Negative polarity as scope marking

Chris Barker

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    What is the communicative value of negative polarity? That is, why do so many languages maintain a stock of special indefinites (weak Negative Polarity Items) that occur only in a proper subset of the contexts in which ordinary indefinites can appear? Previous answers include: marking the validity of downward inferences; marking the invalidity of veridical inferences; or triggering strengthening implications. My starting point for exploring a new answer is the fact that an NPI must always take narrow scope with respect to its licensing context. In contrast, ordinary indefinites are notorious for taking wide scope. So whatever other functions NPIs may have, they at least serve as an utterly reliable signal that an indefinite is taking narrow scope. As also proposed in recent work of Kusumoto and Tancredi, I will show that NPIs are only licensed in contexts in which the wide scope construal of an indefinite fails to entail the narrow scope. In other words, weak NPIs occur only in contexts in which taking narrow scope matters for interpretation. Thus one part of the explanation for the ubiquity and robust stability of negative polarity is that it signals scope relations.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Pages (from-to)483-510
    Number of pages28
    JournalLinguistics and Philosophy
    Issue number5
    StatePublished - Oct 1 2018


    • Downward entailing
    • Exhaustivity
    • Monotonicity
    • Negative polarity
    • Scope
    • Strengthening
    • Veridicality

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Philosophy
    • Linguistics and Language


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