Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Negative Polarity and Dr. No

Posted by Neal on July 6, 2012

When I was a kid, I gradually became aware of a book and movie character named James Bond. There were no VCRs or movie rental places then, so my first opportunity to see a Bond movie was when Moonraker came out. I was eager to go, and thought the movie was kind of cool when I saw it, even though I couldn’t follow the plot very well. I attributed that to being young. A couple of years later, I saw For Your Eyes Only and still couldn’t follow the plot. After a couple more Bond movies in the theaters, and a few on TV, I concluded that the problem wasn’t me; it was the movies. More recent entries have been boring as well as hard to follow. But now, Doug and Adam are old enough to want to be interested in James Bond. They haven’t seen enough of them yet to realize that most of them are boring and overlong, with plots that don’t make sense. Unfortunately, their mother hasn’t realized this yet, either, even after Goldeneye and the new Casino Royale, so I’ve had to sit through a few of them on family movie night. The earlier ones haven’t been too bad; I liked Goldfinger. The problem is that if the boys like these movies, they’re gaining an inaccurate impression of the true nature of Bond movies, and as a result will probably want to see Skyfall when it comes out.

Anyway, the latest Bond movie we saw was one of the ones with Sean Connery: Dr. No. In this one, Bond meets a woman on a secluded beach, collecting shells. Bond fans will know that her name is Honey, and she’s played by Ursula Andress. She’s apprehensive as Bond approaches, and this dialogue ensues:

Bond: I promise I won’t steal your shells.
Honey: I promise you you won’t, either.

Did you hear what went wrong there? When it’s used as an adverb, either is a negative polarity item (NPI), occurring only in sentences involving a negation, questions, or contexts focusing on a limitation. If you want to say either in an ordinary affirmative sentence, you have to use too instead, as in these examples:

I don’t like the Bond movies with Pierce Brosnan. I don’t like the ones with Daniel Craig, either.
My wife likes Sean Connery. She likes Roger Moore, {too, *either}.

Sometimes you can get away with using a too in a negative context, where you’d expect either. John Lennon pulled it off in “Imagine”, when he sang

Nothing to kill or die for / And no religion, too.

I also remember an old Justin Wilson bit, in which a recurring line is

I don’t know. And that ain’t all, I don’t give a damn, too!

But either needs two things in order to be grammatical, at least in my idiolect: a negation, and a proposition that is semantically similar to one that has already been uttered (or otherwise understood by the speakers). When both of these occur in one clause, everything’s fine, as in I don’t like the ones with Daniel Craig, either. We have the negation don’t, and the whole proposition is semantically similar to the one that came before it: I don’t like the Bond movies with Pierce Brosnan.

What about in the sentence from Dr. No? The negation is in the embedded clause: you won’t [steal my seashells]. But there is no semantically similar proposition in that embedded clause. Honey didn’t say something like I promise you you won’t seduce me, or steal my seashells, either. Where we do get the similar propositions is at the upper clause level: Bond promises X, and Honey promises X, too.

It reminds me of sentences I’ve actually uttered myself, involving tag questions. But when I said these, I noticed, and identified them as things I didn’t mean to say. The Dr. No sentence was presumably part of a written script. What do you think? Is I promise you you won’t, either an error, or something that’s a part of other people’s grammar but not mine?

18 Responses to “Negative Polarity and Dr. No”

  1. I blogged about this a while back after some Globe readers took exception to my using “mine either” with negative polarity (after some thought about the matter!). “Mine either” (it turned out) was quite a bit more common that “mine neither” — maybe just because “mine either” is close enough to “me neither” that it sounds adequately negative? Or maybe just because there is no positive way to use “me either/mine either”?

    The post:

    • Neal said

      It bugs me, too, when people say, “Me either.” Why would they do that? And I’m astonished that Mine either so clearly triumphs over Mine neither. But what I was commenting on here was the choice between either and too, rather than either and neither.

  2. Ran said

    > What do you think? Is I promise you you won’t, either an error, or something that’s a part of other people’s grammar but not mine?

    It’s not part of my grammar, either, but I think I’d call it “clever” or “playful” rather than “an error”. She’s punning on a might-be-expected sentence “I promise you I won’t [steal your shells], either”, changing the “I” to “you”.

    (Sorry if this is a re-post. The system says it’s a duplicate comment, but my other comment doesn’t appear here. The same thing happened yesterday, when I tried to comment on your previous entry.)

