Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Negative polarity items’ Category

He’ll Be None the Wiser

Posted by Neal on October 9, 2014

Since I began this blog in 2004, I’ve been vague about where in central Ohio I live, but tonight I’m proud to say that I live in Reynoldsburg, where phenomenal community support for our public school teachers has seen them through a summer of appalling disrespect from the local board of education (except for one notable member) and superintendent, who did everything they could to cause a teacher strike. That strike began on September 19, and might finally be ending today, if a tentative agreement is approved by the teachers.

In other news, Doug and Adam, who have been sick this entire time, might finally be showing signs of recovery. In the mornings, I’ve still been packing a lunch for Adam before I head to work. It’s not that he can’t get himself lunch, but if I don’t make him one, he’ll end up just eating Cheerios for every meal. So a couple of days ago, I opened the bag of bread and pulled out the three slices that were left: two heels and a whatever-you-call-a-slice-that’s-not-a-heel. Dang it, it had happened again!

I remembered a conversation from a month ago, when I had been encouraging Adam to make his own sandwich for a change, and he said he couldn’t, because he’d have to use a heel.

“That’s not a problem,” I told him. “Just do what I do. I put the pieces of bread together, like this, and turn the heel crust-side-in, like this. Then I grab these kitchen shears and cut off the edges of both pieces of bread, like I always do.” (Yes, I cut off the crusts. I don’t have to anymore, because Adam has recently started to eat his sandwiches with the crusts left on.) “Then I spread the peanut butter on the crusty side of the heel, finish making the sandwich, and you’re none the wiser.”

“Oh, I most certainly am the wiser!” Adam said. “Every time you do that, my sandwich tastes funny.”

Almost as interesting as the fact that Adam was, and had been, hip to my trick, was his phrasing I am the wiser. At first I thought 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 negations and questions, in phrases like all the better and even somewhat the wiser. In any case, you can use NPIs in positive contexts if you’re really emphasizing them, as in Yes, I do give a damn!, and Adam was definitely emphatic. Well, maybe it was because Adam used the wiser without a specifier saying how much the wiser he was: No somewhat, no all, not even very much. But a specifier isn’t necessary, either: I could just as easily have said: You’re never the wiser. So maybe it was the combination of his using the wiser with positive polarity and without a specifier. I don’t know, so that’s one reason I never wrote it up here. Besides, delivering “We Support Reynoldsburg Teachers” yard signs, going to rallies, passing around petitions, writing letters, and picketing the residences of members of the board of education on top of my actual job made it tough to find the time.

Anyway, here I was again, making a sandwich out of a heel. So I put the pieces of bread together, turned the heel crust-side-in, grabbed the kitchen shears and cut off the edges of both pieces of bread, like I used to do. I spread the peanut butter on the crusty side of the heel, sliced the banana on top of it, and laid on the top slice of bread. I put the whole thing in a sandwich container, and stuck a note to the top. The note read, “He’ll be none the wiser.”

When I arrived home that afternoon, Adam had eaten the lunch I’d made. On the table, he’d left my note, with an edit:

Oh, heel naw!

Ha! The linguistic hook of my potential post about the syntax and semantics of none the wiser had just become a post about the homophony of he’ll and heel … or rather, the homophony of he’ll and hill outside of careful speech, and not in a dialect that lowers [i] to [I] before [l] as a matter of course. My guess is that it’s a frequency effect, because he’ll is such a common word. Similarly for we’ll/will and she’ll/shill, but not for Neal/nil.

Posted in Adam, Food-related, Negative polarity items, Ohioana, Syntax | 6 Comments »

I Forgot to Go to the Store and Get Any

Posted by Neal on July 23, 2012

A few days ago, as I was pulling into the garage, I suddenly said to myself,

Well, crap! I forgot to go to the store and get any club soda.

How annoying. We had run out of club soda two days before, so my wife couldn’t make any more of her favorite drink: club soda with cranberry juice (the sweetened kind, with lime flavor already in it). I couldn’t make any more for myself, either, and when that happens and there’s no iced tea made, it gives me an unfortunate excuse to continue my love-hate relationship with Coke.

