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Negative clauses imply affirmative topics and affirmative antecedents

Abstract

We propose that negative clauses are generally interpreted as if the affirmative portion of the clause is under discussion, a likely topic. This predicts a preference for affirmative (topical) antecedents over negative antecedents of a following missing verb phrase (VP). Three experiments tested the predictions of this hypothesis in sentences containing negation in the first clause followed by an ambiguous as-clause as in Don’t cross on red as a stupid person would and its counterpart with smart replacing stupid. In Experiment 1 sentences containing an undesirable attribute adjective such as stupid were rated as more natural, and read faster, than their desirable attribute counterparts (smart), with or without a comma preceding as. The second experiment indicated that the interpretation of the missing VP reflected the attribute adjective’s desirability, with processing difficulty presumably reflecting reanalysis from the initial affirmative antecedent (cross on red) to include negation when the initial interpretation violated plausibility. A third experiment generalized the effect beyond sentences with an initial contracted don’t.

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Notes

  1. Frazier and Clifton (2021) discussed various structures into which as-clauses can enter, including degree comparative complements like as tall as Mary is. The sentences used in the present experiment were designed instead to have the as-clause as an adjunct to the matrix clause. Even here there is variability, at least in interpretation; the as-clause can prefer to have a manner interpretation or a propositional interpretation (contrast She wrapped the package as a careful person would and He hid the evidence as a sneaky person would). The present sentences were designed to strongly favor a propositional interpretation.

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Correspondence to Charles Clifton Jr..

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Appendices

Appendix 1: Materials used in Experiment 1

Lead-in given only for condition a. Conditions c and d (comma present) illustrated only for item 1.

1 a Marissa is a very good friend
Still, she is always badgering me
Today she almost yelled at me: Don’t cross on red as a smart person would
  b Today she almost yelled at me: Don’t cross on red as a stupid person would
  c Today she almost yelled at me: Don’t cross on red, as a smart person would
  d Today she almost yelled at me: Don’t cross on red, as a stupid person would
2 a Things aren't going all that well for me recently
Today it was my landlord getting on my case again
He told me: Don’t waste electricity as a careful person would
  b He told me: Don’t waste electricity as a careless person would
3 a My sister always gives me good advice
It helps to hear it even if it’s obvious
Most recently she tells me: Don’t isolate yourself as a happy person would
  b Most recently she tells me: Don’t isolate yourself as a lonely person would
4 a I'm learning a lot at school these days
My advisor is terrific
Today she told me: Don’t read a novel quickly as a mature student would
  b Today she told me: Don’t read a novel quickly as an inexperienced student would
5 a It must be difficult being a doctor
They can’t tell what is obvious to them but not to their patients
Today my doctor said: Don’t eat a lot of sugar as a healthy person would  
  b Today my doctor said: Don’t eat a lot of sugar as a sick person would
6 a Recently I talked to my 20 year old brother and gave him some advice
Boy, did that grate on him
I said: Don’t always procrastinate as an adult would
  b I said: Don’t always procrastinate as a teenager would
7 a My college friends and I are interested in what we're learning
But the faculty here don't seem to think we know how to act
The professor of the English course warned us: Don’t swear in class as a thoughtful person would
  b The professor of the English course warned us: Don’t swear in class as a thoughtless person would
8 a I don't seem to be very popular these days
Every friend I have cautioned me about my wardrobe
They all tell me: Don’t wear last decade’s clothes as a person with any fashion sense would
  b They all tell me: Don’t wear last decade’s clothes as a person without any fashion sense would

Appendix 2: Materials used in Experiment 2

All four conditions shown only for item 1; Alternative adjectives and continuations shown for remaining conditions.

