Zeijlstra – NPIs and PPIs

Issues in the syntax-semantics interface: NPIs and PPIs


In this course we will look at a topic currently popular in the study tot he syntax-semantics interface: Negative Polarity Items (NPIs) and Positive Polarity Items (PPIs). The tradition that studies the exact licensing conditions of NPIs goes back Ladusaw (1979), who has observed that most NPIs are licensed by so-called downward entailing contexts. A context is downward entailing if it allows reasoning from sets to subsets. For instance, not is downward entailing, as Mary is not wearing a sweater entails Mary is not wearing a red sweater (and not vice versa). Van der Wouden (1994), Zwarts (1995), and Giannakidou (1997, 1999), among many others, have shown, however, that not every NPI is licensed by downward entailing contexts. Certain NPIs, such as English lift a finger or at all, are only licensed in a subset of downward entailing contexts, whereas other NPIs, e.g. Greek tipota (‘anything’) or Chinese shen-me (‘any(thing)’) can also be licensed by a number of non-downward entailing contexts (cf. also Giannakidou & Cheng 2006, Lin, Weerman & Zeijlstra 2015). This shows that NPIs can vary in strength, calling into question what constitutes the exact landscape of different NPIs. However, the distribution of NPIs can only be properly explained if the nature of NPI-hood itself is better understood: why is it that certain elements are sensitive to the negativity (or other logical properties, such as downward entailment) of the environments they appear in?


Similar questions have been raised in the study to PPI-hood. What is the exact distribution of PPIs, and why are certain elements banned from contexts that count in one way or the other as negative? As shown by Van der Wouden (1994), PPIs also come about in different strengths, and just like NPIs, multiple accounts for the nature of PPI-hood have been proposed (though not as many as in the case of NPI-hood). For instance, Szabolcsi (2004) takes the distribution of PPIs to be governed by the number of syntactic features present in a clause (after Postal 2004), whereas for Krifka (1995), Chierchia (2013) and Zeijlstra (2016), anti-licenced PPIs are again pragma-semantically infelicitous.


In this course we focus on the question as to why certain elements are sensitive to the polarity of the clause they appear in. We will do so in the first 4 lectures. As the lectures focus quite a bit on the difference between existential and universal quantifiers, we focus in the final lecture a bit more on the difference between negative existential and universal quantifiers


Lecture I: NPIs of different strengths are NPIs for different reasons


Virtually every language exhibits NPIs. At the same time, NPIs may vary to quite some extent with respect to their licensing conditions. Whereas some NPIs can be licensed only in strictly negative (or anti-additive) contexts (i.e. contexts like no, nothing, nowhere), other NPIs have a weaker distribution. In this lecture, I show that this variation is even wider than is generally thought to be. The reason behind this variation is that sources of NPI-hood can substantially differ: NPIs of different strength are NPIs for different reasons. In this lecture, I identify a number of different types of NPIs, based on their NPI-source, and, furthermore, show for a number of them that the acquisitional pathways of different NPIs are equally different, providing further support for a pluriform approach to NPI-hood (cf. also Giannakidou 2010 for a weaker version of such an approach). In this lecture, I discuss two other types of NPIs. First, I focus on so-called strong/weak NPIs, like English need, and French ne, which have a distribution that is somewhere in between that of strong and weak NPIs. Such NPIs also often have a lexical semantics that disallows them from being analysed along the lines by Chierchia (2013), or any of it precessors (e.g., need is a universal quantifier and not an existential/indefinite). I argue that such NPIs are better explained along the lines of a modified version of Postal (2004) and Collins & Postal (2014), arguing that such an NPI enters the derivation together with a negation that is further raised to and spelled out in a higher position. Evidence for this claim comes from the fact that exactly every context that allows split-scope readings also licences such NPIs, and from the acquisitional trajectory of such NPIs. After that I focus on another class of NPIs, so-called superweak NPIs, and show that Chinese shen-me indeed qualifies as such a superweak NPI whose distribution is limited to all non-veridical contexts, thus providing evidence for another source of NPI-hood: referential deficiency (cf. Giannakidou 1997, 2011). Again, also here acquisitional evidence will corroborate this claim.


