This article is concerned with a challenge posed to us by negative polarity items when we were developing the Contextors Voice Conjugator. We’ll begin by briefly introducing negative polarity items, and then proceed to discuss their interaction with voice alternation.
Negative polarity items (NPIs) are words and expressions that readily occur in the scope of a negative element but whose distribution is otherwise very restricted. Consider the following two sentences with the NPI anyone:
In (1a), the NPI anyone is licensed by the negative suffix -n’t. In (1b) anyone is not licensed by any element, and the sentence is therefore ungrammatical.
A sample of NPIs is given in (2), where the NPIs are marked in italics. It includes the determiner any (a-c); noun phrases containing any, like anything and anyone (d-e); adverbs and adverb phrases (f-g); verbs (h-i); idioms (of different grammatical categories) (j-l); and preposition phrases (m). The negative elements that license NPIs are also of different kinds. They are marked in (2) with boldface type. They include negative quantifiers (a, d, f, h); the word not (b, g); the verbal negation suffix -n’t (l, m); and negative adverbs (2c, e, i, k).1
NPIs are licensed not only in the scope of negative elements; for example: in (3a) the NPI ever is licensed in an interrogative clause, and in (3b) the NPI anything is licensed in the antecedent of a conditional.
It should also be noted that any and compounds containing it (anyone, anywhere, etc.) each realize two different lexical items: an NPI and a free choice item. In (4), for example, any is used as a free choice item: its use communicates that the addressee may choose from among the umbrellas the one he or she wants.
(4) You may take any of the umbrellas on the shelf
We will not discuss here linguistic theories of the licensing conditions of NPIs or different analyses of free choice items.The interested reader is referred to Anastasia Giannakidou’s paper ‘Positive polarity items and negative polarity items: variation, licensing, and compositionality’ (in C. Maienborn, K. von Heusinger, and P. Portner, eds., Semantics: An International Handbook of Natural Language Meaning, 2011).
Moving to the interaction between NPIs and voice alternation, consider the active sentences in (5).
The passive counterpart of (5a) is (6), where Mary is the subject, John is the complement of the preposition by, and the main verb wasn’t is in negative form, like didn’t in (5a).
(6) Mary wasn’t visited by John
If we follow the same procedure in constructing the passive counterpart of (5b), we end up with the ungrammatical sentence in (7).
(7) *Anyone wasn’t visited by John
The problem with (7) is that anyone occurs in it without a preceding negative element. In (8), the grammatical passive counterpart of (5b), the subject is no one, the negative counterpart of anyone, and the main verb is in positive rather than negative form.
(8) No one was visited by John
The challenge introduced by NPIs in relation to voice alternation is that in certain cases they have to be replaced by negative elements, and their replacement might require in turn the replacement of yet other parts of the sentence; in other cases, however, they just stay as they are.
In (9) we give a few pairs of sentences where each member is the active or passive counterpart of the other and where at least one of the sentences contains one or more NPIs in the scope of a negative element.
In (10) we break down into three parts the generalization about the switch between NPIs and negative elements and the deletion of verb-negating not when changing the voice of a sentence.
We will now see how the three generalizations in (10) work by applying them to four of the sentence pairs in (9). Consider first (9ai-ii). The sub-generalization that applies to this pair is (10a): when the noun phrase either of them is promoted to subject position, its NPI either is replaced by its negative counterpart, neither; and the negative element nothing that now follows it is replaced by its corresponding NPI anything.
Consider next (9bi-ii). The generalizations applying to it are (10a-b): when the noun phrase any of them is promoted to subject position, its NPI any is replaced by its negative counterpart, none; and the negative form didn’t is replaced by the positive form was.
Consider now (9ei-ii). The generalization applying to this pair is (10c): when the negative noun phrase none of them is moved from subject position to the position of complement of the preposition to, none is replaced by its corresponding NPI any, since this position is preceded in (9i) by the NPI anyone, which in turn is replaced by its negative counterpart no one.
Finally, in switching from (9fi) to (9fii), one of the changes that are introduced is the deletion of the verb-negating not (generalization (10b)).
We have seen that when switching from one voice to the other, NPIs must remain in the scope of a negative element. Briefly digressing from NPIs, it is worth noting here that scope relations between elements other than NPIs and negative elements also affect voice alternation, in the sense that the input sentence might not have a counterpart with the same meaning in the other voice. Consider, for example, the sentences in (11).
The passive or active counterparts of these sentences are given in (12):
Each of these sentences has a different meaning than its counterpart in the other voice. Whereas (11a) can be true in case many locals met one visitor or another (as long as there are also many locals who didn’t), (12a) is false in this case. Whereas (11b) is false in case more than half the targets were hit by many arrows, (12b) is true in this case (assuming that every arrow can be shot only once).
Finally, we would like to note that our Voice Conjugator switches between NPIs and their corresponding negative elements in accordance with the generalizations in (10), giving the correct results for sentences with the same distributions of negative elements and NPIs as the ones in (9). The Voice Conjugator’s list of NPIs and their corresponding negative elements is still missing some lexical NPIs and doesn’t include any idiomatic NPIs. The missing lexical NPIs will be added soon, and we plan on periodically adding to the list members of the large idiomatic group.
Note that we include among the negative quantifiers and adverbs what are referred to by The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (R. Huddleston & G.K. Pullum, eds., 2002) as approximate negators, i.e. expressions like few, hardly anyone, and seldom. ↩