Skip to main content Accessibility help

Structural explanations in syntactic variation: The evolution of English negative and polarity indefinites

  • Heather Burnett (a1), Hilda Koopman (a2) and Sali A. Tagliamonte (a3)


It is well documented that the study of differences in grammaticality contrasts across the world's languages has implications for the synchronic study of preferential/frequency contrasts within a single language. Our paper extends this observation, arguing that the cross-linguistic study of both grammaticality and frequency contrasts can be crucial to the proper characterization of patterns of diachronic change. As an illustration of this proposal, we investigate patterns of synchronic and diachronic variation in the use of postverbal negative quantifiers (e.g., nothing, nobody, no book, etc., as in, I know nothing) versus negative polarity items under negation (e.g., not … anything, not … anybody, not … any book, etc., as in, I don't know anything) in English. We show how a detailed comparison with similar patterns found elsewhere in closely related languages can give us a better understanding of which linguistic factors condition the use of these different kinds of indefinites in Modern Spoken English and a new perspective on a well-studied proposed change in progress in the English quantificational system.

  • View HTML
    • Send article to Kindle

      To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

      Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

      Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

      Structural explanations in syntactic variation: The evolution of English negative and polarity indefinites
      Available formats

      Send article to Dropbox

      To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

      Structural explanations in syntactic variation: The evolution of English negative and polarity indefinites
      Available formats

      Send article to Google Drive

      To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

      Structural explanations in syntactic variation: The evolution of English negative and polarity indefinites
      Available formats



