Natural Language & Linguistic Theory

, Volume 34, Issue 2, pp 739–760 | Cite as

On the syntax of English minimizers

  • Susagna TubauEmail author


The syntactic behaviour of English minimizers such as (not) a/one word, (not) a/one bit and (not) sleep a/one wink is puzzling: while they can behave as polarity items (PIs) in non-negative and negative contexts, they become negative quantifiers (NQs) when merged with a negation in negative contexts. Unlike previous accounts, where emphasis is put mainly on highlighting the similarity of minimizers to any-PIs and on supporting the contribution of an even-reading, I integrate the peculiar behaviour of minimizers in English within an analysis of negative indefinites as existential quantifiers that can structurally associate with negation in different ways. I claim that English minimizers contain three basic ingredients: a Numeral Phrase, a Focus particle and, in negative contexts, a Negative Phrase, not. The presence of a Focus particle even in the structure of minimizers plus the flexible merging possibilities of not with respect to the other two components of the minimizer result in their NQ-like behaviour, which can be now fully integrated into a theory of negative indefinites as syntactic objects that are compositionally built.


Minimizers English Negative quantifiers Polarity items Focus particle Negation 



This research has been funded by a research grant awarded by the Spanish Ministerio de Ciencia e Innovación (FFI2011-23356), and by a grant awarded by the Generalitat de Catalunya to the Centre de Lingüística Teòrica (2014SGR1013). I thank Gemma Rigau, Mercè Coll and M. Teresa Espinal, as well as the three anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments and suggestions on earlier versions of the paper.