Of course, that’s not what compels me to write about my utterance here on the blog. As with my last post, I was interested in a negative polarity item (NPI), in this case, the word any. You can’t say things like,

*I got any club soda.
*I want to get any club soda.
*I went to the store and got any club soda.

There has to be a negation or question or something similar involved; for example,

I didn’t get any club soda.
Do you want any club soda?

The verb forget counts as something similar, with its implicitly negative meaning of “not remember,” so you can certainly say,

I forgot to get any club soda.

So because my sentence had forgot as its main verb, there should be nothing surprising about having the NPI any somewhere in the complement to forgot, right? But in that case, why doesn’t this next sentence work?

*I forgot to scoop out the litterboxes and get any club soda.

At least, I don’t think it works. Do you? And the reason it doesn’t is the same reason that you can’t say something like

*Club soda is what I forgot to scoop out the litterboxes and get [ ].

For you to make a relative clause out of club soda, which plays a part in only one of the coordinated verb phrases, those verb phrases have to have some sensible relation to each other. Go to the store and get club soda go together as two steps in a single undertaking. On the other hand, scoop out the litterboxes and get club soda don’t have any relation to each other. Unless…

  • …you keep bottles of club soda buried in your litterboxes.
  • …scooping out the litterboxes is something that always happens right before you get club soda.
  • …scooping out the litterboxes sets a Rube Goldberg apparatus in motion that results in the delivery of club soda.

In those situations, that sentence would work, and so would I forgot to scoop out the litterboxes and get any club soda, I think. This is interesting. I hadn’t read or thought about NPI licensing as something that could be relevant to these coordinations that require a special relationship between the coordinated items.

P.S. I see that when I view the preview for this post using Chrome, the words continue, housecleaning, and filled are hyperlinked to spammy sites. I’ve been using Firefox up until now, and I see that these tacky ads don’t show up in that browser. Good on you, Firefox, and Chrome, I’m very disappointed.

Posted in Negative polarity items, Non-ATB coordinations | 15 Comments »

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?

Posted in Movies, Negative polarity items | 18 Comments »

Linguistically Lost Again

Posted by Neal on March 12, 2012

For the past couple of months, the Netflix traffic in our house has ground to a halt, with The Bourne Supremacy and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog languishing on our mantel. During that time, our family movie nights have been spent pushing our way through seasons 1 and 2 of Lost on DVD, now that Doug and Adam are old enough to follow it. I wonder if we’re engaging in binge-viewing, a term I just heard in the past couple of weeks, but which seems to have been around since at least 2001. Maybe not; maybe you have to watch all the episodes without stopping to do other things like work or go to school before you can claim to have binge-viewed a set of episodes. (Did you catch my backformed compound verb there?)

I blogged about Lost a couple of times back in 2006. Now, during a second viewing, I’m catching not only foreshadowing and character connections that I missed the first time; I’m picking up linguistically interesting utterances that I missed, too.

First is essentially the same phrase, spoken by two characters in two episodes:

The button we have to push every 108 minutes or the island’s gonna explode [Charlie]

The button you gotta push every 108 minutes or the world ends. [Dave]

This is one of those coordinated relative clauses in which one of the clauses contains a gap and the other doesn’t. The one with the gap is we gotta push __ every 108 minutes; the one without the gap is the island’s gonna explode. Together, they sound fine, but try to make the one without a gap stand alone, and it’s no good:

[*]The button the island’s gonna explode. (only grammatical if the island will cause the button to explode)

[*]The button the world ends. (only grammatical if the world will end the button)

More specifically, it’s one of these asymmetric coordinations in which the conjunction is or instead of and. Those are a bit rarer, and tend to be overlooked in the literature on the subject (at least, in the papers I’ve read). I’ve blogged about them most recently in this post, about “the pot we have to shit or get off of”.

The other phrase I noted during these second viewings was one from Hurley, who was asked if he knew were Ana Lucia had gone, and answered sardonically:

That would assume that anyone actually tells me anything.

