Two Negations for the Price of One

  • Thornton R
  • Notley A
  • Moscati V
  • et al.
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Standard English is typically described as a double negation language. In double negation ­languages, each negative marker contributes independent semantic force. Two negations in the same clause usually cancel each other out, resulting in an affirmative sentence. Other dialects of English permit negative concord. In negative concord sentences, the two negative markers yield a single semantic negation. This paper explores how English-speaking children interpret sentences with more than one negative element, in order to assess whether their early grammar allows negative concord. According to Zeijlstra’s (2004) typological generalization, if a language has a negative syntactic head, it will be a negative concord language. Since Standard English is often analysed as having a negative head, it represents an apparent exception to Zeijlstra’s ­generalization. This raises the intriguing possibility that initially, children recognize that English has a negative head (i.e., n’t) and, therefore, assign negative concord interpretations to sentences with two negations, despite the absence of evidence for this interpretation in the adult input. The present study investigated this possibility in a comprehension study with 20 3- to 5-year-old ­children and a control group of 15 adults. The test sentences were presented in contexts that made them amenable to either a double negation or a negative concord interpretation. As expected, the adult participants assigned the double negation interpretation of the test sentences the majority of the time. In contrast, the child participants assigned the alternative, negative concord interpretation the majority of the time. Children must jettison the negative concord interpretation of sentences with two negative markers, and acquire a double negation interpretation. We propose that the requisite positive evidence is the appearance of negative expressions like nothing in object position. Because such expressions exert semantic force without a second negation, this informs children that they are acquiring a double negation language.




Thornton, R., Notley, A., Moscati, V., & Crain, S. (2016). Two Negations for the Price of One. Glossa: A Journal of General Linguistics, 1(1).

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