In linguistics, the partitive is a word, phrase, or case that indicates partialness. Partitives can be divided into several classes that differ in syntactic, semantic, and/or morphological properties. Full or headed partitives and bare or determinerless partitives differ specifically in their syntactic properties, whereas set partitives and entity partitives specifically differ in their semantic properties.
In the English sentence I'll have some coffee, some is a partitive determiner because it makes the noun phrase, some coffee, refer to a subset of all coffee. Some is an example of a bare or determinerless partitive. Similarly, the preposition of often serves as a partitive, as in many of my friends, the youngest of the children, a glass of the red wine, some of the milk, and some of the people. Of is an example of a full or headed partitive.
- 1 Overview
- 2 Semantic Structure
- 3 Syntactic Structure
- 4 Structural Properties of Partitives
- 5 Typology
- 6 See also
In English, the use of the partitive some is optional: I'll have some coffee has very nearly the same meaning as I'll have coffee. In most Romance languages, however, the partitive is mandatory. For example, in French, I want to drink some coffee is expressed as Je veux boire du café; here du (an obligatory contraction of de le (of the)) is the partitive and is the equivalent of the optional English some. The feminine form is de la, and the plural form is des (an obligatory contraction of de les of the (plural)"). Some languages, for example Estonian and Finnish, have a special partitive case. In Latin, German and Russian, the partitive is expressed by the genitive case. For a limited number of words in Russian, though, a partitive expression has its own separate formulation; this group is generally regarded as a special type of the genitive (also called the second genitive) case. Its use is quite common. Some linguists define true partitives as having only one noun followed by a preposition. In English the prepositional element is “of”. Furthermore, some linguists will also classify partitives that refer to a specific amount of something to be referred to as pseudo-partitives. Other linguists speculate that "of" is not the head of a prepositional phrase, and represents a case marker when it is used in the partitive. Regardless, either definition can be represented abstractly as:
Partitives should not be confused with quantifiers, another form of nominal specifier. The two differ in the types of determiners they take, their specificity within a sentence, their internal agreement, the quantity of antecedents they provide to the relative clause, as well as the characteristic of extractability.
When talking about the semantics of partitive, what is focused on is the function of partitives in relation to NPs and in some languages, also verbs, as well as how partitives are “paired” with words.
In English, the preposition “of” is a major way of presenting partitive of a NP. The early partitive construction proposed by Jackendoff, requires embedded NP to be definite. It must contain a definite article, a demonstrative or a possessive.
Partitive Constraint: In an of-N construction interpreted as a partitive, the N must have a demonstrative or a genitive specifier.
In 1996, de Hoop proposed that the NP being definite or indefinite does not play such a big role in partitive. The determining factor is there are two types of partitives given the difference in semantic functions: entity partitive and set partitive. NPs that can denote entities are allowed in entity partitives, whereas NPs that can denote sets of entities are allowed in set partitives. NPs that can only denote generalized quantifiers are not allowed in ordinary partitives.
Partitive Constraint (modified): Only NPs that can denote entities are allowed in entity partitives; only NPs that can denote sets of entities are allowed in set of partitives.
The Partitive Constraint
The Partitive Constraint requires the noun to be presented as an obligatorily definite determiner phrase by either having a demonstrative, definite article, or possessive specifier. In other words, partitives often combine an indefinite determiners with a definite determiner. It should also be noted that some linguists consider The Partitive Constraint to be problematic, since there may be cases where the determiner is not always obligatory.
Linguists do, however, agree that universal quantifiers, such as: every, and each, cannot be embedded in the partitive position. Furthermore, the second determiner can be "all" only if the first determiner is a superlative, or fractional expression.
1. a) "The best of all the wines" b) "15% of all the relationships"
It has also been hypothesized that perhaps "of" in sentences, such as the above, do not act as the partitive themselves, but rather the superlative in the sentence provides the role of partition.
Partitives are used as specifiers to noun phrases, and usually have a syntactic structure represented as:
Q + of + DP + NP
where Q is a quantifier or numeral. This structure shows that the partitive is actually a constituent of the functional category DP, and not included within the actual NP.