    • Neal said

      I found both your comments in the spam trap, and set the first one free. Sorry about that.

      I disagree with your analysis. Though I do agree that she was being playful in her response, I think it was along the lines of, “Damn right you won’t steal my shells!” and nothing more.

      • Yoss said

        I agree with Ran here. I see this as a bit of wordplay, turning the expected reply on it’s heals.

        The expected discourse being

        A: I promise I wont(You can trust me)
        B I promise I wont either(You can trust me too)

        but by changing a one simple word, the entire meaning of the sentence is changed.
        A: I promise I wont(you can trust me)
        B:I promise you wont, either(You’re not much of a threat anyway)

  3. The Ridger said

    As a confirmed “me either” sayer, I have to confess I don’t know why “me neither” is my second choice. It sounds a bit more formal, though clearly not as much as “nor do I”. But I can’t say I have ever thought about it one way or the other. Probably I just learned it as an idiom too young to consider it.

    Honey’s line is odd now that you’ve pointed it out, but I read it three or four times trying to figure it out before giving up.

  4. Your analysis is assuming that either is modifying I promise. I see it as modifying won’t (steal). Could you say I promise you won’t (steal my shells, too)?

  5. psteckler said

    Her response may have been grammatically playful in a slightly different way than suggested by Ran. To me, the use of “either” sounds knowingly incorrect, but meant to convey friendliness or impishness. It reminds me of the use of the phrase “I could care less”, which speakers know is incorrect, but puts the speaker on a familiar plane with the hearer.

  6. Terry said

    It’s tricky, mainly because of the way it sounds. I think it boils down to ‘I promise you …’ and ‘I promise you, too’. But it’s the ‘won’t’ that seems to want an ‘either’.
    If it was ”I promise you I won’t steal your shells’ and ‘I promise you, you won’t steal my bikini top either’, that would sound right to me.
    If you put in the implied bit – ‘I promise you you won’t steal my shells …’ the either makes less sense and the too sounds more at home.
    Conclusion, it should be too, but my head hurts a bit.

  7. My thoughts are kind of scattered throughout the other comments, but I’ll write them all together here to make them clearer:

    It seems that she is playing on the notion of what pronouns are referring to:

    I promise you I won’t steal your shells.
    I promise you you won’t steal my shells, either.

    I promise you X won’t steal Y’s shells.
    I promise you Y won’t steal X’s shells, either.

    It just so happens that X=Y in this case. As others have said, the “either” is agreeing with the negative “won’t”.

    (Another possibility is that X won’t steal Y’s shells and Y won’t steal Y’s shells, either. But only when you take X and Y to refer to the same person will it seem better to have “too”.)

    • Neal said

      Interesting possibility, but I think the thing that rules it out is not that X = Y here (because it doesn’t), but that X and Y are not third-person pronouns in this case. If Honey had said, “I promise you that I won’t steal your shells, either,” it would have been OK (except for the infelicity in that Bond didn’t have any shells).

  8. Eugene said

    I think it has to do with the complement of ‘promise’ (I promise X, too) and the complement of ‘won’t steal’ (You won’t steal them, either.) It is a puzzle, and it’s an example of how efficiently we disambiguate utterances in natural language processing.
    By the way, what’s the alternative – ‘I promise you you won’t steal them, too? That sounds equally odd.

    • Neal said

      Au contraire; I think, as Randy Alexander also wrote, that I promise you you won’t (steal them), too is precisely what she should have said, and that it does sound better than what she did say.

      • Eugene said

        I’m not saying there’s anything ungrammatical about the version with too. I’m just inclined to agree with the screenwriter that it isn’t precisely what Honey meant because ‘too’ emphatically echos the affirmative ‘promise’ while her intention was to emphasize the negative ‘won’t steal.’ Something like – I promise you [you won’t steal them] too. versus I promise you [you won’t steal them either].
        Still I agree that the result is odd because Honey isn’t actually proposing an alternative, which is the usual function of either. But there’s no problem with the negation being in the complement clause. Whether this non-alternative use of either is more common than we might think or just the result of clever word play is a question for the corpora. Millions of movie-goers heard it, understood it, and didn’t think to question it, though.

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  10. Kathryn said

    I interpreted it as a pun: Rather than something like “I promise you I won’t, either”, it seemed to me to accentuate the unexpected repetition. Also, my grandmother from Kentucky will respond, when a kid says something like “I’m gonna watch TV all night!” with “No you won’t, either!”, so it didn’t immediately sound ungrammatical to me.

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