Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Must… Reverse… Polarity!

Posted by Neal on October 28, 2004

In the past year and a half, Adam’s made a lot of progress in his eating. When he was two, there were only about three things he would eat: Gerber Stage 3 Vegetable Beef, Gerber Tender Harvest Chicken and Rice, and french fries. His brother even picked up the word spurn from all the times my wife and I would talk about Adam spurning this or spurning that. (We even called him the Spurnmeister at times.) And if you shoved in a spoonful of something he didn’t want, it was amazing how long he could sit there, holding it in his mouth without swallowing it, just crying and letting the spit rise higher and higher until it started to overflow his lower lip.

After a year and a half of occupational therapy, he’s now eating a lot more things, including chicken nuggets, fresh fruit, and bologna, PB&J, and grilled cheese sandwiches. (That’s three kinds of sandwiches, BTW, not one.)

But even though he’s eating these things, he is still maddeningly slow about it sometimes. And I’ll ask him, “Do you want any more of this?”, and he’ll reply with:

I want any more.

Huh? Was there a don’t in there that I missed? I’m learning to phrase the question like this: “Do you want any more of this, or are you all done?” Then instead of having to discriminate between “I want any more” and “I don’t want any more,” I just have to discriminate between “I want any more” and “I’m all done.” Much easier.

But Adam, son, you’ve gotta learn that any is a negative polarity item, suitable for use only in negations and questions. When you answer my question, you’ve got to reverse the polarity, and turn that any into a some!

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8 Responses to “Must… Reverse… Polarity!”

  1. I’ve been meaning to ask this for a while: why is it called *occupational* therapy?

  2. Anonymous said

    The image you create of Adam crying and drooling on account of the distasteful food is quite funny and cute!

    My bother never could stand eggs or chewing gum. It’s not even a good idea to chew gum around him. The family always blamed a certain elderly babysitter “Brity” for influencing him. Gosh, I’ve got to ask him why he hates those things. My mother hates coconut and licorice and gefilte fish (who doesn’t hate that). I prefer to focus on what I like to eat most like tree-ripened apricots and pomegranates. Interestingly, the Spanish word for pomegranate is granada which also is their word for hand grenade. I spent a month in the Andalucian city of Granada one summer as a teenager. The Alhambra, a beautiful Moorish fortress is located there.

  3. dw said

    Isn’t “positive anymore” a well-known feature of some regional US dialects?

    • Neal said

      That’s true, but it’s an adverb, roughly equivalent to “these days”. Adam’s use was the noun phrase (spelled as two words).

      • Dw said

        Sure, but presumably the origin was the same loss of negative polarity (subsequently lexicalized):

        Q: You don’t eat meat any more?
        A: Yes, I do eat meat (any more)*

  4. [...] anything are negative polarity items (click on the category label for all the relevant posts, or here for a short one that will give you the idea). They are most at home in negated sentences (I [...]

  5. […] the chorus: “Who made you king of anything?” Bait and switch! This is negative polarity anything! I even considered blogging about it at the time, but never got around to […]

  6. […] he had used a negative polarity item in a positive polarity context, you know, like he did when he was four years old, during another sandwich-related occurrence. But as I thought about it more, I realized that the plus any comparative did happen outside […]

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