Lecture II: Light negation: not an NPI

Here, I discuss another alleged type of NPI: light negation. Light negation has been said to be an NPI, homophonous to the plain negative marker (cf. Ladusaw 1979, Schwarz 2004, Bhatt & Schwarz 2006). Light negation, for instance, appears in constructions like German Susanne kann nicht eine Frendsprache (Susanne knows not a foreign.language). Such a sentence lacks the reading ‘Susanne knows no foreign language’, but interestingly this reading becomes available again, once the sentence is embedded in a downward entailing context: Wir haben keinen angenommen der nicht eine Fremdsprache kann (We have hired noone who not a foreign.language knows), which can mean ‘We hired noone who knows no foreign language’. For Schwarz 2004, Bhatt & Schwarz 2006 this extra reading comes from the light negation that is fine in downward entailing contexts only. In this lecture I demonstrate that the approach pursued to negative indefinites and split-scope in the previous lecture naturally accounts for the distribution of such readings in terms of pragmatic blocking, thereby undermining the claim that there is such a thing as homophonous negative markers that are light negation NPIs.


Lecture III: (Modal) PPIs

Apart from NPIs, another type of negative dependencies is formed by PPIs, elements that may not appear in the scope of negative and/or downward entailing contexts. Naturally, the question emerges why particular elements cannot be embedded by negation, just as in the previous part the question emerged as to why certain elements must appear in negative contexts (or the like). The fact that NPIs do not form a homogenous class of elements, but rather a heterogeneous class with different types of NPIs resulting from different types of sources for NPI-hood, naturally extends to PPIs. PPIs do not form a homogeneous class either and PPI-hood may have different sources too. In this lecture I show that most of the above-listed sources for NPI-hood apply to PPI-hood as well. One domain that is especially fruitful for investigating the nature of PPI-hood are modal auxiliaries. Whereas in most grammatical domains NPIs are much more dominant than PPIs (cf. Israel 1996), PPIs are most natural among modals. Various modal auxiliaries (must, should) are PPIs (cf., Iatridou & Zeijlstra 2013, Homer to appear). Virtually all of these modal auxiliary PPIs are universal quantifiers (over possible worlds). In this lecture, I argue that the PPI-hood of such modal quantifiers is best explained by applying the exhaustification approach to existential NPIs (to universal PPIs. In doing so, the question emerges as to why such universal PPIs only emerge among modals. Why aren’t there any universal PPIs among other quantifiers, such as quantifiers over individuals like everybody? In this lecture, I demonstrate that such universal PPIs actually exist, but are much harder to attest, since the theory predicts that under particular circumstances such PPIs may actually appear under a surface negation. Once that is controlled for, it can be shown that various languages exhibit universal PPIs, both inside and outside the domain of modals.


Lecture IV: strong and weak NPIs and PPIs

In this lecture I focus on the distinction between strong and weak NPIs and PPIs. Strong NPIs are NPIs that are only fine in strictly negative contexts (also known as anti-additive contexts), whereas weak NPIs are fine in a whole range of other licensing contexts, often taken to be downward entailing contexts; strong PPIs are elements that are banned from every downward entailing context, whereas weak PPIs are banned from strictly negative context only. I show in this lecture that this distinction is best captured by modifying Chierchia’s (2013) approach to NPI-hood (who explains NPI-hood in terms of obligatory strengthening by exhaustification). I argue that there are two ways for establishing a relation between an NPI and a (covert) exhaustifier: one established in the syntax and one where NPIs are exhaustified in purely pragmatic way. The latter ones are weak NPIs, the former ones are strong NPIs. I finally argue how this approach also captures the attested locality differences between strong and weak NPIs and between strong and weak PPIs.


Lecture V: the NALL problem

All negative quantifiers are negative indefinites, which can be analysed as a negation merged with an existential quantifier or indefinite (no, nobody, nothing, etc.). Now, it is known since Thomas of Acquino that no language in the world exhibits negative quantifiers that mean ‘not all’ or ‘not everybody’ (cf. Horn 1989, 2007). But why couldn’t a negation not have merged with a universal quantifier and lexicalized as such? In this lecture I will, following earlier ideas by Hoeksema 1999, and arguing against Horn 2007, Jaspers 2005 and others, show that nothing in the grammar rules out such constructions, but that under various functional principles behind language change no such lexalization processes are expected to take place.


