Polarity and Grammar

guys with signs bouncing on mattress
(Nick Clements/Getty Images)

In linguistics, the distinction between positive and negative forms, which may be expressed syntactically ("To be or not to be"), morphologically ("lucky" vs. "unlucky"), or lexically ("strong" vs. "weak").

A polarity reverser is an item (such as not or hardly) that converts a positive polarity item to a negative one.

Polar questions (also known as yes-no questions) call for the answer "yes" or "no."

Examples and Observations

James Thurber: Muggs stayed out in the pantry with the mice, lying on the floor, growling to himself--not at the mice, but about all the people in the next room that he would have liked to get at.

John Lyons: The existence of a large number of antonyms and complementary terms in the vocabulary of natural languages would seem to be related to a general human tendency to 'polarise' experience and judgment--to 'think in opposites.'

Suzanne Eggins: A proposition is something that can be argued, but argued in a particular way. When we exchange information we are arguing about whether something is or is not. Information is something that can be affirmed or denied. But these two poles of polarity are not the only possibilities. In between these two extremes are a number of choices of degree of certainty, or of usuality: something is perhaps, something isn't for sure. These intermediate positions are what we refer to as modalization.

Henry James: I don't care a fig for his sense of justice--I don't care a fig for the wretchedness of London; and if I were young, and beautiful, and clever, and brilliant, and of a noble position, like you, I should care still less.

Eve V. Clark: Children must eventually learn the range of so-called negative polarity items, elements that occur only in negative, but not positive, contexts, as in uses of such idioms as lift a finger, care a fig for, bear (meaning 'tolerate'), hold a candle to, and so on. These expressions require contexts that are overtly negative or implicate some form of negation.

Michael Israel: [I]t turns out than many negative sentences actually lack any direct positive counterpart:

(9) a. Clarissa didn't sleep a wink that night.
(9) b. *Clarissa slept a wink that night.
(10) a. She wouldn't so much as give him the time of day.
(10) b. *She would so much as give him the time of day.
(11) a. She can't possibly expect that he will forgive her.
(11) b. *She can possibly expect that he will forgive her.

By the same token, and no less surprisingly, many positives sentences seem to lack any direct negative counterpart.

(12) a. That guy Winthrop is some mathematician.
(12) b. *That guy Winthrop isn't some mathematician.
(13) a. He's a regular Einstein.
(13) b. *He's not a regular Einstein.
(14) a. He can calculate an eigen vector in the blink of an eye.
(14) b. *He can't calculate an eigen vector in the blink of an eye.

The sentences in [9-14] are special because they contain elements which are somehow sensitive to expression of negation and affirmation. The phenomenon is known as polarity sensitivity and the elements which exhibit this sensitivity are polarity sensitivity items, or simply polarity items. They are linguistic constructions whose acceptability or interpretation depends somehow on the positive or negative status of the sentences in which they occur. The sensitivity of these forms is puzzling in many ways. For one, it is by no means obvious how one could predict which constructions in a given language will count as polarity items. For another, it is unclear why any item in any language would have such a sensitivity. Still, polarity items are not especially unusual expressions.

Laurence R. Horn: Despite the considerable progress that has been achieved over the last two decades, the bad news is that we know squat about the proper treatment of negation and polarity. But then, by the Law of the Excluded Middle, the good news must be that we don't know squat about the proper treatment of negation and polarity.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Polarity and Grammar." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/polarity-grammar-1691640. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). Polarity and Grammar. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/polarity-grammar-1691640 Nordquist, Richard. "Polarity and Grammar." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/polarity-grammar-1691640 (accessed March 29, 2023).