English negative concord and double negation: The division of labor between syntax and pragmatics


Recent research demonstrates that prototypical negative concord (NC) languages allow double negation (DN) (Espinal & Prieto 2011; Prieto et al. 2013; Déprez et al. 2015; Espinal et al. 2016). In NC, two or more syntactic negations yield a single semantic one (e.g., the ‘I ate nothing’ reading of “I didn’t eat nothing”), and in DN each negation contributes to the semantics (e.g. ‘It is not the case that I ate nothing’). That NC and DN have been shown to coexist calls into question the hypothesis that grammars are either NC or DN (Zeijlstra 2004), and supports micro-parametric views of these phenomena (Déprez 2011; Blanchette 2017). Our study informs this debate with new experimental data from American English. We explore the role of syntax and speaker intent in shaping the perception and interpretation of English sentences with two negatives. Our results demonstrate that, like in prototypical NC languages (Espinal et al. 2016), English speakers reliably exploit syntactic, pragmatic, and acoustic cues to in selecting an NC or a DN interpretation.

Proceedings of the Linguistic Society of America