Skip to main content

On the syntax of English minimizers

Abstract

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.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Notes

  1. As discussed in Horn (1989), minimizers are already addressed in Pott (1857) and Wagenaar (1930), who provide numerous examples of these kind of expressions taken from a variety of Indo-European languages such as Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, French, Old Spanish, Italian, English, Dutch, German, and Slavic. With reference to Pott’s (1857:410) and Wagenaar’s (1930:74–75) examples, Horn gives a list of minimizers that contains

    “minimal quantities from the culinary domain (= ‘not a cherrystone, a chestnut, a crumb, an egg, a fava, a fig, a garlic, a grain, a leek, an oyster, a parsnip, a pea’), coins of little value, animals and body parts (‘not a cat’s tail, a hair, a mosquito, a lobster [sic], a sparrow’), and other objects of little value and/or salience (‘not an accent, an atom, a nail, a pinecone, a point, a shred, a splinter, a straw’).”

    (Horn 1989:452–453)

    Hoeksema (2009:23) distinguishes between minimizers, adverbial minimizers and minimizing predicates, which have been illustrated in (ia–c) respectively, and includes them in an admittedly partial list of different types of PIs in English.

    1. (i)
      figure a
  2. That minimizers yield a nicht einmal das ‘not even…’ reading when they occur in negative contexts was already noticed by Pott (1857:410).

  3. Vulgar minimizers, also known as ‘squatitive negation’ (Horn 2001) or ‘SQUAT’ (Postal 2004) seem to be inherently negative and can license any-PIs in English (but not in other languages such as Greek and Korean) (Giannakidou and Yoon 2011). Although discussing the syntax and semantics of vulgar minimizers is beyond the purpose of this paper, their existence shows that interesting differences exist within the class of minimizers not only in English, but also across languages. For an analysis of SQUAT-minimizers as downward entailing quantifiers that express semantic sentential negation see De Clercq (2011).

  4. According to Giannakidou (1998:106), an operator is veridical just in case Op pp is logically valid. Otherwise the operator is non-veridical. Negation is antiveridical, as Op p→¬p is logically valid.

  5. Some of these diagnostic tests are explicitly credited to a number of other scholars in Vallduví (1994). In particular, (19a) is related to Zanuttini’s (1991) work, and (19b) to Horn (1972), Hoeksema (1983), Zanuttini (1987, 1991) and Quer (1993). Finally, (19d) is attributed to Laka (1990, 1993).

  6. Differences exist among NC languages with respect to whether n-words can appear in non-negative contexts: while in some NC languages such as Catalan, n-words often occur in non-negative contexts with a non-negative meaning, they only marginally do so in Spanish. In Romanian or French, by contrast, n-words cannot appear in non-negative contexts at all.

  7. See also Espinal (2000), who builds on Vallduví’s (1994) tests to show that Catalan and Spanish n-words display an ambiguous behaviour: they behave like negative universal quantifiers in some contexts, but as non-negative existential quantifiers in some others. She suggests that they may be analysed as weak numeral quantifiers that encode a 〚0〛 meaning and are underspecified for quantificational force.

  8. Both Vallduví (1994) and Espinal (2000) mention the same effect for the negative particle ni ‘not even’, which makes it possible for Catalan and Spanish minimizers to be used in isolation and in pre-verbal position, and to be modified by almost and absolutely.

  9. Penka (2007:7–9) discusses Klima’s (1964) tests showing that what they are really sensitive to is whether negation takes widest scope. Penka (2007:11), following Acquaviva (1997), assumes sentential negation to take scope above the event that the verb expresses.

  10. See also Bech (1955/1957), Jacobs (1980, 1982 and 1991), and Rullmann (1995).

  11. Temmerman (2012) assumes a structure with multidominance created by Parallel Merge (Citko 2005, 2011; de Vries 2005, 2009; van Riemsdijk 2006) for English object NQs. In Temmerman’s account, the negative operator Op¬ dominates the existential DP, but is itself not dominated by the VP, which only selects the existential DP.

  12. Matushansky (2006:70) defines m-merger as a morphological operation ‘which results in the head adjunction structure traditionally associated with head movement.’

