Negation, negative polarity, and microvariation: two case studies

Laurence Horn, Yale University


The investigation of syntactic and semantic variation and change has long been informed by work on the expression of negation and negative polarity. English constructions shedding light on the scope and significance of social and regional microvariation include the following:


(1) Negative concord, e.g. I can’t get no satisfaction ‘I can’t get (any) satisfaction’
(socially stigmatized and register-based variant)

(2) Distribution of pleonastic negation, e.g. so don’t I ‘so do I’ in Eastern New England; I miss not seeing you ‘I miss seeing you’ (sporadic individual variation)

(3) Discrepancies in semantic interpretation, e.g. I don’t care to go ‘I’d be happy to go’; I don’t care for her ‘I like her’ (Southern U.S./Appalachian)

(4) Innovative discourse markers: nuh-uh ‘no’; yeah no [various uses] (age-based variation)


This presentation focuses on two case studies: non-polarity anymore (NPAM) ≈ ‘nowadays’ (so-called “positive anymore”) and verb-initial or declarative negative auxiliary inversion.

A long tradition of dialectological research has converged on associating the acceptability of anymore in the absence of an NPI licensor (We eat a lot of fish anymore) with Midland North American dialects, extending eastward to Pennsylvania, northward to Ontario, and westward to the Rocky Mountains, while finding it largely unattested in New England and the New York metropolitan area. There is less consensus on the syntactic character of polarity vs. non-polarity anymore, the complex pattern of social stigmatization of NPAM, the correlation of NPAM with negative affect, and the question of whether (and where) NPAM is expanding or contracting. I present the results of Amazon Mechanical Turk surveys administered by the Yale Grammatical Diversity Project that offer a comprehensive view on the characteristics of speakers who do and don’t find NPAM acceptable. Our data complement the recent Twitter-based research on NPAM by Strelluf (2019) and supports the conclusions of Chambers (2007) on the fate of NPAM in the Canadian “Golden Horseshoe”.

In canonical verb-second negative inversion (V2NI), a fronted negative/downward entailing phrase with wide scope licenses optional or obligatory subject-verb inversion: Never would I go there, For many Black and southern white speakers of U.S. English, verb-initial negative inversion (V1NI) is also possible, with or without negative concord: Wouldn’t nobody go there; Can’t anyone play this game. These sentences resemble polar questions but are declaratives, as their semantics and prosody demonstrate. Further, unlike polar questions, V1NI sentences require contracted negation and, at least according to most descriptions, indefinite subjects (*Can’t my friend play this game). However, as Salmon 2018 shows, for many speakers V1NI is possible with formally definite but hearer-new subjects (corresponding to the constraints on existential there; cf. Ward & Birner 1995). As recognized at least since Forman 1999, V1NI is functionally parallel to the not-initial DP construction: while Many people didn’t show up prefers or requires narrow-scope negation, Didn’t many people show up (in V1NI dialects) and Not many people showed up (in all dialects) both enforce wide-scope negation and require non-specific subjects. Less obviously, V1NI and V2NI—formally distinct operations with different origins—serve analogous ends, signaling negative force early and utilizing subject-auxiliary inversion to guarantee wide scope readings for negation and other downward-entailing operators.