  1. Acquaviva, Paolo. 1997. The logical form of negation: a study of operator-variable structures in syntax. New York: Garland. Google Scholar
  2. Bech, Gunnar. 1955/1957. Studien über das Deutsche Verbum infinitum. Tübingen: Niemeyer. Google Scholar
  3. Bolinger, Dwight. 1972. Degree words. The Hague: Mouton. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Büring, Daniel. 2007. Intonation, semantics and information structure. In The Oxford handbook of linguistic interfaces, eds. Gillian Ramchand and Charles Reiss, 445–473. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Google Scholar
  5. Chierchia, Genaro. 2006. Broaden your views: implicatures of domain widening and the “logicality” of language. Linguistic Inquiry 37: 535–590. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Chomsky, Noam. 1995. The Minimalist Program. Cambridge: MIT Press. Google Scholar
  7. Cinque, Guglielmo. 1999. Adverbs and functional heads. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Google Scholar
  8. Citko, Barbara. 2005. On the nature of merge: external merge, internal merge, and parallel merge. Linguistic Inquiry 36: 475–496. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Citko, Barbara. 2011. Multidominance. In Oxford handbook of linguistic minimalism, ed. Cédric Boeckx, 96–118. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Google Scholar
  10. Clercq, Karen de. 2011. Squat, zero and no/nothing: syntactic negation vs. semantic negation. Linguistics in the Netherlands 28(1): 14–24. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Déprez, Viviane. 2005. Morphological number, semantic number and bare nouns. Lingua 115: 857–883. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Kiss, Katalin É. 1998. Identificational focus and information focus. Language 74: 245–273. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Espinal, Maria Teresa. 2000. On the semantic status of n-words in Catalan and Spanish. Lingua 110: 557–580. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Espinal, Maria Teresa, and Louise McNally. 2007. Bare singular nominals and incorporating verbs. In Definiteness, specificity and animacy in Ibero-Romance languages, eds. Georg Kaiser and Manuel Leonetti. Arbeitspapier 122, 45–62. Konstanz: Fachbereich Sprachwissenschaft. University of Konstanz. Google Scholar
  15. Espinal, Maria Teresa and Susagna Tubau. In press. Meaning of words and meaning of sentences. In Grammatical Interfaces in Romance Linguistics, eds. Susann Fischer and Christoph Gabriel. Berlin: de Gruyter. Google Scholar
  16. Fauconnier, Gilles. 1975a. Polarity and the scale principle. In Chicago Linguistic Society (CLS) 11, 188–199. Chicago: Chicago Linguistic Society. Google Scholar
  17. Fauconnier, Gilles. 1975b. Pragmatic scales and logical structure. Linguistic Inquiry 6(3): 353–355. Google Scholar
  18. Giannakidou, Anastasia. 1998. Polarity sensitivity as (non)veridical dependency. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: Benjamins. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Giannakidou, Anastasia. 1999. Affective dependencies. Linguistics and Philosophy 22: 367–421. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Giannakidou, Anastasia. 2000. Negative…concord? Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 18: 457–523. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Giannakidou, Anastasia. 2006. Only, emotive factive verbs, and the dual nature of polarity dependency. Language 82(3): 575–603. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Giannakidou, Anastasia. 2007. The landscape of EVEN. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 25: 39–81. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Giannakidou, Anastasia. 2011. Positive polarity items and negative polarity items: variation, licensing, and compositionality. In Semantics: an international handbook of natural language meaning, eds. Claudia Maienborn, Klaus von Heusinger, and Paul Portner, 1660–1712. Berlin: de Gruyter. Google Scholar
  24. Giannakidou, Anastasia, and Suwon Yoon. 2011. The subjective mode of comparison: metalinguistic comparatives in Greek and Korean. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 29: 621–655. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Guerzoni, Elena. 2003. Even and minimizer NPIs in wh-questions. In Western Conference on Linguistics (WECOL) 31, eds. Brian Agbayani, Paivi Koskinen, and Vida Samiian, Fresno, CA, 99–111. Google Scholar
  26. Guerzoni, Elena. 2004. Even-NPIs in yes/no questions. Natural Language Semantics 12(4): 319–343. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Heim, Irene. 1984. A note on negative polarity and downward entailingness. In North East Linguistics Society (NELS) 14, eds. Charles Jones and Peter Sells, 98–107. Google Scholar
  28. Hoeksema, Jack. 1983. Negative polarity and the comparative. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 1(3): 403–434. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Hoeksema, Jack. 2009. Jespersen recycled. In Cyclical change, ed. Elly van Gelderen, 15–34. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: Benjamins. Google Scholar
  30. Horn, Lawrence R. 1972. On the semantic properties of logical operators in English. UCLA dissertation. Google Scholar
  31. Horn, Lawrence R. 1989. A natural history of negation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Google Scholar
  32. Horn, Lawrence R. 2001. Flaubert triggers, squatitive negation, and other quirks of grammar. In Perspectives on negation and polarity items, eds. Jack Hoeksema, Hotze Rullmann, Víctor Sánchez-Valencia, and Ton van der Wouden, 173–200. Amsterdam: Benjamins. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Iatridou, Sabine, and Ivy Sichel. 2011. Negative DPs, A-movement, and scope diminishment. Linguistic Inquiry 42: 595–629. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Jacobs, Joachim. 1980. Lexical decomposition in Montague Grammar. Theoretical Linguistics 7: 121–136. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Jacobs, Joachim. 1982. Syntax und semantik der negation im Deutschen. Studien zur Theoretischen Linguistik 1. Munich: Fink. Google Scholar
  36. Jacobs, Joachim. 1991. Negation. In Semantics: an international handbook, eds. Arnim von Stechow and Dieter Wunderlich, 560–596. Berlin: de Gruyter. Google Scholar
  37. Klein, Henry. 1998. Adverbs of degree in Dutch and related languages. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: Benjamins. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Klima, Edward S. 1964. Negation in English. In The structure of language. Readings in the philosophy of language, eds. Jerry A. Fodor and Jerrold J. Katz, 246–323. New Jersey: Prentice Hall. Google Scholar