  13. In this paper the scalar behaviour of minimizers has been attributed to the presence of a Focus even particle in their structure. In addition, it would also be possible to argue that they activate alternatives that need to be interpreted along a pragmatic scale and introduce the implicature that the minimizer is the pragmatically strongest alternative in the context because they are specified with a semantic feature [+σ] (Chierchia 2006:559), which linguistically codifies the need for an enriched interpretation (Chierchia 2006:553–554). As [+σ] is an uninterpretable feature, it would need to be syntactically checked by an interpretable σ operator that can attach to non-veridical operators (including negation, which is antiveridical). Hence, English minimizers are felicitous in contexts containing operators to which a σ operator can attach, but are out in non-negative declarative sentences. The [+σ] feature has recently been argued to be part of n-words in Spanish, Catalan, Romanian and French in Espinal and Tubau (in press). It was already postulated for Catalan n-words in Tubau and Espinal (2012).

  14. Déprez (2005), Espinal and McNally (2007) and Labelle and Espinal (2014) also assume NQs, n-words and PIs to contain a NumP.

  15. For Klein (1998:94) “contrastive negation can be used to replace a degree by one that is thought more applicable (She isn’t A BIT nervous, she’s EXTREMELY nervous).”

  16. Besides the basic form not X but Y, there are, according to McCawley (1991:190), four more types of contrastive negation in English. The five have been listed in (i), (ia–c′) being known as ‘short’ forms and (id, e) as ‘expanded’ forms.

    1. (i)
      figure ap

    In all of them, a minimizer would be interpreted with a non-idiomatic reading (i.e., as a plain indefinite).

    1. (ii)
      figure aq
  17. Alternatively, as suggested by a reviewer, it may be possible that the foci in contrastive negation of the not X but Y type involve Contrastive Focus (Rooth 1992; Kiss 1998; Zubizarreta 1998; Büring 2007, among others), a subtype of Focus that “occurs in a correction, or in a parallel structure (like in ellipsis) where it is juxtaposed directly with another contrastive focus” (Repp 2010:2) rather than an even Focus particle. Deciding which account is superior is beyond the scope of this paper and is left for future research.

  18. As in negative contexts English minimizers may behave as negative polarity items that are dependent on a structurally higher negation, it could be argued that such a dependency is mediated by Agree (Chomsky 1995 and subsequent work) between negation and an uninterpretable negative feature, [uNeg], in the minimizer. In order to explain why minimizers can occur in non-negative contexts, however, it would have to be further assumed (as Espinal and Tubau in press do for Romance n-words, for example), that [uNeg] is not an inherent feature of minimizers, but one that can be picked up in the syntax in negative contexts. Such view, nonetheless, cannot handle the parallelism that minimizers show with NQs when they merge with not.

  19. That NegP has flexible merging possibilities is also shown by the fact that it can also specify nouns, adjectives and other categories.

References

  • Acquaviva, Paolo. 1997. The logical form of negation: a study of operator-variable structures in syntax. New York: Garland.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bech, Gunnar. 1955/1957. Studien über das Deutsche Verbum infinitum. Tübingen: Niemeyer.

  • Bolinger, Dwight. 1972. Degree words. The Hague: Mouton.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • 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 

  • Chierchia, Genaro. 2006. Broaden your views: implicatures of domain widening and the “logicality” of language. Linguistic Inquiry 37: 535–590.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Chomsky, Noam. 1995. The Minimalist Program. Cambridge: MIT Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Cinque, Guglielmo. 1999. Adverbs and functional heads. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Citko, Barbara. 2005. On the nature of merge: external merge, internal merge, and parallel merge. Linguistic Inquiry 36: 475–496.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Citko, Barbara. 2011. Multidominance. In Oxford handbook of linguistic minimalism, ed. Cédric Boeckx, 96–118. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Clercq, Karen de. 2011. Squat, zero and no/nothing: syntactic negation vs. semantic negation. Linguistics in the Netherlands 28(1): 14–24.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Déprez, Viviane. 2005. Morphological number, semantic number and bare nouns. Lingua 115: 857–883.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kiss, Katalin É. 1998. Identificational focus and information focus. Language 74: 245–273.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Espinal, Maria Teresa. 2000. On the semantic status of n-words in Catalan and Spanish. Lingua 110: 557–580.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • 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 

  • 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.

