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Never again: the multiple grammaticalization of never as a marker of negation in English1


In both standard and nonstandard varieties of English there are several contexts in which the word never functions as a sentential negator rather than as a negative temporal adverb. This article investigates the pragmatic and distributional differences between the various non-temporal uses of never and examines their synchronic and historical relationship to the ordinary temporal quantifier use, drawing on corpora of Early Modern and present-day British English. Primary focus is on (i) a straightforward negator use that in prescriptively approved varieties of English has an aspectual restriction to non-chance, completive achievement predicates in the preterite, but no such restriction in nonstandard English; and (ii) a distinct categorical-denial use that quantifies over possible perspectives on a situation. Against Cheshire (1998), it is argued that neither of these uses represents continuity with non-temporal uses of never in Middle English, but both are instead relatively recent innovations resulting from semantic reanalysis and the semanticization of implicatures.

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This research was carried out as part of the project The development of negation in the languages of Europe. The authors would like to express their thanks to the Arts and Humanities Research Council for funding the project, to Anne Breitbarth, Wim van der Wurff and three anonymous referees for useful comments and suggestions on drafts of the article and to audiences at New Reflections on Grammaticalization 4 (Leuven 2008) and the 20th International Conference on Historical Linguistics (Osaka 2011). Any errors or omissions remain our own.

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This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

Joan C. Beal & Karen P. Corrigan . 2005. No, nay, never: Negation in Tyneside English. In Yoko Iyeiri (ed.), Aspects of English negation, 139–57. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

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Ulrich Detges & Richard Waltereit . 2002. Grammaticalization vs. reanalysis: A semantic-pragmatic account of functional change in grammar. Zeitschrift für Sprachwissenschaft 21, 151–95.

Elly van Gelderen . 2004a. Economy, innovation and prescriptivism: From Spec to head and head to head. Journal of Comparative Germanic Linguistics 7, 5998.

Elly van Gelderen . 2004b. Grammaticalization as economy. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Kyle Johnson . 2001. What VP ellipsis can do, and what it can't, but not why. In Mark Baltin & Chris Collins (eds.), The handbook of contemporary syntactic theory, 439–79. Oxford: Blackwell.

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Terttu Nevalainen . 2006. Negative concord as an English ‘vernacular universal’. Journal of English Linguistics 34, 257–78.

John R. Rickford , Thomas Wasow , Arnold M. Zwicky & Isabelle Buchstaller . 2007. Intensive and quotative all: Something old, something new. American Speech 82, 331.

Scott Schwenter . 2006. Fine-tuning Jespersen's Cycle. In Betty J. Birner & Gregory Ward (eds.), Drawing the boundaries of meaning: Neo-Gricean studies in honour of Laurence R. Horn, 327–44. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

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English Language & Linguistics
  • ISSN: 1360-6743
  • EISSN: 1469-4379
  • URL: /core/journals/english-language-and-linguistics
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