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Review of  The Morphosyntax of Negative Markers

Reviewer: Mingya Liu
Book Title: The Morphosyntax of Negative Markers
Book Author: Karen De Clercq
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Linguistic Theories
Issue Number: 32.1359

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Reviewed by Andreas Blümel and Mingya Liu


This book by Karen De Clercq (KDC) studies the morphosyntax of canonical predicate negators such as the negative adverbs “not/n’t” and negative affixes “non-”, “un-”/“dis-”/“iN-” in English. While these negative markers (NMs) are usually conceived as belonging to different descriptive domains, KDC develops a uniform treatment of their internal structure and external distribution within nanosyntax (NS, Starke (2009) et seq), a framework which extends and modifies cartography (Rizzi (1997), Cinque (1999), a.o). The main idea is that these different NMs in the clausal spine as well as in prefixal function underlyingly share a universal set of features which differ in “size.” The NMs each occupy the specifier position of a NegP sitting in different clausal positions. In the following, we briefly summarize the content of each chapter.

Chapter 1 introduces the book and the main points.

In Chapter 2 KDC meticulously and in a reader-friendly way lays out the tenets of NS (Starke (2009) et seq), like “late,” i.e. postsyntactic insertion of Vocabulary Items (“lexical items” in KDC’s terminology), the idea that features or even values on features are heads of syntactic projections, i.e. a given syntactic head cannot possibly “bundle” features. The insertion of Vocabulary Items is determined by three principles (A) cyclic spellout: “after every application of Merge, spellout is mandatory” (p. 9), (B) the superset principle which dictates that “A lexically stored tree matches a syntactic node iff the lexically stored tree contains the syntactic node” (Starke (2009: 3) in De Clercq (2020: 17)) and (C) the Elsewhere Condition (Kiparsky (1973) in De Clercq (2020: 17)). “Containment” has become another important principle in — not only — NS (cf. Caha (2009), Bobaljik (2012)), which assumes “structural containment relations” (p. 14) between e.g. different case phrases: nominative is contained in an accusative phrase, accusative phrase is contained in a genitive phrase, etc.. Syntax is the pivot within this framework which makes no difference between word formation and sentence structure. That is, there is one component responsible for all structure building, instead of separate modules of grammar.

Chapter 3 deals with the classification of NMs with English data. KDC argues that the different NMs are carriers of subatomic features T/Neg, Foc/Neg, Class/Neg and Q/Neg, with Q being the head of a functional projection responsible for gradability sitting between DegP and AP (Corver (1997). She backs up her distinction with four criteria. The first two and most crucial criteria are the stacking and scope properties of these NMs: “The rule is that the negative marker which can stack on most items take wides scope” (KDC (2020:34)). KDC proposes the following classification for English: T/Neg-markers (“n’t/not”) for predicate denial, Foc/Neg-makers (“not”) for predicate negation and two kinds of predicate term negation, namely, Class/Neg-makers (“non-”) and Q/Neg-markers (“un-/dis-/iN-”). The NegPs hosting these NMs occupy different syntactic positions. T/Neg sits highest, taking scope over TP (no matter whether they precede or follow tense morphology), giving rise to sentence negation. Foc/Neg sits between TP and FocP. Class/Neg sits between vP and ClassP and Q/Neg sits lowest between ClassP and QP. The syntactic positions mirror the semantic scope of the NMs. The third and fourth criteria are semantic: KDC relates T-/Foc-/Class-Neg to contradiction and Q-Neg to contrariety, and assigns the function of denial to T-Neg, of contrast (or emphasis/ modification) to Foc-Neg, of classification to Class-Neg and of characterization to Q-Neg.

Chapter 4 surveys data from 23 languages of different language families, with regard to the morphosyntax of the NMs. KDC distinguishes seven language patterns, depending on the degrees of syncretism between the four types of NMs. Pattern 1 refers to languages that are fully non-syncretic in this aspect, that is, they use different NMs for T-, Foc-, Class and Q-negation, including Greek, Korean, informal English and formal French. Pattern 7 refers to languages that are fully syncretic, that is, they use the same NM for T/Neg, Foc/Neg, Class/Neg and Q/Neg. Examples are Czech, Hixkaryana (a Carib language), Russian, Macedonian, Malagasy, and Tümpisa Shoshone. Pattern 2-6 refers to languages that have increasing degrees of syncretism. For instance, Mandarin Chinese belongs to Pattern 3 for which it is claimed that the NM “bu” is used for both T/Neg and Foc/Neg and “fei” is used for both Class/Neg and Q/Neg, sharing the same pattern with Persian, Modern Standard Arabic and Mayalayam.