1 a. Don’t cross on red, as a stupid man would. He probably would end up safe.[NOTE: Error, should be hurt]
Don’t cross on red, as a stupid man would. He probably would end up safe
Don’t cross on red, as a smart man would. He probably would end up hurt
Don’t cross on red, as a smart man would. He probably would end up safe
2 Don’t practice poor hygiene, as a dirty/clean/ person would. He’d likely catch/avoid the flu
3 Don’t go outside in the rain without a coat, as a silly child/wise adult would. She’d likely get wet/stay dry
4 Don’t pour the wine carelessly, as a heedless/mindful man would. He probably would spill some/wouldn't spill any
5 Don’t spend all the money, as a reckless/prudent man would. He’d go broke/stay solvent
6 Don’t ignore the time, as a tardy/punctual woman would. She’d probably miss/catch the start of the movie
7 Don’t speak out of turn, as a bad/good student would. He’d get a low/high grade for class participation
8 Don’t treat your friends poorly, as an opportunistic/a loyal person would. He’d probably lose/keep their friendship
9 Don’t respond unsympathetically, as a cruel/kind person would. He’d feel bad/good about it eventually
10 Don’t paint the room in a dark color, as a depressed/happy woman would. She’d feel somewhat worse/cheerier
11 Don’t call your friends after 11 PM, as a thoughtless/thoughtful woman would. She’d be likely to lose/keep her friends
12 Don’t eat junk food, as clueless/health-conscious kids would. They’d probably end up overweight and unhealthy/stay lean and healthy
13 Don’t wash with harsh detergents, as an environmentally unconcerned/concerned woman would. She would make her drinking water polluted/could keep her drinking water safe
14 Don’t speak too loudly, as an impolite/a polite person would. She’d probably make the people around her uncomfortable/comfortable
15 Don’t falsify your income tax return, as a dishonest/an honest person would. He should/shouldn't pay a penalty
16 Don’t forget to water your plants, as an absent-minded/a conscientious woman would. She’d just have to replace/continue to enjoy them

Appendix 3: Experiment with explicit negation

Method.

Materials. The 8 experimental items of Experiment 1 were modified by simplifying the initial two sentences of each discourse, removing the lead-in of the third sentence, changing the final as-clause of that sentence to an independent clause separated by a semi-colon, replacing the desirable/undesirable adjective subject with a proper name or a neutral definite description, eliminating the comma manipulation, and adding a manipulation of affirmative/explicit negative to the target sentence. Eight sentences taken from Experiment 2 were manipulated in the same way as the Experiment 1 sentences, with 2-sentence introductions added and continuations removed. These 16 items, which appear immediately below (with the affirmative/negative options indicated), were combined with the 40 filler items used in Experiment 1.

1 Marissa is a very good friend
Here's what she told me today
Don’t cross on red; Tom would/wouldn't
2 Things aren't going all that well for me recently
Today my landlord fussed at me
Don’t waste electricity; my last tenants would/wouldn't
3 My sister always gives me good advice
Here's what she most recently told me
Don’t isolate yourself; Betty would/wouldn't
4 I'm learning a lot at school these days
My advisor told me this today
Don’t read a novel quickly; Billy would/wouldn't
5 It must be difficult being a doctor
Today my doctor said said something surprising to me
Don’t eat a lot of sugar; this morning's patient would/wouldn't
6 Recently I talked to my 20 year old brother
I gave him some advice
Don’t always procrastinate; your friends would/wouldn't
7 The faculty here don't seem to think we know how to act
The professor of the English course told us something
Don’t swear in class; last year's students would/wouldn't
8 I don't seem to be very popular these days
Every friend I have tells me this
Don’t wear last decade’s clothes; your sister would/wouldn't
9 I've been getting lots of advice recently
Here's the latest
Don’t practice poor hygiene; your cousin would/wouldn't
10 My mother is such a fusspot
Yammer yammer yammer
Don’t go outside in the rain without a coat; your brother would/wouldn't
11 People just don't ever leave me alone
They don't seem to think I can take care of myself
Don’t ignore the time; Fred would/wouldn't
12 I have to be very obedient in school
The teacher is fussing at me
Don’t speak out of turn; Sara would/wouldn't
13 Those folks seem to be in trouble
They need your help
Don’t respond unsympathetically; Ms. Miller would/wouldn't
14 It's time to fix up the house
My family is giving me all sorts of advice
Don’t paint the room in a dark color; your aunt would/wouldn't
15 My mom wants me to be slim and healthy
I guess her advice makes some sense
Don’t eat junk food; Charlie would/wouldn't
16 It's not right to cheat like some people do
Here's some advice for you
Don’t falsify your income tax return; Mr. Carlton would/wouldn't

Participants and procedures.Forty-nine participants were recruited as in Experiments 1 and 2, using prolific.co, and paid $2.00 each for their participation. The data for one were eliminated because reading time data were not recorded. The mean age of all analyzed participants was 30.6 years, and 26 of the 48 were female.