Anyone and 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 don’t want anything), questions (Do you want anything?), or sentences that express some kind of limitation (Only a few people know anything about this). But none of those is the case in Hurley’s sentence. The only negation there is an implied one, the unspoken proposition, “No one tells me anything.” I asked negation expert Larry Horn what he thought about NPIs in this sentence, and he observed that NPIs like the ones in Hurley’s sentence sound bad again when you specifically say that the assumption could actually be correct. He offered this comparison:

on the unlikely assumption that anyone would ever touch a drop of that punch (here’s some guacamole that would go nicely on the side)

#on the plausible assumption that anyone would ever touch a drop of that punch,…

So tell me, how does this sound?

That would assume, correctly, that anyone tells me anything.

Posted in Negative polarity items, Non-ATB coordinations, TV | 9 Comments »

Too Much

Posted by Neal on November 28, 2011

Back in October, I wrote about the opinion that thank you much is ungrammatical. I quoted a comment I left on one website where the issue came up:

“Thank you much” IS a complete sentence, at least if you accept “Thank you” as a complete (albeit noncanonical) sentence in the first place. If you object to “much” instead of “very much”, note that it appears alone in questions and negative sentences, e.g. “he doesn’t talk much”, “Does he talk much?” If you’re objecting to the use of plain “much” outside these “negative polarity contexts”, that’s a different matter, because that does sound odd in present-day English.

In the course of writing the thank you much post, I came across this video for learners of English as a foreign language:

In it, a teacher named Valen explains how to use much, many, and a lot of. Her explicit message is that much goes with mass nouns; many goes with count nouns; and a lot of goes with either. But in her examples, she seems to send the message that unadorned much is a no-no. Valen’s first two examples with much are:

I drank too much water.
Our teacher gave us too much homework.

Then she moves on to an example with many: Many cars are equipped with GPS systems. After that, she illustrates the mistake of putting many with a mass noun:

*I drank many coffee.

She then reiterates that since coffee is a mass noun, it can’t go with many, but can go with much. She erases many from the sentence, and replaces it not with much, as she seemed to be getting ready to do, but with too much:

I drank too much coffee.

Never a word of explanation why she’s doing this. (Also noted: She pronounces /str/ as [ʃtr], at least in the word abstract.)

Since that post last month, I’ve been thinking more about whether much is becoming (or has become) a negative polarity item (NPI). Whatever its status, it’s certainly not purely an NPI, since there are so many positive polarity contexts in which it sounds OK; for example, in the company of modifiers such as very (as in Thank you ~ much) and too (as in the video), much doesn’t sound bad at all.

As it turns out, Ji Won Lee at SUNY Buffalo has been looking into the question of NPI much, using an arsenal of corpora to find out. On her web page are handouts from several presentations on this topic. Her findings include that the development of much as an NPI was followed by the rise of a lot of/lots of, and that the shift to mostly-NPI much (and to some extent many, too) happened pretty quickly, between the late 1890s and 1940.

UPDATE, Nov. 29, 2011: Joe Kessler (in the comments) and JillianP (via Twitter) and Ji Won herself (in a polite email) have made me aware that I chose the wrong gendered pronouns to refer to Ji Won in the post. I have made the corrections, and apologize for the error. I’m also embarrassed that I didn’t remember meeting Ji Won at LSA 2011; she reminded me that she had come to look at my poster, and I see in my notes that indeed she did.

Posted in Language learning, Mass and Count Nouns, Morphology, Negative polarity items, Prescriptive grammar | 11 Comments »

Thank You Much

Posted by Neal on October 18, 2011

Jessica Hagy’s webcomic Indexed makes frequent use of Venn diagrams. This one from July has the sets Nouns and Verbs intersecting in a set labeled Heinous Business Speak. So, according to this diagram, every noun that can be used as a verb or verb that can be used as a noun is an example of heinous business speak. This would mean that (as one commenter hinted) speak is heinous business speak, as are run, walk, and swim. Moreover, this diagram states that every example of heinous business speak is something that is both a noun and a verb. This would mean that going forward, at the end of the day, think outside the box, and pick the low-hanging fruit are not heinous business speak. They may be heinous, or they may be business speak, but not both.