In Chapter 5 the internal structure (“syntax”) of NM is investigated. KDC seeks to show “how the syncretisms and the nanosyntactic methodology provide insight into the internal structure of a negative morpheme” (p. 143). KDC argues that the internal structure of NMs comprises the following four functional heads, projected from what she considers the “lexical” core Neg:

(1) T/Neg – Foc/Neg – Class/Neg – Q/Neg – Neg

Following nanosyntactic custom, KDC uses the patterns of syncretisms as a probe into the internal structure of words. The guiding principle is that syncretic markers have a syntax in which the heads are closer to one another than the one which underlies non-syncretic NMs:

Universal Negation Contiguity Hypothesis (p. 145): “Negation syncretism targets contiguous regions of negative markers invariant across languages.”

The observed patterns of syncretism from Chapter 4 lead her to a structure in which (1) translates into hierarchical structure and is the basis for her dismissal of an alternative.

Chapter 6 is devoted to showing that the internal structure of NMs in (1) mirrors the relative hierarchy of functional negation heads within the clausal spine. (2)/(160) is the structure which shows the full set of functional negation heads interspersed with a subset of the functional heads which KDC assumes for a clausal structure:

(2) (Force) (…) T/Neg (T) Foc/Neg (Foc, v) Class/Neg (Class) Q/Neg (Q)

Following the familiar cartographic approach to adverbs by Cinque (1999), KDC assumes that NMs are XPs which occupy specifier positions of these sentential Neg-heads. On the “categorical side,” the criterion for inserting these specifiers is a matching requirement for the features on a given Neg-head in (1): T/Neg in (1) is inserted above the sentential level T in (2), Foc/Neg in (1) is inserted at the sentential level Foc in (2), etc.. This entails a parallelism between the structural complexity of NM and the structural complexity of the clausal syntax: The higher the NM in the clause, the richer its featural structure. Following Starke’s (2004) line of reasoning that specifiers and the heads they occupy are redundant, all the sentential functional heads in (2) can be eliminated as “specifiers project and provide the feature required by the FSEQ” (p. 162), i.e. functional sequence.

The discussion on the insertion of negative “PRE-markers” (p. 164) (i.e. NMs that are head-initial or prefixal) hinges on the question whether or not Vocabulary Items have “unary bottoms” (vacuous projection) or “binary bottoms” for technical reasons inherent to NS.

An algorithm guiding the insertion of Vocabulary Items is given on p. 165 (later, p. 189, extended by yet another movement-inducing instruction preceding all others):

“335. a. Insert feature and spell out (=do not move)

b. If fail, try a cyclic (spec-to-spec) movement of the node inserted at the previous cycle

c. If fail, try a snowball movement of the complement of the newly inserted feature and spell out.

d. If merge-f has failed to spell out (even after backtracking), try to spawn a new derivation providing feature X and merge that with the current derivation, projecting feature X to the top node.”

The difference between “unprofessional” and “non-professional” is rooted in the presence or absence of ClassP, which the former lacks while the latter has it. Crucially, both words involve the creation of a complex specifier (the phrases underlying the prefixes “un-” and “non-” respectively) for technical reasons inherent to NS. Crucial for their insertion, according to (335), is that the derivation resorts to base-generation/External Merge of a complex XP (a specifier) if all other options ((335-a) to (335-c)) fail.

KDC subsequently addresses the issue of suppletive forms like /iN-/ or /-dis/ in the English “impatient” or “dishonest”, utilizing the nanosyntactic notion of pointers (cf. Starke (2014)), which is “a reference in the lexical tree of a lexical item [...] to another [lexical item]” (p. 173). KDC then analyzes negative suffixal markers like “-less”, where the “unary bottom” comes into play (p. 178). The chapter ends with an astonishing 10-page discussion and analysis of English “n’t”, i.e. the contracted form of negation, which is an affixal element within KDC’s treatment.

The 10-page Chapter 7 captures diachronic change of NMs in le bon usage French of the familiar “ne ... pas” kind in terms of a distribution of different functional features in the clausal spine over the Vocabulary items for “ne” and “pas”. Since “[o]nly the combination [of these features] yield what is conceived of as sentential negation,” (p. 194) their obligatory co-occurrence to express sentential negation follows. In Colloquial French, then, the featural content of the Vocabulary Item “pas” increases such that it alone is a candidate for the syntactic environment of sentential negation, rendering “ne” redundant.

Chapter 8 reviews the existing accounts of postulating multiple NegPs for the different surface positions of NMs in a clause and presents the differences between the account in the book with these. In comparison, Zanuttini (1997) and Poletto (2017) focus on sentential negation in Italian dialects, whereas the book provides a uniform account of both sentential negation and morphological negations across languages.

