This being the second post in my series about weird linguistics, I’d like to point out that it’s not necessary to travel to strange and exotic climes in order to find bizarre grammatical features like ergativity. English itself is plenty weird. Today I’ll demonstrate this by discussing negative polarity.

English is a simple language in many respects. We have barely any case system to speak of, minimal verbal morphology, and a simple consonant phonology. Our vowels are a little baroque, and our spelling is awful, but overall it’s not too bad. But there’s one thing that we’ve managed to muck up pretty badly, and it’s something so simple that in many languages you never have to think about it at all.

I’m talking about not doing things. Or, as we linguists like to call it, negation.

First, observe how a negative sentence in English is formed:

  1. I eat fried octopus.
  2. I don’t eat fried octopus.

The English negative adverb is not, but of course you can’t just add not to an affirmative sentence. Instead, you have to have do-support, where the word do gets thrown in there just so that not (the lazy bum) has something to lean on. Unless, of course, there’s a modal verb or other auxiliary verb floating around, or a few other conditions apply. It’s a bit of a mess.

This is simple stuff, though. What I really want to talk about today is something even more pernicious called negative polarity. In English we have some words which are not themselves negative words, but which normally only occur when there is some other negative word in the sentence. These words are called negative polarity items (NPI). Let me crib some examples from Wikipedia:

  1. I didn’t like the film at all.
  2. *I liked the film at all.
  3. John doesn’t have any potatoes
  4. *John has any potatoes.

(In linguistic literature, the asterisk is used to indicate ungrammatical utterances.)

The thing to notice here is that the NPI’s at all and any are not themselves words that convey negation. Nonetheless, those words are only allowed to occur in sentences which are negated with not, while examples (4) and (6) are ungrammatical for attempting to use those words in a positive context.

The rules for NPI can get really complex. For example, it is widely believed that they can only occur in downward-entailing contexts, though to explain some additional properties of NPI’s a more robust notion of veridicality is required. For example, NPI’s are allowed in questions, even if the questions are not negative:

  1. Did you see anything?
  2. Do they have any octopus?

And they can occur when qualified by adverbs such as hardly:

  1. They cook hardly any seafood right now.

Sentence (9) above becomes ungrammatical if hardly is removed, yet somehow it becomes grammatical again if the sentence is qualified differently:

  1. *They cook any seafood right now.
  2. They cook any seafood that you can catch.

The reasons for this have to do with the veridical interpretation of habitual aspects and future time… which is all that I will attempt to explain about that. Read the linked article above about veridicality if you’re interested.

Now as a native English speaker you do all of this intuitively, and so you never have to spend a moment’s conscious thought on downward entailment and veridicality. (Lucky for you.) You can even invent new negative polarity items on occasion. But next time it comes up that a non-native speaker uses an NPI incorrectly, do be nice to her. This stuff is harder than it looks.