6.0 Negation and non-assertion


Sentences in English can be assertive or non-assertive. Non-assertive sentences include questions and negative statements. The affinity between questions and negation, as opposed to assertion, can be seen syntactically in the fact that the former require do and any instead of some in sentences like

He gave her some advice (assertion)
He did not give her any advice (negation, non-assertion)
Did he give her any advice? (question, non-assertion)

There are a number of words--primarily some and its compounds--which have special non-assertive forms (i.e. primarily any and it's compounds) that are used in nonassertive (interrogative and negative) sentences. Often, though not always, there is also a negative form that can be used as an alternative to a negative verb and a non-assertive form. Here is a slightly expanded list of examples given by Quirk et al. (1972:ยง7.44), showing the base sentence as a) assertion, b) negation with non-assertive form, c) negation with negative form, and d) question:

la) We've had some lunch
lb) We haven't had any lunch
lc) We have had no lunch
ld) Have we had any lunch?

2a) He saw one man or the other
2b) He didn't see either man
2c) He saw neither man
2d) Did he see either man?

3a) We've had some
3b) We haven't had any
3c) We've had none
3d) Have we had any?

4a) He saw one or the other of the men
4b) He didn't see either of the men
4c) He saw neither of the men
4d) Did he see either of the men?

5a) I've bought something for you
5b) I haven't bought anything for you
5c) I've bought nothing for you
5d) Have I bought anything for you?

6a) I was speaking to somebody/someone
6b) I wasn't speaking to anybody/anyone
6c) I was speaking to nobody/no one
6d) Was I speaking to anybody/anyone

7a) I was somehow surprised
7b) I wasn't in any way surprised
7c) I was in no way surprised
7d) Was I in any wav surprised?

8a) I've seen them somewhere
8b) I haven't seen'them anywhere/anyplace
8c) I've seen them nowhere/noplace
8d) Have I seen them anywhere/anyplace?

9a) He sometimes visits us
9b) 'He doesn't ever visit us
9c) He never visits us
9d) Does he ever visit us?

10a) They've arrived already
10b) They haven't arrived yet
10c) -
10d) Have they arrived yet?

11a) He's still at school
11b) He's not at school any longer/anymore
11c) He's at school no longer
11d) Is he still at school?

12a) I can help (to some extent)
12b) I can't help at all
12c) -
12d) Can I help it at all?

13a) I'm somewhat wiser now
13b) I'm not anv (the) wiser now
13c) I'm no/none the wiser now
13d) Am I any (the) wiser now?

14a) Her mother's coming, too/as well
14b) Her mother's not coming either
14c) Neither/Nor is her mother coming
14d) Is her-mother coming too/as well?

lld and 14d are irregular in that the assertive rather than the non-assertive forms are used in the question.

Transferred negation refers to the fact that after some verbs expressing belief or assumption (e.g. think, believe, assume, suppose, imagine) negation which logically belongs in a subordinate clause is transferred to the main verb. This rule applies to a number of sentences (ca. 1%) that occur in the corpus of errors, Although these sentences are grammatically acceptable they begin to sound odd as one encounters them more often (compare the use of that for this in 1.2-5) and deserve some mention here. Consider the following sentences:

I think you can't destroy Rachel's friendship with Daniel just because you heard something bad about him.
I think I will not be able to speak English like an Englishman or an American.
I think abortion shouldn't be a way to get out of birth control.
I think that the author isn't right.
I think that's not very good.
I think that I don't have to work on my listening comprehension.
I think they don't read these books.
I think that is not the subject the author is writing about.
I think that advertisements can't do any harm.

In all of these sentences the native speaker would more likely--though not necessarily--put the negation in the main verb (e.g. I don't think you can destroy Rachel's friendship, etc.). From a logical point of view, a sentence like I don't think he's right should be paraphraseable as follows:

It is not my opinion that he is right.

This would be distinguished from I think he's not right, which is paraphraseable as:

It is my opinion that he is not right.

This distinction between main clause negation (don't think) and subordinate clause negation (he's not right) is normal in the case of most verbs, e.g.:

I said you're not a liar.

is not the same as

I didn't say you're a liar.

The difference in meaning between these two sentences with say is quite clear. With verbs expressing belief or opinion, however, the difference is rather subtle,, and the expression of not having a belief or opinion is much less common than the expression of having one-whether it be positive or negative. This is why I don't. think he's right is normally interpreted as the expression of not having a positive opinion, instead of having a negative opinion. To put this more simply, negation of a that clause following the verbs think, believe, imagine, suppose, fancy, expect, and reckon is normally transferred to the verb in the main clause:

I think he is not right.

is usually expressed as

I do- not think he is right.

In 6.1 errors involving the use of non-assertive forms in negative sentences are discussed. 6.2 deals with the use of assertive and non-assertive forms in questions, and 6.3 with the use of no as a determiner.