2. a) *one of a cookie b) half of a cookie
3. a) *one of the water b) half of the water
(3a) is ungrammatical even though it has a definite article is because the denoted entity does not match. The water denotes an entity, and one is a set entity partitive. (2b) is correct because indefinite and definite singular count nouns denote single entities rather than a set of entities, therefore it is grammatical when proceeded by half of, an entity partitive. The following is a gloss of different partitive determiners and their class in English.
|Determiner||Entity / Set of Entity||Example|
|half of||Entity||half of the water; *half of the cats|
|20% of||Entity||20% of the water; *20% of the cats|
|one third of||Entity||one third of the water; *one third of the cats|
|much of||Entity||much of the water; *much of the cats|
|three of (or any number)||Set||three of the cats; * three of the water|
|many of||Set||many of the cats; * many of the water|
|some of||Ambiguous||some of the water; some of the cats|
|all of||Ambiguous||all of the water; all of the cats|
|most of||Ambiguous||most of the water; most of the cats|
In some languages, such as Finnish, a partitive’s function is not only NP-related, but can also be verb related. In NP-related function, partitive case is assigned to quantitatively indeterminate NPs, which includes indefinite bare plurals and mass nouns. When talking about verbal function related, what is focused on is the partitive’s aspectual function, assigned to the objects of verbs that denote an unbounded event.
Unboundness in verbs denotes whether there is a direct consequence following the action of the verb. For example, shoot is an intrinsically unbound verb, where the shooting can result in the target being shot, or the shooting missed the target. Kill is an intrinsically bound verb, where the consequence is someone/something being dead.
The common factor between aspectual and NP-related functions of partitive case is marking a VP’s unboundness. A VP has the semantic property of having either an unbounded head or unbounded argument. For example, in Finnish  the partitive case suffix denotes an unbound event, while the accusative case suffix denotes a bounded event. Note that when translating Finnish into English, the determiners would surface as the partitives a, the, some or numerals in both unbound and bound events.
4. a. Ammu-i-n karhu-a shoot-Pst-1Sg bear-Part ‘I shot at the/a bear' ('I' fired a bullet at a specific bear, or any bear, but the bullet could have hit the bear, or missed the bear.)
b. Ammu – i-n karhu-n shoot-Pst-1Sg bear-Acc ‘I shot the/a bear' ('I' fired a bullet at a specific bear, or any bear, and the bullet did hit the bear.)
In the data, the morpheme –a is the partitive morpheme. In (a), the verb shot takes a partitive object and denotes the activity to shoot at, and in (b), the verb takes an accusative object and denotes accomplishment. Hence, the difference of unboundness is noted by the difference where the bear was not necessary hit by the shot in (a), whereas the bear was shot in (b).
As for presenting the NP-related function of partitive case in Finnish, the objects of an intrinsically bounded verb takes partitive when they are quantitatively indeterminate, especially when they are indefinite bare plurals or mass nouns. Otherwise, NP takes the accusative case.
Linguists generally agree that the identification and description of partitives should be determined jointly by their semantic interpretation and syntactic structure. According to Milner, true partitives should contain ALL of the following properties, (1-4) are syntactic requirements and (5) is a semantic one.
- A two-part structure joined by of
- The first part is an unit of quantity and must NOT preceded by a definite article
- The second part is a noun with a proper determiner
- The internal determiner is always definite
- A particular semantic interpretation: the element of quantity quantifies a subset of a set denoted by the noun or nominal phrase in the second part
5. a) An English true partitive: "A box of those chocolates"
A close and related construct, namely pseudo-partitive (also called quantitative or non-partitive nominal), generally has opposite properties of partitives:
- Of is optional when joining two elements
- Quantifiers can be preceded by definite determiners
- The second noun of the phrase cannot be preceded by ANY determiner
- No partitive meaning is associated with pseudo-partitives. They often denote the number of members or a measured amount of substance
b) An English pseudo-partitive: "A box of chocolates"
Blurring the line between partitives and pseudo-partitives
Although the syntactic distribution of partitives and pseudo-partitives seems to be complementary, cross-linguistic data suggests this is not always true. Non-partitives can display an identical syntactic structure as true partitives and the ultimate difference is a semantic one. Vos pointed out Dutch contains nominals fulfilling the syntactic criterion but lacking a partitive interpretation, therefore they are classified as non-partitives.