Chierchia, G. 2013. Logic in Grammar: Polarity, Free Choice, and Intervention. Oxford: OUP.

Collins, C. & P. Postal 2014. Classical NEG Raising. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Giannakidou, A. 1997. The landscape of polarity items. PhD Dissertation, University of Groningen.

Giannakidou, A. 1998. Polarity Sensitivity as (Non)veridical Dependency. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Giannakidou, A. 1999. ‘Affective dependencies.’ Linguistics & Philosophy 22: 367–421

Giannakidou, A. 2011. ‘Negative and positive polarity items: Licensing, compositionality and variation.’ In C. Maienborn, K. von Heusinger & P.Portner (eds.), Semantics: An international handbook of natural language meaning. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.1660–1712.

Ling, J., F. Weerman & H. Zeijlstra. 2015. ‘Emerging NPIs: the acquisition of Dutch hoeven (‘need’)’. The Linguistic Review 32: 333-376.

Hoeksema, J. 1999. ‘Blocking effects and polarity sensitivity.’ In: J. Gerbrandy, M. Marx, M. de Rijke & Y. Venema (eds.), JFAK. Essays dedicated to Johan van Benthem on the Occasion of his 50th Birthday. Amsterdam: Vossiuspers AUP.

Homer, V. (to appear). ‘Neg-raising and Positive Polarity: The View from Modals.’ In Semantics & Pragmatics.

Horn, L. 1989. A Natural history of negation. Chicago: CSLI.

Horn, L. 2007. ‘Histoire d’*O: Lexical pragmatics and the geometry of opposition.’ In: J.-Y. Béziau & G. Payette (eds.), New Perspectives on the Square of Opposition. New York; Peter Lang. 393-426.

Iatridou, S. & H. Zeijlstra. 2013. ‘Negation, polarity and deontic modals.’ Linguistic Inquiry 44: 529-568.

Israel, M. 1996. ‘Polarity Sensitivity as Lexical Semantics.’ Linguistics & Philosophy. 19: 619-666.

Jaspers, D. 2005. On the negative logic of natural language. Operators in the lexicon. PhD Dissertation, University of Leiden.

Krifka, M. 1995. ‘The semantics and pragmatics of polarity items in assertion.’ Linguistic Analysis 15: 209-257.

Ladusaw, B. 1979. Polarity sensitivity as inherent scope relations. PhD Dissertation, U Texas, Austin

Ling, J., F. Weerman & H. Zeijlstra. 2015. ‘Emerging NPIs: the acquisition of Dutch hoeven (‘need’)’. The Linguistic Review 32: 333-376.

Postal P. 2004. ‘The structure of one type of American English vulgar minimizer.’ In P. Postal (ed.), Skeptical Linguistic Essays. New York: OUP. 159–72.

Szabolcsi, A. 2004. ‘Positive polarity—negative polarity.’ Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 22: 409-452.

Schwarz, B. 2004. How to rescue negative polarity items. Ms, UTexas Austin.

Schwarz, B. & R. Bhatt. 2006. ‘Light negation and Polarity.’ In R. Zanuttini, H. Campos, E. Herburger & P. Portner (eds.), Cross-Linguistic Research in Syntax and Semantics: Negation, Tense and Clausal Architecture. Washington DC: Georgetown University Press. 175-198.

Van der Wouden, T. 1994. Negative contexts. PhD Dissertation, University of Groningen.

Zeijlstra, H. 2013. ‘Negation and polarity’. In: M. Den Dikken (ed.), The Cambridge handbook of generative syntax. Cambridge: CUP. 793-826.

Zeijlstra, H. 2016. Universal Quantifier PPIs. To appear in Glossa.

Zwarts, F. 1995. ‘Nonveridical contexts.’ Linguistic Analysis. 25: 286–312.


Lecture I-II

Lecture III-IV

Lecture V