Hide All
Barber, Charles L. (1976). Early Modern English. London: Andre Deutsch.
Bates, Douglas, Mächler, Martin, Bolker, Ben, & Walker, Steve. (2015). Fitting linear mixed-effects models using lme4x. Journal of Statistical Software 67:148.
Beghelli, Filippo, & Stowell, Tim. (1997). Distributivity and negation: The syntax of each and every. In Szabolsci, A. (ed.), Ways of scope taking. Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands. 71107.
Benincà, Paola, & Poletto, Cecilia. (2004). Topic, focus, and V2: Defining the CP sublayers. In Rizzi, L. (ed.), The structure of CP and IP. The cartography of syntactic structures. Vol. 2. New York: Oxford University Press. 5275.
Bresnan, Joan. (2007). A few lessons from typology. Linguistic Typology 11(1):297306.
Bresnan, Joan, Cueni, Ana, Nikitina, Tatiana, & Baayen, Harald. (2007). Predicting the dative alternation. In Boume, G., Kraemer, I., & Zwarts, J. (eds.), Cognitive foundations of interpretation. Amsterdam: Royal Netherlands Academy of Science. 6994.
Bresnan, Joan, Dingare, Shipra, & Manning, Chris D. (2001). Soft constraints mirror hard constraints: Voice and person in English and Lummi. In Butt, M. & King, T. Holloway (eds.), Proceedings of the LFG01 Conference. Stanford: CSLI Publications. 1332.
Bresnan, Joan, & Ford, Marilyn. (2010). Predicting syntax: Processing dative constructions in American and Australian varieties of English. Language 86(1):168213.
Burnett, Heather, Tremblay, Mireille, & Blondeau, Hélène. (2015). The variable grammar of negative concord in Montréal French. University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics 21(3):article 3.
Bybee, Joan L. (1985). Morphology: A study of the relation between meaning and form. Vol. 9. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Bybee, Joan L. (2000). The phonology of the lexicon: Evidence from lexical diffusion. In Barlow, M. & Kemmer, S. (eds.), Usage-based models of language. Stanford: CSLI. 6585.
Bybee, Joan L. (2002). Word frequency and context of use in the lexical diffusion of phonetically conditioned sound change. Language Variation and Change 14(3): 261290.
Bybee, Joan L. (2010). Language, usage and cognition. Cambridge University Press.
Bybee, Joan L., & Hopper, Paul J. (eds.). (2001). Frequency and the emergence of linguistic structure. Vol. 45. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Bybee, Joan L., & McClelland, James L. (2005). Alternatives to the combinatorial paradigm of linguistic theory based on domain general principles of human cognition. Linguistic Review 22(2–4):381410.
Chambers, Jack. (2004). Dynamic typology and vernacular universals. In Kortmann, B. (ed.), Dialectology meets typology. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. 127145.
Chierchia, Genaro. (2004). Scalar implicatures, polarity phenomena, and the syntax/pragmatics interface. Structures and Beyond 3:39103.
Chierchia, Genaro. (2013). Logic in grammar. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Childs, Claire, Corrigan, Karen, Harvey, Chris, & Tagliamonte, Sali A. (forthcoming). Transatlantic perspectives on variation in negative expressions. English Language and Linguistics.
Childs, Claire, Harvey, Christopher, Corrigan, Karen P., & Tagliamonte, Sali. A. (2015). Comparative sociolinguistic insights in the evolution of Negation. University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics 21(2):article 4.
Christensen, Ken. R. (2005). Interfaces: Negation-syntax-brain. Ph.D. dissertation, Aarhus University.
Christensen, Kirsti Koch. (1986). Norwegian ingen: A case of post-syntactic lexicalization. In Dahl, Ö. and Holmberg, A. (eds.), Scandinavian syntax. Stockholm: Institute of Linguistics, University of Stockholm. 2135.
Clark, Lynn. (2009). Variation, change and the usage-based approach. Ph.D. Thesis, University of Edinburgh.
Corblin, Francis, Déprez, Viviane, Swart, Henrietta de, & Tovena, Lucia. (2004). Negative concord. In Corblin, F. & de Swart, H. (eds.), Handbook of French semantics. Stanford: CSLI Publications. 417452.
Cornips, Leonie, & Corrigan, Karen (eds.) (2005). Syntax and variation: Reconciling the biological and the social. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Corrigan, Karen P., Buchstaller, Isabelle, Mearns, Adam J., & Hermann, Moisl. (2010–2012). A linguistic “Time-Capsule” for the Google generation: The Diachronic Electronic Corpus of Tyneside English. Available at: Accessed January 4, 2016.
Daoust-Blais, Denise. (1975). L'Influence de la Négation sur Certains Indéfinis en Français Québécois. Ph.D. dissertation, Université du Québec à Montréal.
Dayal, Veneeta. (1998). Any as inherently modal. Linguistics and Philosophy 21:433476.
Dayal, Veneeta. (2005). Licensing by modification. Ilha do Desterro 47:217238.
Den Besten, Hans. (1986). Double negation and the genesis of Afrikaans. In Muysken, P. and Smith, N. (eds.), Substrata versus universals in creole languages: Papers from the Amsterdam Creole Workshop, April 1985. Amsterdam: Benjamins. 185230.
Déprez, Viviane. (2011). Atoms of negation: An outside-in micro-parametric approach to negative concord. In Larrivée, P. & Ingham, R. (ed.), The evolution of negation: Beyond the Jespersen cycle. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. 220272.