  39. König, Ekkehard. 1991. The meaning of focus particles. London: Routledge. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Kuno, Masakazu. 2008. Negation, focus, and negative concord in Japanese. Toronto Working Papers in Linguistics 28: 195–211. Google Scholar
  41. Labelle, Marie, and M. Teresa Espinal. 2014. Diachronic changes in negative expressions: the case of French. Lingua 145: 149–225. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Ladusaw, William A. 1979. Polarity sensitivity as inherent scope relations. Austin, TX: University of Texas dissertation. Google Scholar
  43. Ladusaw, William A. 1992. Expressing negation. In Semantics and Linguistic Theory (SALT) II, eds. Chris Barker and David Dowty, Ohio State working papers in linguistics 40, 237–259. Google Scholar
  44. Lahiri, Utpal. 1998. Focus and negative polarity in Hindi. Natural Language Semantics 6: 57–123. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Laka, Itziar. 1990. Negation in syntax: on the nature of functional categories and projections. MIT dissertation, Cambridge, MA. Google Scholar
  46. Laka, Itziar. 1993. Negative fronting in Romance: movement to Σ. In Linguistic perspectives on the Romance languages, eds. William J. Ashby, Marianne Mithun, Giorgio Perissinotto, and Eduardo Raposo, 315–333. Amsterdam: Benjamins. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Larson, Richard, Marcel den Dikken, and Peter Ludlow. 1997. Intensional transitive verbs and abstract clausal complementation. Ms., SUNY at Stony Brook. (accessed on August 20, 2013).
  48. Lee, Young-Suk, and Laurence Horn. 1994. Any as indefinite plus even. Ms., Yale University. Google Scholar
  49. McCawley, James D. 1991. Contrastive negation and metalinguistic negation. In Chicago Linguistics Society (CLS) 27. Part 2: Parasession on Negation, 189–206. Google Scholar
  50. Linebarger, Marcia. 1980. The grammar of negative polarity. MIT dissertation, Cambridge, MA. Google Scholar
  51. Matushansky, Ora. 2006. Head movement in linguistic theory. Linguistic Inquiry 37(1): 69–109. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Penka, Doris. 2007. Negative indefinites. Karl-Eberhards Universität Tübingen dissertation, Tübingen. Google Scholar
  53. Penka, Doris. 2011. Negative indefinites. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Google Scholar
  54. Penka, Doris, and Hedde Zeijlstra. 2010. Negation and polarity: an introduction. Natural Language and Linguistics Theory 28: 771–786. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Postal, Paul. 2004. The structure of one type of American English vulgar minimizer. In Skeptical linguistic essays, ed. Paul Postal, 159–172. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press. Google Scholar
  56. Pott, August F. 1857. Etymologische Forschungen auf dem Gebiete der Indo-Germanischen Sprachen, Vol. 1. Lemgo/Detmold: Meyer. Google Scholar
  57. Potts, Chris. 2000. When even ‘no’s neg is splitsville. Jorge Hankamer’s Webfest. (accessed on July 16, 2013).
  58. Quer, Josep. 1993. The syntactic licensing of negative items. MA thesis, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Barcelona. Google Scholar
  59. Quirk, Randolph, Sidney Greenbaum, Geoffrey Leech, and Jan Svartvik. 1973. A grammar of contemporary English. London: Longman. Google Scholar
  60. Quirk, Randolph, Sidney Greenbaum, Geoffrey Leech, and Jan Svartvik. 1985. A comprehensive grammar of the English language. London: Longman. Google Scholar
  61. Repp, Sophie. 2010. Defining ‘contrast’ as an information-structural notion in grammar. Lingua 120(6): 1333–1345. Special issue on Contrast as an information-structural notion in grammar, eds. Sophie Repp and Philippa Cook. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. van Riemsdijk, Henk C. 2006. Grafts follow from Merge. In Phases of interpretation, ed. Mara Frascarelli, 17–44. Berlin: de Gruyter. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Rooth, Mats. 1985. Association with focus. UMass dissertation, Amherst, MA. Google Scholar
  64. Rooth, Mats. 1992. A theory of focus interpretation. Natural Language Semantics 1: 75–116. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Rullmann, Hotze. 1995. Geen eenheid. Tabu 25: 194–197. Google Scholar
  66. Sauerland, Uli. 2000. No ‘no’: on the crosslinguistic absence of a determiner ‘no’. In Tsukuba workshop on determiners and quantification, ed. Uli Sauerland, 415–444. Tsukuba: Tsukuba University. Google Scholar
  67. Schmerling, Susan F. 1971. A note on negative polarity. Papers in Linguistics 4: 200–206. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Temmerman, Tanja. 2012. Multidominance, ellipsis, and quantifier scope. Universiteit Leiden dissertation, Leiden. Google Scholar
  69. Tubau, Susagna, and Maria Teresa Espinal. 2012. Doble negació dins l’oració simple en català. Estudis Romànics 34: 145–164. Google Scholar
  70. Vallduví, Enric. 1994. Polarity items, n-words and minimizers in Catalan and Spanish. Probus 6: 263–294. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. de Vries, Mark. 2005. Merge: properties and boundary conditions. Linguistics in the Netherlands 22: 219–230. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. de Vries, Mark. 2009. On multidominance and linearization. Biolinguistics 3: 344–403. Google Scholar
  73. Wagenaar, Kernelis. 1930. Étude sur la negation en ancient espagnol jusqu’au XVe Siècle. Groningen: Noordhoff. Google Scholar
  74. Wilkinson, Karina. 1996. The scope of even. Natural Language Semantics 4: 193–215. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Zanuttini, Raffaella. 1987. Negation and negative concord in Italian and Piemontese. Canadian Journal of Italian Studies 10(35): 135–149. Google Scholar
  76. Zanuttini, Raffaella. 1991. Syntactic properties of sentential negation: A comparative study of romance languages. University of Pennsylvania dissertation, Philadelphia, PA. Google Scholar
  77. Zeijlstra, Hedde. 2004. Sentential negation and negative concord. Universiteit van Amsterdam dissertation, Amsterdam. Google Scholar
  78. Zeijlstra, Hedde. 2011. On the syntactically complex status of negative indefinites. Journal of Comparative Germanic Linguistics 14: 111–138. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  79. Zubizarreta, Maria Luisa. 1998. Prosody, focus, and word order. Linguistic inquiry monographs 33. Cambridge: MIT Press. Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Departament de Filologia Anglesa i de Germanística, Facultat de Filosofia i Lletres (Edifici B)Universitat Autònoma de BarcelonaBarcelonaSpain

Personalised recommendations