I know, I know, it’s just a frickin’ joke; why don’t I have a sense of humor? Part of the humor of using technical language, concepts, or methods for silly things is doing it accurately. When Tom Lehrer put the names of all the known elements to the tune of “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General,” it was funny because he didn’t make up stupid element names; he used real ones, and all of them that existed as of 1959. When the Roman guard corrects Brian’s Latin grammar, it’s funny not only because we don’t expect that as a reaction to an act of graffiti, but also because Romanes eunt domus really should be Romani, ite domum (at least in Classical Latin). As the saying goes, “It’s funny because it’s true.” Furthermore, Jessica Hagy is contributing to a sloppy understanding of various math concepts by people who laugh at her comics but aren’t entirely clear on how Venn diagrams work. xkcd pulls this kind of thing off better.

But that’s not what I wanted to talk about. In the peeve-fest that followed in the comments, one commenter wrote:

What gets me is that now people are using the phrase “Thank You much” instead of “Thank You very much” or just “Thank You.” It just sounds so wrong and annoys me every time I hear it.

Another commenter responded:

It just sounds lazy – they’re obviously so appreciative that they can’t put the effort into a complete sentence.

The idea that Thank you much is bad grammar or not a complete sentence can be found elsewhere on the web:

its makes them sound stupid because its not a sentence they forgot the very part. (link)

The sentiment isn’t limited to people with poor punctuation skills, either. From a thread on

“Thank you much.” is not correct English.

You can say “thank you very much” or even “thank you so much”.

I responded to the Indexed commenter:

“Thank you much” IS a complete sentence, at least if you accept “Thank you” as a complete (albeit noncanonical) sentence in the first place. If you object to “much” instead of “very much”, note that it appears alone in questions and negative sentences, e.g. “he doesn’t talk much”, “Does he talk much?” If you’re objecting to the use of plain “much” outside these “negative polarity contexts”, that’s a different matter, because that does sound odd in present-day English.

Suppose the commenter really was objecting to this use of unadorned much as a positive polarity item (PPI). In fact, there are times when PPI much sounds just fine without a very. It can modify comparative adjectives or adverbs: much better, more more quickly, etc. It also works if it has a too before it: I ate too much.

OK, so let’s suppose the commenter was more specifically objecting to use of PPI much without a too or very, and not as a modifier of a comparative adjective or adverb. Even looking at just this narrow set of circumstances for much, you can find other attestations in COCA:

  • North Korea’s ability to launch another conventional ground invasion is much degraded from even a decade ago.
  • There is much commotion and merrymaking these days in our community
  • Shooting a handgun is much like shooting a bow in this respect,

And of course, there’s this song from Janet Jackson, though you could argue that she chose the title in part to make her listeners pause for a moment.

So maybe the commenter is not trying to make any wider claim about the usage of much; it’s just that when it appears after thank you, for whatever reason, there has to be a too or a very. Well, what do you think? Is it actually ungrammatical, or just somewhat old-fashioned sounding to say Thank you much? If you believe it’s ungrammatical, let us know why in the comments.

Posted in Music, Negative polarity items, Prescriptive grammar, You're so literal! | 26 Comments »

An Overnegation and a Zeugma

Posted by Neal on August 24, 2007

Here are a couple of catches from Glen that I’ve been meaning to write about. First, a sentence he noticed in a post by his co-blogger Tom Bell. It’s one of Bell’s many posts about the law school rankings in US News and World Report, and the sentence is quoted from Greg C. Anderson, Director of Career Opportunities and Development at Northern Illinois University College of Law:

Given the amount of information disclosed to USNWR in the survey, I find it hard to believe that errors such as ours are not uncommon.