6. a) een paar van diew grappige voorbeelden → Non-partitive a couple of those funny examples ‘a couple of these(such) funny examples’
b) een paar van dies grappige voorbeelden → Partitive a couple of those funny examples ‘a couple of these funny examples’
The first Dutch phrase above is classified as a non-partitive. This is counter-intuitive at first glance because the phrase has a Det+of+Det+N sequence which is a consistent structure observed in partitives. A closer look at the Dutch data reveals that in denoting relativation and extraction relationships, non-partitives (or weak indirect partitive construction in Vos’s terminology) function as an adjectival modifier as opposed to ordinary partitives (strong indirect partitive construction) carrying a determiner-like element. Therefore diew contains an adjectival meaning closer to 'such' and indicates funny examples of a certain type. In the second example, dies is truly a definite determiner and is referring to a particular larger set of funny examples.
Structural Properties of Partitives
A number of linguists proposed different approaches to account for the partitive structure, three approaches will be introduced here.
A Functional Projection Approach
In 1995, Guillermo Lorenzo proposed a partitive (π), which is equivalent to the meaning of ‘out of’ in English, is a functional category by itself and projects to a phrasal level. A partitive phrase (πP) is selected by the Numeral and in turn the partitive head (π) selects the following Determiner Phrase (DP).
7. [SNum muchos [Sπ de[SDet etos [SNum [Num° [libr-i+-os] [SN ti]]]]] many of these book+s
Partitive Prepositional Phrase Approach
Many advocates of a partitive prepositional phrase (PP) construction claim that the partitive meaning is integrated into a PP. Structurally, a quantifier is followed by a noun, and a preposition denotes the quantifier is a subset of the following noun.
Partitive PP states that the preposition ‘of’ has a lexical content similar to ‘out of’ and projects to a prepositional phrase PP, hence the name partitive PP. Supporters of partitive PP often assume the presence of an empty noun following the quantifier in order to indicate the two sets in relation and the preposition introduces the bigger set. Catalan provides evidence for this underlying structure:
8. a) [tres [N e][PP d’aquells [N homes] d’allá] three of-those men over-there
b) tres homes d’aquells homes d’allá three men of-those men over-there
c) tres homes d’aquells e d’allá three men of-those over-there
In the first example, the notion denotes the set of ‘three men’ is a subset of ‘those men’. The second example has an overt noun inserted between the quantifier and the partitive PP and is still considered grammatical, albeit odd and redundant to a native speaker of Catalan. The third sentence has an empty noun holding the final noun position. Altogether this is taken as strong evidence that an empty noun category should be posited to license a partitive meaning. Alternatively, linguists argued an empty noun placement is unnecessary if one considers the quantifier’s role to be quantifying a subset. The noun following the partitive PP automatically becomes the bigger set and the whole nominal represents a subset-set relation.
Quantifier Based Approach
Closely related to the partitive PP approach, some authors propose an alternate analysis which also focuses on looking at partitive distribution in nominals. Vos (1999:242) claims that it is the relationship between the quantifier and the noun collectively determine the partitive meaning.
Under this view, the preposition belongs to a functional category and its existence is solely for grammatical reasons. In other words, the preposition is not registered with any lexical content. Vos claims the internal relation between the first and second noun in a nominal implicitly denotes a subset-set, possessive or part-whole relation. Similarly, de Hoop embraces the idea that only when a quantifier pairs with a desired type of DP, specific kind of partitive relation can then be determined. The preposition ‘of’ plays a crucial role in enabling the selected DP to surface.