The procedures were identical to those of Experiment 1, apart from there being only 2 counterbalancing conditions, using a Latin square design ensuring that each participant saw equal numbers of affirmative and negative items and each item was tested equally often in the affirmative and negative forms.

Results

The mean reading times (with outliers removed using the same procedures as in Experiment 1) were 2172 ms (SE = 58) for affirmative target sentences and 2037 ms (SE = 52) for negative target sentences. This difference was tested as in Experiment 1, using the same analysis procedures, and could be considered to be marginal (β = 144, SE = 72, t =  − 2.01). The mean 7-point ratings were 3.84 (SE = 0.095, median = 4) for affirmative sentences, and 4.66 (SE = 0.088, median = 5), resulting in a |Z|> 2.0 (β =  − 0.575, SE = 0.114, z =  − 5.055).

Appendix 4: Materials used in Experiment 3

Only item 1 shown in all 8 conditions. Items 2–16 show only conditions c and d; items 17–32 show only conditions a and b.

1 a. You shouldn't cross on red as a stupid person would
  b. You shouldn't cross on red as a smart person would
  c. Don't cross on red as a stupid person would
  d. Don't cross on red as a smart person would
  e. You should not cross on red as a stupid person would
  f. You should not cross on red as a smart person would
  g. Do not cross on red as a stupid person would
  h. Do not cross on red as a smart person would
Question, Would what? __cross on red __not cross on red"
2 Don’t speak out of turn in class as a bad/good student would
3 Don’t spend all your money as a reckless/prudent person would
4 Don’t treat your friends poorly as an opportunistic/loyal person would
5 Don’t ignore the time as a tardy/punctual person would
6 Don’t practice poor hygiene as a dirty/clean person would
7 Don't respond unsympathetically as a cruel/kind person would
8 Don’t bake bread on a grill as a rustic camper/city dweller would.
9 Don’t go outside in the rain without a coat as a silly child/wise adult would
10 Don't paint the room black as a depressed/happy person would
11 Don’t pour the wine carelessly as someone heedless/mindless would
12 Don’t make calls after 10 pm as a thoughtless/thoughtful person would
13 Don’t buy junk food as a clueless/health-conscious person would
14 Don’t wash with harsh detergents as an environmentally unconcerned/concerned person would.
15 Don’t wash your hands carelessly as a mindless/mindful person would
16 Don’t speak loudly as an impolite/a polite person would
17 Don't laugh during church services as an inconsiderate/considerate person would
18 You shouldn't skip class as a bad/good student would
19 You shouldn't alienate your friends as a foolish/sensible person would
20 You shouldn't get to work late as an irresponsible/a responsible person would
21 You shouldn't date co-workers as a foolish/wise person would
22 You shouldn't eat undercooked pork as an uninformed/informed person would
23 You shouldn't drive drunk as a thoughtless/thoughtful person would
24 You shouldn't drink while gambling as an amateur/a professional would
25 You shouldn't hitchhike as a reckless/cautious person would
26 You shouldn't fly unnecessarily as a carbon unconscious/conscious person would
27 You shouldn't ingest carcinogens as an insane/informed person would
28 You shouldn't study with loud music blaring as an irresponsible/a responsible student would
29 You shouldn't talk while you eat as a heedless/cautious person would
30 You shouldn't laugh at a newcomer as a calloused/sensitive person would
31 You shouldn't ignore a hurt animal as a calloused/empathetic person would
32 You shouldn't make women stay at home as a 19th/twenty-first century person would

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Clifton, C., Frazier, L. & Kaup, B. Negative clauses imply affirmative topics and affirmative antecedents. J Psycholinguist Res 50, 1261–1282 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10936-021-09792-1

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Keywords

  • Negation
  • Question under discussion (QUD)
  • As-clauses