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Unacceptable grammars? an eye-tracking study of English negative concord



This paper uses eye-tracking while reading to examine Standard English speakers’ processing of sentences with two syntactic negations: a negative auxiliary and either a negative subject (e.g., Nothing didn’t fall from the shelf) or a negative object (e.g., She didn’t answer nothing in that interview). Sentences were read in Double Negation (DN; the ‘she answered something’ reading of she didn’t answer nothing) and Negative Concord (NC; the ‘she answered nothing’ reading of she didn’t answer nothing) biasing contexts. Despite the social stigma associated with NC, and linguistic assumptions that Standard English has a DN grammar, in which each syntactic negation necessarily contributes a semantic negation, our results show that Standard English speakers generate both NC and DN interpretations, and that their interpretation is affected by the syntactic structure of the negative sentence. Participants spent more time reading the critical sentence and rereading the context sentence when negative object sentences were paired with DN-biasing contexts and when negative subject sentences were paired with NC-biasing contexts. This suggests that, despite not producing NC, they find NC interpretations of negative object sentences easier to generate than DN interpretations. The results illustrate the utility of online measures when investigating socially stigmatized construction types.


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Address for correspondence: Frances Blanchette, Center for Language Science, Penn State, University Park, PA 16802. e-mail:


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A subset of these findings were presented at the 2019 meeting of the Linguistic Society of America. We gratefully acknowledge Katherine Muschler for her assistance running the study, Karen Miller for lending us her equipment, and the support of Penn State’s Center for Language Science. We are also grateful for comments and questions from three anonymous reviewers and our colleagues Laurel Brehm and Hossein Karimi, which have made this paper better.



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