In This Article Polarity

  • Introduction
  • Overview Articles in Handbooks
  • Collections and Edited Volumes
  • Books on Polarity, Indefinites, and Negation

Linguistics Polarity
Anastasia Giannakidou
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0035


Polarity phenomena in natural language are pervasive and diverse. Polarity items (PIs) are expressions of various syntactic categories, such as nominals, adverbials, verbs, particles, and idioms, with limited distribution: that is, they do not occur in a positive sentence in the simple past. The English word “any,” superlatives like “the faintest sound,” and minimizers such as “lift a finger” are among the first studied PIs. Because of their apparent sensitivity to the presence of negation, they were labeled negative PIs (NPIs). English NPIs are also contrasted with positive polarity items (PPIs) in the earlier literature, words such as “some” and “already,” which are claimed to avoid the negative context. Negative concord words (Overview Papers on N-words) in various languages are treated as NPIs, since these too need negation for well formedness. Typically, “any” and more idiomatic NPIs are viewed as scalar items, rhetorical devices for the manipulation or strengthening of discourse information. PPIs, on the other hand, are argued to be nonscalar. Other NPIs are narrow-scope, nonspecific indefinites that cannot be linked to discourse referents in the way “regular” indefinites are. Such NPIs cross-linguistically do not exhibit the rhetorical effects (emphasis, focus) observed with “any” and minimizers and are typically nonemphatic. The subjunctive mood is often treated as a temporal NPI of this kind. Free choice items (FCIs) are sensitive to the modal, generic, or quantificational properties of the context and seem to disfavor negation. “Any” has both NPI and FCI usages, but it is fairly common in languages to tease the two paradigms apart morphologically. For example, FCIs are usually wh-based (see, e.g., English “whoever”) and contain special morphology (unlike “any”). NPIs and FCIs are sensitive to the logical properties of the sentences in which they occur and are subject to licensing. Licensing typically postulates that the PI be in the syntactic or semantic scope of the licensor—and this captures the narrow scope property of most PI classes. What logical property unifies licensors as a natural class has been a matter of intense debate, with proposals including negation, Licensing and Downward Entailment, and Negative Polarity Items and Nonveridicality. Empirically, nonveridicality captures best the wide range of polarity environments and offers a flexible framework to capture the variation across NPI and FCI classes in a number of languages, predicting possible (but not identical) distributions in negative, downward entailing, and nondownward entailing nonveridical contexts, such as modal contexts, questions, generic sentences, and disjunctions. William Ladusaw views NPI licensing as a global constraint on grammatical representations, but nowadays the limited distribution and the ensuing need for licensing are explained by appealing to the lexical semantic or pragmatic properties of individual PI classes (e.g., scalarity, referential deficiency, or a free choice component), which result in most cases in nonfully identical yet predictable distributions. These major considerations and a solid cross-linguistic perspective will guide the presentation of the material in this article.

Overview Articles in Handbooks

These are overview articles on negative polarity that appeared between 1996 and 2011. The study of polarity emerged as a relatively new paradigm in the 1970s, and only in the late 1980s and 1990s did a substantial body of data (including cross-linguistic studies) become publicly available. This list is almost exhaustive. Historically the first, Ladusaw 1996 delineates three major questions that have subsequently guided the field: the licensing question, the sensitivity question, and the status question. Israel 2004 offers a pragmatic theory of negative polarity item (NPI) licensing in English, distinguishing between emphatic and attenuating NPIs and positive polarity items (PPIs). Anastasia Giannakidou’s perspective is more cross-linguistic and brings together scalar as well as referentially deficient NPIs. Giannakidou also offers criticism of the no-variation scalar approach (Giannakidou 2011). Penka and Zeijlstra 2010 incorporates this perspective and emphasizes more syntactic aspects of licensing.

  • Giannakidou, Anastasia. 2011. Negative and positive polarity items: Variation, licensing, and compositionality. In Semantics: An international handbook of natural language meaning. Edited by Claudia Maienborn, Klaus von Heusinger, and Paul Portner, 1660–1712. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

    E-mail Citation »

    This is a broad overview of various polarity phenomena within a cross-linguistic perspective and with emphasis on variation. English and Greek are the primary languages. It describes the major typological varieties of NPIs (scalar NPIs versus referentially deficient NPIs, strong NPIs, and broad NPIs). It also contains new discussion on recent theories of positive polarity items.

  • Israel, Michael. 2004. The pragmatics of polarity. In The handbook of pragmatics. Edited by Laurence R. Horn and Gregory L. Ward, 701–723. Oxford: Blackwell.

    E-mail Citation »

    Israel presents his pragmatic theory of NPIs, the “scalar model for polarity,” as he calls it. NPIs in this theory are rhetorical devices that interact with the logical properties of the context. The discussion relies on his fundamental distinction between emphatic and attenuating NPIs and PPIs.

  • Ladusaw, William. 1996. Negation and polarity items. In The handbook of contemporary semantic theory. Edited by Shalom Lappin, 321–341. Oxford: Blackwell.

    E-mail Citation »

    Ladusaw sets the stage with three major questions in regard to polarity: the licensing question, the sensitivity question, and the status question. He mainly discusses English polarity items.

  • Penka, Doris, and Hedde Zeijlstra. 2010. Negation and polarity: An introduction. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 28:771–786.

    DOI: 10.1007/s11049-010-9114-0E-mail Citation »

    This is a brief overview with emphasis on syntactic questions and a broad empirical perspective.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions and individuals. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.

Purchase an Ebook Version of This Article

Ebooks of the Oxford Bibliographies Online subject articles are available in North America via a number of retailers including Amazon, vitalsource, and more. Simply search on their sites for Oxford Bibliographies Online Research Guides and your desired subject article.

If you would like to purchase an eBook article and live outside North America please email to express your interest.