Wait, doesn’t he mean it’s easy to believe these errors are not uncommon? It’s another case of overnegation. By itself, the not plus theun- is fairly easy to handle: These errors are not uncommon. Packed inside the hard to believe… phrase, though, it’s tough to untangle. It’s not worth the trouble, either, because when you’ve done it, you end up with a meaning that is clearly opposite of what Anderson meant. In one of the earlier Language Log posts on this topic, Mark Liberman says:

The extra negations are sometimes explicit negative words (like not and no) and sometimes implicit parts of words with negative meanings (like refute, fail, avoid and ignore).

In this case, it seems that hard is a word with implicit negative meaning: “not easy”. But why isn’t easy an implicitly negative word meaning “not difficult”? Why isn’t I find it easy to believe that these errors are not uncommon just as hard to untangle as its counterpart with hard? I’m sure this has been written about, but not wanting to search the literature right now, I’ll just speculate: If someones judges something to be easy to do, it’s more likely that they will do it; if they judge that it’s hard to do, it’s more likely that they willnot do it. And as a check to make sure I’m not just calling hard an implicit negative because I’m expecting it to fit Liberman’s generalization, let’s see if it allows negative polarity items (NPIs):

  • It’s {hard/*easy} to get any help around here.

  • It’s {hard/*easy} to give a damn about what happens to Scarlett.
  • It’s {hard/*easy} to find cheap gas anymore.
    [Assuming your dialect does not have positive anymore.]

The next item is from an August 4 post from The Agitator:

A 17-year-old gets arrested and a $1,000 bond for failing to show at a court appearance for…a seatbelt violation.

Here we have gets acting as an auxiliary verb in the passive verb phrase gets arrested, and as an ordinary transitive verb meaning “receive” in the verb phrase gets … a $1,000 bond. Pretty weird, to my ears. How does it sound to you?

Posted in Negative polarity items, Overnegation, Zeugmatic | 2 Comments »

If I Get Any, I Get Any

Posted by Neal on December 16, 2006

A couple of months ago, police finally tracked down a prisoner who had escaped almost three months earlier from a jail in Chillicothe (where I once taught a linguistics class, about 90 minutes south of Columbus). Now the question is which of the various tipsters that led police to capture the escapee will receive what amount of reward money. An article in yesterday’s paper concludes with a quotation from one civic-minded truck driver who phoned in a tip and doesn’t really care about the reward money. The article said:

“If I get any, I get any,” [Travis] Woods said. “If I don’t, I don’t. I did my part by calling. The guy was wanted, and that’s why I did it. It was the right thing.”
(Kelly Hassett, “Hunter who found escapee’s hut gets first cut of reward,” The Columbus Dispatch, Dec. 14, 2006, p. D3)

I put the whole quotation in because I think it’s admirable, but the part I’m interested in linguistically is the first sentence, an example of the template If X, then X. Yes, I know it’s tautologous, and that’s not a problem. What happened here is that Woods started out saying, “If I get any.” Any (as a so-called negative polarity item) usually has to appear in a context with a negation (He’ll never get any, No one gets any), question (Did he get any?), or conditional (If I get any), so there’s no problem yet. (Confusing the matter is the fact that any also has a “free choice” sense, as in Anything can happen, which is not subject to these restrictions. We’re just talking about any meaning “some amount”.) But when Woods repeats “I get any” in part two of the template, it sounds weird, because there’s no negation, question, or conditional there.

What could he have said that wouldn’t have this problem? If I get any, I get some? No, that sounds weird, too. How about If I get some, I get some? That works. Out of context, of course, he seems to be saying he doesn’t care one way or the other whether he gets laid, but in context it’s fine.

So what’s the difference between If I get any and If I get some? It’s easier to nail down in a question: Do you want anything? could be answered yes or no equally probably. Do you want something? gives the impression that the speaker thinks the answer is more likely yes than no. Why is this, and how does it extend to If I get some/any? At this point, I defer to semanticists who have studied negative polarity items a lot more than I have.

Posted in Negative polarity items | 2 Comments »

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!

Posted in Morphology, Negative polarity items, The darndest things | 8 Comments »