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  • Print publication year: 2013
  • Online publication date: May 2013

9 - Negation


For every descriptive statement that we make, we have to decide whether the truth-value of the proposition we wish to express is true or false, or, whether we wish to express that its truth-value is not fully known to us. We express – in our view – true propositions by affirmative sentences and false propositions by negative sentences, where ‘negative’ means that the sentence contains some overt negative element (e.g. not). Uncertain truth-values can be expressed by adverbials like probably, likely, certainly, etc., but in this chapter we will not be concerned with these. In English, as in the vast majority of other languages, affirmative sentences receive no special marking, while negative sentences are typically marked by one or more negative expressions. Apparently, we consider the making of positive statements the norm, and verbally express the absence of a positive truth-value.

Strictly speaking, the assignment of clear truth-values is only possible for what is known in the relevant literature as ‘constative utterances’ (Austin 1962; Searle 1969). These are, by and large, descriptive statements that contrast with performative utterances of the type ‘I hereby christen this child “John”.’, i.e. utterances used for effectuating a change in the state in which the world is. Such utterances cannot be assigned a truth-value, as they require certain felicity conditions for their successful application. Some performative utterances, like the one just mentioned, are clearly odd when negated, but this should not be taken to mean that such utterances cannot in general be negated (Don't move!, I do not apologise., etc.).

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Further reading
Anderwald, Lieselotte. 2003. Non-standard English and typological principles: The case of negation. In Rohdenburg, Günter and Mondorf, Britta (eds.), Determinants of Linguistic Variation (Topics in English Linguistics 43), 507–29. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
Haspelmath, Martin. 1997. Indefinite Pronouns. Oxford University Press.
Horn, Laurence R. 2001. A Natural History of Negation. (The David Hume Series: Philosophy and Cognitive Science Reissues.) Stanford: CSLI Publications.
Howe, Darin M. 1997. Negation and the history of African American English. Language Variation and Change 9(2). 267–94.
Labov, William. 1972. Negative attraction and negative concord in English grammar. Language 48(4). 773–818.
Labov, William. 1991. The boundaries of a grammar: Inter-dialectal reactions to positive anymore. In Trudgill, Peter and Chambers, Jack K. (eds.), Dialects of English: Studies in Grammatical Variation, 273–88. London: Longman.
Nolan, David W. 1991. A diachronic survey of English negative concord. American Speech 66(2). 171–80.
Payne, John R. 1985. Negation. In Shopen, Timothy (ed.), Language Typology and Syntactic Description, volume I: Clause Structure, 197–242. Cambridge University Press.
Shields, Kenneth. 1997. Positive anymore in Southeastern Pennsylvania. American Speech 72(2). 217–20.