The deciding factor to label a partitive construction concerns with the presence of an internal DP, as demonstrated in the English examples below:
|three of my friends||three friends of mine|
|many of those books||many books|
|a group of those tourists||a group of tourists|
|a piece of this cake||a piece of cake|
|a glass of the red wine||a glass of red wine|
The nouns in the partitives all refer to a particular bigger set since they are preceded by an internal definite determiner (possessive: my, demonstrative: those and definite article: this). On the other hand, their pseudo-counterparts lack this implication. Without a definite determiner, pseudo-partitives can only denote an amount of things and the characteristics of a set are determined by the context of the discourse. In addition, the set does not necessarily have to be bigger. Intuitively, the last two phrases under the pseudo-partitive column do indicate some kind of partition. However, when they are broken down into syntactic constituents, noted in true partitives, the noun always project to a DP. In contrast, the noun in the phrase-final position projects to a noun phrase (NP) in non-partitives.
Finnish indicates the partitive by inflecting nouns in the partitive case. An object takes the partitive case in three conditions. The aspectual condition is if the object is governed by an unbounded (or atelic) verb, that is, one which does not indicate the result of an action. The NP-related (quantity) condition is if the object is quantitatively indeterminate, which means indefinite bare plurals or mass nouns . Lastly, the negative condition applies when a predicate is negated, in which case nearly all objects are marked with the partitive. These three conditions are generally considered to be hierarchically ranked according to their strength such that negation > aspect > quantity. Negation is strongest in that it applies so pervasively to negated events, regardless of aspect or quantity.
An example of the NP-related condition is the following taken from Huumo:
9. a) Löys-i-n voi-ta. find-PST-1SG butter-PAR 'I found some butter.'
In this example, the object is a mass noun, where the partitive case indicates an open, unspecified quantity of butter using the suffix -ta, as opposed to a closed quantity or total object, which Finnish would specify by using the accusative suffix –n, as in the following:
b) Löys-i-n voi-n. find-PST-1SG butter-TOT 'I found the butter.'
These two examples show the contrast that exists in Finnish between the partitive object and total object, the former indicating incompleteness of an event or an open quantity. Whereas the partitive object takes the partitive case, the total object can be marked with either nominative, genitive, or accusative, and indicates aspectual completeness or closed quantity. 
10. Pitel-i-n käde-ssä-ni kirja-a ~ voi-ta. hold-PST-1SG hand-INE-1SGPX book-PAR ~ butter-PAR 'I was holding [a/the] book ~ [the/some] butter in my hand.'
In this case, the partitive object is triggered by the unbounded aspect of the verb, not the quantity of the object, since the openness of the quantity is irrelevant. The verb’s aspect is progressive, involving an ongoing action without a specified endpoint, and is therefore unbounded. This aspectual unboundedness requires the partitive object, and has the effect of concealing the quantity of the object. This shows that aspect is stronger than quantity in conditioning the partitive. 
- Girbau, Marti i (2010). The Syntax of Partitives. M.N.
- Stickney, H (2007). From pseudopartitive to partitive: In Proceedings of the 2nd Conference on Generative Approaches to Language Acquisition North America (GALANA). Somerville, MA. pp. 406–415.
- [Jackendoff, R., 1977. X-bar syntax: A study of phrase structure. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.]
- [de Hoop, H. (1997). A semantic reanalysis of the partitive constraint. Lingua,103(2), 151-174]
- Hoeksema (ed.), Jacob (1996). Partitives:Studies on the Syntax and Semantics of Partitive and Related Constructions. Mouton de Gruyter. ISBN 3-11-014794-7.
- [Kiparsky, P. (1998). Partitive case and aspect. The projection of arguments: Lexical and compositional factors, 265, 307.]
- [Martí i Girbau, M. N. (2010). The syntax of partitives.]
- Vos, H. M. (1999). A grammar of partitive constructions.
- Huumo, T. (2013). On the many faces of incompleteness: Hide-and-seek with the finnish partitive object. Folia Linguistica, 47(1), 89-112. doi:10.1515/flin.2013.005