Déprez, Viviane, & Martineau, France. (2004). Micro-parametric variation and negative concord. In Auger, J., Clements, J. C., & Vance, B. (eds.), Contemporary approaches to Romance linguistics. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. 139158.
Diesing, Molly. (1992). Indefinites. Linguistic Inquiry Monograph 20. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Eckardt, Regine. (2006). Meaning change in grammaticalization: An enquiry into semantic reanalysis. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Engels, Eva. (2008). Microvariation in object positions: Negative shift in the Scandinavian varieties. Paper presented at the NORMS workshop on negation, University of Oslo, March 1112.
Engels, Eva. (2012). Scandinavian negative indefinites and cyclic linearization. Syntax 15:109141.
Engels, Eva, & Vikner, Stan. (2006). An optimality-theoretic analysis of Scandinavian object shift and remnant VP-topicalisation. In Broekhuis, H. & Vogel, R. (eds.), Optimality theory and minimalism: A possible convergence? Linguistics in Potsdam 25. Potsdam: Universitätsverlag Potsdam. 195231.
Fischer, Olga. (1992). Syntax. In Blake, N. (ed.), The Cambridge history of the English language. Vol. 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 10661476.
Fox, Danny, & Pesetsky, David. (2005). Cyclic linearization of syntactic structure. Theoretical Linguistics 31:145.
Giannakidou, Anastasia. (1998). Polarity sensitivity as (non) veridical dependency. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Givón, Talmy. (1979). On understanding grammar. New York: Academic.
Godfrey, John J., Holliman, Edward C., & McDaniel, Jane. (1992). SWITCHBOARD: Telephone speech corpus for research and development. In Acoustics, Speech, and Signal Processing, 1992. Vol. 1. New York: Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. 517520.
Hallman, Peter. (2004). NP-interpretation and the structure of predicates. Language 80:707747.
Holmberg, Anders. (1986). Word order and syntactic features in the Scandinavian languages and English. Stockholm: Department of General Linguistics, University of Stockholm.
Holmberg, Anders. (1999). Remarks on Holmberg's generalization. Studia Linguistica 53:139.
Holmes, Philip, & Hinchliffe, Ian. (2003). Swedish: A comprehensive grammar. London: Routledge.
Hopper, Paul. (1987). Emergent grammar. Annual Meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society 13:139157.
Ioup, Georgette. (1977). Specificity and the interpretation of quantifiers. Linguistics and Philosophy 1:233245.
Israel, Michael. (1996). Polarity sensitivity as lexical semantics. Linguistics and Philosophy 19:619666.
Jack, Goerge. B. (1978). Negative adverbs in early Middle English. English Studies 59:295309.
Jelinek, Eloise, & Demers, Richard A. (1983). The agent hierarchy and voice in some Coast Salish languages. International Journal of American Linguistics 49:167185.
Jespersen, Otto. ([1940] 2013). A modern English grammar on historical principles. London: Routledge.
Jonsson, Johannes G. (1996). Clausal architecture and case in Icelandic. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Massachusetts.
Kadmon, Nirit, & Landman, Fred. (1993). Any. Linguistics and Philosophy 16(4):353422.
Kayne, Richard. S. (1998). Overt vs. covert movement. Syntax 1:128191. [Reprinted in Kayne, R. S. (2000). Parameters and universals. Oxford: Oxford University Press.]
Keenan, Edward, & Comrie, Bernard. (1977). Noun phrase accessibility and universal grammar. Linguistic Inquiry 8:6399.
Keenan, Edward, & Hawkins, Sarah. (1987). The psychological validity of the accessibility hierarchy. In Keenan, E. (ed.), Universal grammar: 15 essays. London: Croom Helm. 6085.
Krifka, Manfred. (1995). The semantics and pragmatics of polarity items. Linguistic Analysis 25(3–4):209257.
Kroch, Anthony S. (1989). Reflexes of grammar in patterns of language change. Language Variation and Change 1(03):199244.
Labelle, Marie, & Espinal, Maria-Teresa. (2014). Diachronic changes in negative expressions: The case of French. Lingua 145:194225.
Laka Mugarza, Miren Itziar. (1990). Negation in syntax--on the nature of functional categories and projections. Ph.D. dissertation, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Lemieux, Monique. (1985). Pas rien. In Lemieux, M. & Cedegren, H. (eds.), Les Tendances Dynamiques du Français Parlé à Montréal. Office de la Langue Française. 91140.
Lightfoot, David. W. (1979). Principles of diachronic syntax. Cambridge Studies in Linguistics London 23. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lockwood, William. B. (2002). An introduction to Modern Faroese. Torshavn: Føroya Skulabokagrunnur.
Martins, Ana Maria. (2000). Polarity items in Romance: Underspecification and lexical change. In Pintzuk, S., Tsoulas, G., & Warner, A. (eds.), Diachronic syntax: Models and mechanisms. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 191219.
Mitchell, Bruce. (1985). Old English syntax. Vols. 1–2. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Moore, Colette. (2007). The spread of grammaticalized forms the case of be+ supposed to. Journal of English Linguistics 35(2):117131.
