Voice Alternation and Negative Polarity Items

The estimated time to read this article is 10 minutes
Abstract: In this article we discuss negative polarity items, expressions whose distribution is limited to certain environments. We give a few examples of environments in which expressions of this type occur. We then discuss the complications presented to us by negative polarity items in the process of developing the Contextors Voice Conjugator.

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 and their licensing

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:


  1. John didn’t visit anyone.
  2. * John visited 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


  1. No visitor brought any food.
  2. Not one of them has taken any of the relevant courses.
  3. She seldom visits any of her relatives.
  4. Few of them saw anything.
  5. She never hurt anyone.
  6. No one lives here any longer.
  7. Not even one of them has ever visited me.
  8. Hardly anyone bothered to read the book.
  9. I never dared open that door.
  10. No one gives a damn about the situation.
  11. She never lifted a finger to help.
  12. I don’t have a red cent.
  13. We haven’t met in years.

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.


  1. Have you ever met with him?
  2. If you find anything, you’ll be paid handsomely.

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).

NPIs and voice alternation

First example

Moving to the interaction between NPIs and voice alternation, consider the active sentences in (5).


  1. John didn’t visit Mary.
  2. John didn’t visit anyone.

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.

The Generalization

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.


    1. I gave nothing to either of them.
    2. Neither of them was given anything to by me.
    1. I didn’t meet any of them.
    2. None of them was met by me.
    1. She never hurt anyone.
    2. No one was ever hurt by her.
    1. No one was given anything to.
    2. No one gave anything to anyone.
    1. None of them was given anything to by me.
    2. I gave nothing to any of them.
    1. They do not ever invite any of us.
    2. None of us is ever invited by them.

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.


  1. When an NPI is promoted from a position inside the verb phrase to subject position, it is replaced by its negative counterpart, and all negative elements subsequently following it are replaced by their corresponding negative polarity item.
  2. When an NPI is promoted from a position inside the verb phrase to subject position, if the main verb is in negative form, it is replaced by a verb in positive form; similarly, if a verb-negating not follows the main verb, it is deleted.
  3. When a negative item is moved from subject position to a position inside the verb phrase, if it is subsequently preceded by an NPI, then the negative item is replaced by its corresponding negative polarity item, and the NPI of the input is replaced by its negative counterpart.

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)).

Scope relations and voice alternation

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).


  1. Many locals didn’t meet any visitors.
  2. Most targets weren’t hit by many arrows.

The passive or active counterparts of these sentences are given in (12):


  1. No visitors were met by many locals.
  2. Many arrows didn’t hit most targets.

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).

A few words about our Voice Conjugator

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.

  1. 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.

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