6

There are certain items in some languages that tend to occur largely in negative clauses. In English, one such item might be the word ever:

  • *I have ever been to Paris.
  • I haven't ever been to Paris.

There are other items that tend to only occur in positive clauses, for example the item somewhat:

  • *He didn't smell somewhat.
  • He smelled somewhat.

The former are often referred to as Negative Polarity Items (NPI's), the latter as Positive Polarity Items (PPI's).

Many, if not most, NPI and PPI items can occur in questions:

  • Have you ever been to Paris?
  • Was he somewhat smelly?

What I'd like to know is if there is a group of items that tends to only occur in question/interrogative environments?

If there is, is there an established term for such items? Are there any lists of such items in various languages, or perhaps in English?

I can think of only one such English item which seems to behave like this, namely by any chance:

  • *He was there by any chance.
  • *He was not there by any chance.
  • He wasn't there by any chance?
  • Was he there by any chance?

One swallow, of course, doesn’t make a summer.

  • 3
    Congratulations on finding a Q-polarity expression. Parenthetical "I wonder" seems similar. – Greg Lee Oct 15 '19 at 21:12
  • The problem is that negation is ambiguous; if never "at no point in time" negates "at all times" and thus subsumes negation of "at one point in time" then I have ever been to Paris is undecidable for the common speaker without training in classical logic, and downright wrong in my ears. cp everyone, anyone, the former is quite clear but the latter can mean all or [at least] one ("equivalent to one + ly). In contrast, the negation of not once to paris isn't clear either; what if I've been twice? – vectory Oct 16 '19 at 4:55
  • Your argument that somewhat is a PPI doesn't convince me. A problem with x"He didn't smell somewhat" is that it entails "not somewhat" as a quantifier. This is not idiomatic for me, but this doesn't preclude somewhat in questions. Cf almost: x"They're not almost ready" "Are they almost ready?" [where the asker knows that they are not completely ready]. – Rosie F Oct 16 '19 at 10:06
  • 1
    Toying with the idea, anyway. Never thought of it. The reason why questions allow NPIs is because the nature of a question includes the possibility of negation. But it's only one possibility, so PPIs are also OK. By any chance itself contains an NPI, and it refers to that possibility. – jlawler Oct 17 '19 at 2:21
  • 1
    @jlawler So that's probably the same reason NPI's and PPI's occur in conditional protases too, right? There's a possibility of negation, but it's only one of the two possibilities. – Araucaria - Not here any more. Oct 17 '19 at 11:40

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.