  • Fauconnier, Gilles. 1975a. Polarity and the scale principle. In Chicago Linguistic Society (CLS) 11, 188–199. Chicago: Chicago Linguistic Society.

    Google Scholar 

  • Fauconnier, Gilles. 1975b. Pragmatic scales and logical structure. Linguistic Inquiry 6(3): 353–355.

    Google Scholar 

  • Giannakidou, Anastasia. 1998. Polarity sensitivity as (non)veridical dependency. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: Benjamins.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Giannakidou, Anastasia. 1999. Affective dependencies. Linguistics and Philosophy 22: 367–421.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Giannakidou, Anastasia. 2000. Negative…concord? Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 18: 457–523.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Giannakidou, Anastasia. 2006. Only, emotive factive verbs, and the dual nature of polarity dependency. Language 82(3): 575–603.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Giannakidou, Anastasia. 2007. The landscape of EVEN. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 25: 39–81.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • 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 

  • 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.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • 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 

  • Guerzoni, Elena. 2004. Even-NPIs in yes/no questions. Natural Language Semantics 12(4): 319–343.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • 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 

  • Hoeksema, Jack. 1983. Negative polarity and the comparative. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 1(3): 403–434.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hoeksema, Jack. 2009. Jespersen recycled. In Cyclical change, ed. Elly van Gelderen, 15–34. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: Benjamins.

    Google Scholar 

  • Horn, Lawrence R. 1972. On the semantic properties of logical operators in English. UCLA dissertation.

  • Horn, Lawrence R. 1989. A natural history of negation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • Iatridou, Sabine, and Ivy Sichel. 2011. Negative DPs, A-movement, and scope diminishment. Linguistic Inquiry 42: 595–629.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Jacobs, Joachim. 1980. Lexical decomposition in Montague Grammar. Theoretical Linguistics 7: 121–136.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Jacobs, Joachim. 1982. Syntax und semantik der negation im Deutschen. Studien zur Theoretischen Linguistik 1. Munich: Fink.

    Google Scholar 

  • Jacobs, Joachim. 1991. Negation. In Semantics: an international handbook, eds. Arnim von Stechow and Dieter Wunderlich, 560–596. Berlin: de Gruyter.

    Google Scholar 

  • Klein, Henry. 1998. Adverbs of degree in Dutch and related languages. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: Benjamins.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • 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 

  • König, Ekkehard. 1991. The meaning of focus particles. London: Routledge.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Kuno, Masakazu. 2008. Negation, focus, and negative concord in Japanese. Toronto Working Papers in Linguistics 28: 195–211.

    Google Scholar 

  • Labelle, Marie, and M. Teresa Espinal. 2014. Diachronic changes in negative expressions: the case of French. Lingua 145: 149–225.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Ladusaw, William A. 1979. Polarity sensitivity as inherent scope relations. Austin, TX: University of Texas dissertation.

  • 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 

  • Lahiri, Utpal. 1998. Focus and negative polarity in Hindi. Natural Language Semantics 6: 57–123.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Laka, Itziar. 1990. Negation in syntax: on the nature of functional categories and projections. MIT dissertation, Cambridge, MA.

  • 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.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • Larson, Richard, Marcel den Dikken, and Peter Ludlow. 1997. Intensional transitive verbs and abstract clausal complementation. Ms., SUNY at Stony Brook. http://semantics.univ-paris1.fr/pdf/itv.pdf (accessed on August 20, 2013).

  • Lee, Young-Suk, and Laurence Horn. 1994. Any as indefinite plus even. Ms., Yale University.

  • McCawley, James D. 1991. Contrastive negation and metalinguistic negation. In Chicago Linguistics Society (CLS) 27. Part 2: Parasession on Negation, 189–206.

    Google Scholar 

  • Linebarger, Marcia. 1980. The grammar of negative polarity. MIT dissertation, Cambridge, MA.

