(d) a null noun is nonetheless allowed (the noun has to be there because of the preposition)
Another construction with what looks like a PP containing an obligatory pronoun is the inclusive
comitative construction:
(41) a.
Jullie met z’n
vieren moeten dit kunnen oplossen
you with 3SG.POSS four-PL must
this be-able solve-INF
The four of you should be able to solve this.
Ze waren met hun/z’n
they were with 3PL.POSS/3SG.POSS four-PL
They were four.
Similar to the reflexive PP superlative in that it has a reflexive pronoun, but differs from it in that
the possibility of the unmarked pronoun is not constrained by animacy.
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