Negative Polarity Items as Collocations: Experimental Evidence from German

  • Frank RichterEmail author
  • Janina Radó
Part of the Studies in Theoretical Psycholinguistics book series (SITP, volume 48)


We present experimental findings that support the hypothesis that the licensing requirements of negative polarity items (NPIs) pattern with well-formedness conditions on frozen syntactic-semantic features of idiomatic expressions. When multiword NPIs that require a strong negation as their licenser are accompanied by a weaker type of negative licenser instead, they are perceived as degraded by native speakers the same way as violations of morphosyntactic co-occurrence requirements in the idiomatic multiword component of these NPIs. Such a violation occurs for example when a certain noun phrase in argument position is in plural form instead of singular, or when an obligatory lexical element is replaced by a synonym. Subsuming idiomatic phrases under the more general category of (not necessarily idiomatic) collocationally restricted complex expressions, we take our results as evidence for a theory of NPIs which interprets their licensing in syntactically delimited negative environments as an instance of satisfying the well-formedness constraints of a collocation that comprises a semantic restriction. The lexically variable negation component of NPIs is interpreted as an abstract semantic co-occurrence requirement of a complex collocation.



We are greatly indebted to Lyn Frazier for starting us off towards the research part of which is reported here. Even though we haven’t had the opportunity to discuss this work with her, we hope that her influence can be felt in the paper. Thanks to Chuck Clifton and an anonymous reviewer for suggesting improvements on our first draft. Part of the research presented in this paper was supported by the DFG in the Sonderforschungsbereich 441. For help with preparing materials for the experiment, we wish to thank Manfred Sailer and Jan-Philipp Söhn.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institut für England- und Amerikastudien, Goethe Universität Frankfurt a.M.Abteilung Linguistik, Frankfurt am MainGermany
  2. 2.Universität Stuttgart, Institut für Linguistik/AnglistikStuttgartGermany

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