  • Matushansky, Ora. 2006. Head movement in linguistic theory. Linguistic Inquiry 37(1): 69–109.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Penka, Doris. 2007. Negative indefinites. Karl-Eberhards Universität Tübingen dissertation, Tübingen.

  • Penka, Doris. 2011. Negative indefinites. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Penka, Doris, and Hedde Zeijlstra. 2010. Negation and polarity: an introduction. Natural Language and Linguistics Theory 28: 771–786.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • 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 

  • Pott, August F. 1857. Etymologische Forschungen auf dem Gebiete der Indo-Germanischen Sprachen, Vol. 1. Lemgo/Detmold: Meyer.

    Google Scholar 

  • Potts, Chris. 2000. When even ‘no’s neg is splitsville. Jorge Hankamer’s Webfest. http://babel.ucsc.edu/Jorge/potts.html (accessed on July 16, 2013).

  • Quer, Josep. 1993. The syntactic licensing of negative items. MA thesis, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Barcelona.

  • Quirk, Randolph, Sidney Greenbaum, Geoffrey Leech, and Jan Svartvik. 1973. A grammar of contemporary English. London: Longman.

    Google Scholar 

  • Quirk, Randolph, Sidney Greenbaum, Geoffrey Leech, and Jan Svartvik. 1985. A comprehensive grammar of the English language. London: Longman.

    Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • van Riemsdijk, Henk C. 2006. Grafts follow from Merge. In Phases of interpretation, ed. Mara Frascarelli, 17–44. Berlin: de Gruyter.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • Rooth, Mats. 1985. Association with focus. UMass dissertation, Amherst, MA.

  • Rooth, Mats. 1992. A theory of focus interpretation. Natural Language Semantics 1: 75–116.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Rullmann, Hotze. 1995. Geen eenheid. Tabu 25: 194–197.

    Google Scholar 

  • 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 

  • Schmerling, Susan F. 1971. A note on negative polarity. Papers in Linguistics 4: 200–206.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Temmerman, Tanja. 2012. Multidominance, ellipsis, and quantifier scope. Universiteit Leiden dissertation, Leiden.

  • Tubau, Susagna, and Maria Teresa Espinal. 2012. Doble negació dins l’oració simple en català. Estudis Romànics 34: 145–164.

    Google Scholar 

  • Vallduví, Enric. 1994. Polarity items, n-words and minimizers in Catalan and Spanish. Probus 6: 263–294.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • de Vries, Mark. 2005. Merge: properties and boundary conditions. Linguistics in the Netherlands 22: 219–230.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • de Vries, Mark. 2009. On multidominance and linearization. Biolinguistics 3: 344–403.

    Google Scholar 

  • Wagenaar, Kernelis. 1930. Étude sur la negation en ancient espagnol jusqu’au XVe Siècle. Groningen: Noordhoff.

    Google Scholar 

  • Wilkinson, Karina. 1996. The scope of even. Natural Language Semantics 4: 193–215.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Zanuttini, Raffaella. 1987. Negation and negative concord in Italian and Piemontese. Canadian Journal of Italian Studies 10(35): 135–149.

    Google Scholar 

  • Zanuttini, Raffaella. 1991. Syntactic properties of sentential negation: A comparative study of romance languages. University of Pennsylvania dissertation, Philadelphia, PA.

  • Zeijlstra, Hedde. 2004. Sentential negation and negative concord. Universiteit van Amsterdam dissertation, Amsterdam.

  • Zeijlstra, Hedde. 2011. On the syntactically complex status of negative indefinites. Journal of Comparative Germanic Linguistics 14: 111–138.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Zubizarreta, Maria Luisa. 1998. Prosody, focus, and word order. Linguistic inquiry monographs 33. Cambridge: MIT Press.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

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.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Susagna Tubau.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Tubau, S. On the syntax of English minimizers. Nat Lang Linguist Theory 34, 739–760 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11049-015-9308-6

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11049-015-9308-6

Keywords

  • Minimizers
  • English
  • Negative quantifiers
  • Polarity items
  • Focus particle
  • Negation