Linguistics and Philosophy

, Volume 23, Issue 3, pp 213–308 | Cite as

Polarity in Natural Language: Predication, Quantification and Negation in Particular and Characterizing Sentences

  • Sebastian Löbner


The present paper is an attempt at the investigation of the nature of polarity contrast in natural languages. Truth conditions for natural language sentences are incomplete unless they include a proper definition of the conditions under which they are false. It is argued that the tertium non datur principle of classical bivalent logical systems is empirically invalid for natural languages: falsity cannot be equated with non-truth. Lacking a direct intuition about the conditions under which a sentence is false, we need an independent foundation of the concept of falsity. The solution I offer is a definition of falsity in terms of the truth of a syntactic negation of the sentence. A definition of syntactic negation is proposed for English (Section 1).

The considerations are applied to the analysis of definites in non-generic sentences and the analysis of generic indefinites. These two domains are investigated in breadth and some depth and the analyses compared and connected. During the discussion of non-generic predications with definite arguments and their respective negations (Section 2), a theory of predication is developed, basic to which is the distinction between integrative and summative predication. Summative predication, e.g., distributive plural, leads to contrary, all-or-no-thing, polarity contrasts due to the fundamental Presupposition of Indivisibility. Further-more, levels of predication are distinguished that are built up by various processes of constructing macropredications from lexical predicates. Given this analysis, particular (i.e., non-generic) quantification (Section 3) can be reanalyzed as an integrative, first-order form of predication that fills the truth-value gaps created by summative predication. The account comprises both nominal and adverbial quantification and relates quantification to the simpler types of predication discussed in Section 2.

An analogous line of argumentation is developed in Section 4 for indefinite generics (and similar constructions, including donkey-sentences) and generic quantification. that the generality of simple generic predications is not due to any quantification.It is argued elements, but results from the lack of referential anchoring of argument terms. In Section 5, the results are linked to pragmatic and cognitive considerations about the role of polarization in natural language communication, explaining the varying degrees of rigidity characteristic for different types of predications and quantifications.

The discussion leads to the conclusion that the type of polarity contrast is determined by the often complex type of predication. Polarity contrast in natural language is not a uniform phenomenon, but locally constructed for each predication on the basis of a defined by the respective presuppositions of the predication.


Natural Language Polarity Contrast Independent Foundation Natural Language Sentence Datur Principle 


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Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 2000

Authors and Affiliations

  • Sebastian Löbner
    • 1
  1. 1.Heinrich-Heine-Universität DüsseldorfDüsseldorfGermany

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