Mufwene, Salikoko S. (1994). Theoretical linguistics and variation analysis: Strange bedfellows? In Beals, K., Denton, J., Knippen, R., Melnar, L., Suzuki, H., & Zeinfeld, E.. (eds.), Papers from the Parasession on Language Variation and Linguistic Theory. Chicago: Chicago Linguistics Society. 202217.
Nevalainen, Terttu. (1998). Social mobility and the decline of multiple negation in Early Modern English. In Fisiak, J. & Krygier, M. (eds.), Advances in English historical linguistics. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. 263291.
Nevalainen, Terttu. (2009). Historical sociolinguistics and language change. In van Kemenade, A. & Los, B. (eds.), The handbook of the history of English. Malden: Blackwell. 558588.
Nissenbaum, John. (2000). Investigations of covert movement. Ph.D. dissertation, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Ochi, Masao. (1999). Multiple spell-out and PF adjacency. Proceedings of NELS 29:293306.
Penka, Doris. (2011). Negative indefinites. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Phillips, Betty S. (1984) Word frequency and the actuation of sound change. Language 60:320342.
Pierrehumbert, Janet. (2002). Word-specific phonetics. In Gussenhoven, C. & Warner, N. (eds.), Laboratory phonology. Vol. 7. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. 101140.
Pintzuk, Susan. (1991). Phrase structures in competition: Variation and change in Old English word order. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pennsylvania.
R Core Team. (2016). R: A language and environment for statistical computing. Vienna: R Foundation for Statistical Computing. Available at: Accessed January 4, 2016.
Rizzi, Luigi. (1997). The fine structure of the left periphery. In Haegeman, L. (ed.), Elements of grammar. Amsterdam: Kluwer. 281337.
Rögnvaldsson, Eiríkur. (1987). OV word order in Icelandic. In Allan, R. D. S. & Barnes, M. P. (eds.), Proceedings of the Seventh Biennial Conference of Teachers of Scandinavian Studies in Great Britain and Northern Ireland. London: London University College. 3349.
Rosenbach, Anette. (2002). Genitive variation in English: Conceptual factors in synchronic and diachronic studies. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
Rosenbach, Anette. (2005). Animacy versus weight as determinants of grammatical variation in English. Language 81:613644.
Rullmann, Holtze. (1996). Two types of negative polarity items. Proceedings of NELS, University of Massachusetts 26:335350.
Sells, Peter. (2000). Negation in Swedish: Where it's not at. Proceedings of LFG-00, University of California, Berkeley 244263.
Smith, Jennifer. (2001). Negative concord in the Old and New World: Evidence from Scotland. Language Variation and Change 13(2):109134.
Svenonius, Peter. (2000). On object shift, scrambling, and the PIC. MIT Working Papers in Linguistics 3:267289.
Svenonius, Peter. (2002). Strains of negation in Norwegian. Working Papers in Scandinavian Syntax 69:121146.
Tagliamonte, Sali. (1998). Was/were variation across the generations: View from the city of York. Language Variation and Change 10(02):153191.
Tagliamonte, Sali. (2003–2006). Linguistic changes in Canada entering the 21st century. Research grant SSHRC 410-2003-0005. Ottawa: Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.
Tagliamonte, Sali. (2010–2013). Transmission and diffusion in Canadian English. Research grant SSHRCC 410-101-129. Ottawa: Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.
Tagliamonte, Sali. (2011). Variation as a window on universals. In Siemund, P. (ed.), Linguistic universals and language variation. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
Tagliamonte, Sali. (2012). Variationist sociolinguistics: Change, observation, interpretation. West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell.
Thibault, Pierrette, & Vincent, Diane. (1990). Un Corpus de Français Parlé: Montréal 84. Québec: Université Laval.
Thullier, Juliette. (2012). Contraintes préférentielles et ordre des mots en français. PhD thesis, Université Paris-Diderot.
Tottie, Gunnel. (1991a). Lexical diffusion in syntactic change: Frequency as a determinant of linguistic conservatism in the development of negation in English. In Kastovsky, D. (ed.), Historical English syntax. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. 439468.
Tottie, Gunnel. (1991b). Negation in speech and writing. San Diego: Academic Press.
Traugott, Elizabeth C. (1972). A history of English syntax: A transformational approach to the history of English sentence structures. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
Varela Pérez, José Ramón. (2014). Variation and change in negative constructions in contemporary British English: A corpus-based approach. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Santiago de Compostela.
Zeijlstra, Hedde. (2011). On the syntactically complex status of negative indefinites. Journal of Comparative Germanic Linguistics 14(2):111138.

Related content

Powered by UNSILO

Structural explanations in syntactic variation: The evolution of English negative and polarity indefinites

  • Heather Burnett (a1), Hilda Koopman (a2) and Sali A. Tagliamonte (a3)


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed.