Polarity item

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In linguistics, a polarity item is a lexical item that can appear only in environments associated with a particular grammatical polarity – affirmative or negative. A polarity item that appears in affirmative (positive) contexts is called a positive polarity item (PPI), and one that appears in negative contexts is a negative polarity item (NPI).

The environment in which a polarity item is permitted to appear is called a "licensing context". In the simplest case, an affirmative statement provides a licensing context for a PPI, while negation provides a licensing context for an NPI. However, there are many complications, and not all polarity items of a given type need necessarily have exactly the same set of licensing contexts.

In English

As examples of polarity items, consider the English lexical items somewhat and at all, as used in the following sentences:

  1. I liked the film somewhat.
  2. I didn't like the film at all.
  3. *I liked the film at all.
  4. *I didn't like the film somewhat.

As can be seen, somewhat is licensed by the affirmative environment of sentence (1), but it is forbidden (anti-licensed) by the negative environment of sentence (4).[1] It can therefore be considered to be a positive polarity item (PPI). On the other hand, at all is licensed by the negative environment of sentence (2), but anti-licensed by the positive environment of sentence (3), and is therefore considered a negative polarity item (NPI).

Because standard English does not have negative concord, that is, double negatives are not used to intensify each other, the language makes frequent use of certain NPIs that correspond in meaning to negative items, and can be used in the environment of another negative. For example, anywhere is an NPI corresponding to the negative nowhere, as used in the following sentences:

  1. I was going nowhere. (the negative nowhere is used when not preceded by another negative)
  2. I was not going anywhere. (the NPI anywhere is used in the environment of the preceding negative not)

Note that the alternative form with the double negative, *I was not going nowhere, is ungrammatical in the standard language, although such forms are used in some colloquial English, and parallel the constructions used in certain other languages which have negative concord. (Note also that anywhere, like most of the other NPIs listed below, is also used in other senses where it is not an NPI, as in I would go anywhere with you.) Similar pairs of negatives and corresponding NPI are listed below.

  • nobody/no one – anybody/anyone
  • nothing – anything
  • no/none – any
  • never – ever
  • nowhere – anywhere
  • no longer/no more – any longer/any more

See also English grammar: Negation, and Affirmative and negative: Double negatives.

Determination of licensing contexts

The actual set of contexts that license particular polarity items is not as easily defined as a simple distinction between affirmative and negative sentences. Baker[2] noted that double negation may provide an acceptable context for positive polarity items:

I can't believe you don't fancy her somewhat.
John doesn't have any potatoes
*John has any potatoes.

However, licensing contexts can take many forms besides simple negation/affirmation. To complicate matters, polarity items appear to be highly idiosyncratic, each with its own set of licensing contexts.

Early discussion of polarity items can be found in the work of Otto Jespersen and Edward Klima. Much of the research on polarity items has centered around the question of what creates a negative context. In the late 1970s, William Ladusaw (building on work by Gilles Fauconnier) discovered that most English NPIs are licensed in downward entailing environments. This is known as the Fauconnier–Ladusaw hypothesis. A downward entailing environment, however, is not a necessary condition for an NPI to be licensed—they may be licensed by some non-monotone (and thus not downward entailing) contexts, like "exactly N", as well.

*Some people have ever been on the moon.
Exactly three people have ever been on the moon.

Nor is a downward entailing environment a sufficient condition for all negative polarity items, as first pointed out by Zwarts (1981) for Dutch "ook maar".

Licensing contexts across languages include the scope of n-words (negative particles, negative quantifiers), the antecedent of conditionals, questions, the restrictor of universal quantifiers, non-affirmative verbs (doubt), adversative predicates (be surprised), negative conjunctions (without), comparatives and superlatives, too-phrases, negative predicates (unlikely), some subjunctive complements, some disjunctions, imperatives, and others (finally, only). Given this wide range of mostly non-downward entailing environments, the Fauconnier-Ladusaw Hypothesis has gradually been replaced in favor of theories based on the notion of nonveridicality (proposed by Zwarts and Giannakidou).

Different NPIs may be licensed by different expressions. Thus, while the NPI anything is licensed by the downward entailing expression at most two of the visitors, the idiomatic NPI lift a finger (known as a "minimizer") is not licensed by the same expression.

At most two of the visitors had seen anything.
*At most two of the visitors lifted a finger to help.

While NPIs have been discovered in many languages, their distribution is subject to substantial cross-linguistic variation; this aspect of NPIs is currently the subject of ongoing research in cross-linguistic semantics.[3]

See also


  1. See Baker (1970).
  2. See Baker (1970).
  3. Giannakidou, Anastasia. "Negative and positive polarity items: licensing, compositionality and variation". Prepared for Maienborn, Claudia, Klaus von Heusinger, and Paul Portner (eds). Semantics: An International Handbook of Natural Language Meaning. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. (January 2008).


  • Baker, C. Lee (1970). "Double Negatives". Linguistic Inquiry. 1: 169–186.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Klima, Edward (1964). "Negation in English". In Jerry A. Fodor & Jerrold J. Katz (ed.). The structure of language. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 246-323.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Fauconnier, Gilles (1975). "Polarity and the scale principle". Chicago Linguistic Society. 11. pp. 188–199.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Giannakidou, Anastasia (2001). "The Meaning of Free Choice". Linguistics and Philosophy. 24 (6): 659–735. doi:10.1023/A:1012758115458.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Ladusaw, William A. (1979). Polarity Sensitivity as Inherent Scope Relations. Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Texas, Austin.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Zwarts, Frans (1981). "Negatief Polaire Uitdrukkingen I". GLOT. 4: 35–102.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

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