Chapter 9 deals with semantic issues. Even though it is quite short, it is essential to complement the morphosyntactic account developed in the book. It shows that the interpretation of negative expressions, with the example of contradiction vs. contrariety, is not a result of NMs only but of their interplay with the modified predicates.

Chapter 10 concludes the book.


KDC draws on an impressive range of typologically unrelated and diverse languages to motivative her feature hierarchy, an important and valuable descriptive generalization which is a remarkable achievement. She comes up with creative solutions in the face of recalcitrant data (e.g. the enrichment of the spellout algorithm on p. 189). While the variation of NMs across languages as well as within a language poses a challenge for a uniform morphosyntactic analysis, KDC makes a bold attempt utilizing NS. We believe that both data and theory in the book contribute to a better understanding of NMs across languages and provoke discussion. For example, an important research topic is the relationship between uniform lexical items (understood as items drawn from the lexicon), the structure underlying word formation and consequences the two have for the ongoing derivation. KDC’s contribution makes a stab in this area of research (cf. Epstein, Kitahara & Seely (2016) addressing similar issues with different assumptions). The book is very clearly written, and thus is very accessible even for readers who are unfamiliar with NS. Furthermore, KDC is very explicit in the theoretical implementation, while showing an awareness of open questions and limitations at the same time, for example, in the empirical coverage of the proposed analyses (“The data are restricted to predicate declarative main clauses with copular verbs and adjectival predicates in the simple present tense.”, p. 231).

While the book focuses on morphosyntax, it touches upon semantic issues related to NMs and their co-occurring expressions, for example, in the discussion of the scalar meaning of adjectives in Chapter 9, of register (Mandarin) and of the lexical origins of the predicates (Korean). This shows that NMs are sensitive to various properties of the modified predicates, raising further research questions: How is the meaning of a negative expression compositionally derived and what role do NMs and their co-occurring expressions play exactly? What further, possibly universal, factors determine their combinatory constraints in this aspect, and in which ways?

The book focuses on standard NMs without dealing with n-words, negative quantifiers, negative polarity items, neg-raising, negative concord, or pleonastic/expletive negation. The collected cross-linguistic data call for future investigations. For example, the data in Mandarin Chinese in Section are confined to a more formal literary variety of the language, classified as a Pattern 3 language. Whether the classification extends to modern colloquial Mandarin Chinese is an open question, as for example, “bu” can be used not only as T/Neg and Foc/Neg but also as Q/Neg, seemingly a problem for the contiguity required for a successful account of syncretism.

KDC brings up the deep and vexing problem of how specifiers are introduced into the derivation: “It is somehow assumed that this specifier is assembled in another workspace and then somehow plugged into the derivation. How this exactly happens and how these different derivations interact is not usually explained. [And KDC provides] an algorithm for how this happens.” (p. 161) While KDC addresses an important topic (but see the technical aspects in Chomsky et al (2019) where the notion of workspaces is the centerpiece), the solution she opts for, namely adopting Starke’s (2004) conjecture that specifiers project (cf. e.g. (333), p. 163) equally begs the question how and under what circumstances this works, while otherwise traditional X-bar-theoretic notions like “projection” seem to be adopted. Arguably, this worry concerns NS more generally, not just KDC’s usage of it. Furthermore, in our view, the uniformity of disparate syntactic and morphological NM-phenomena, which the nanosyntactic formalism provides for, might not be without cost, the computational complexity of the algorithm (335) and the tacit assumptions hidden in there being one example.


Bobaljik, J. (2012) “Universals in comparative morphology: Suppletion, superlatives, and the structure of words”. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Caha, P. (2009) “The nanosyntax of case”. Doctoral thesis, University of Tromsø.

Chomsky, N., Á. Gallego & D. Ott (2019) “Generative Grammar and the Faculty of Language: Insights, Questions, and Challenges”. Catalan Journal of Linguistics, 229-261.

Cinque, G. (1999) “Adverbs and Functional Heads. A Cross-Linguistic Perspective”. New York: Oxford University Press.

Corver, N. (1997) “Much-Support as a Last Resort”. Linguistic Inquiry 28 (1), 119-164.

Epstein, S., H. Kitahara & D. Seely (2016) “Phase cancellation by external pair-merge of heads”. The Linguistic Review 33, 87-102.

Kiparsky, P. (1973) ““Elsewhere” in Phonology”. In: S. Anderson & P. Kiparsky (eds.) A Festschrift for Morris Halle, 93-106. New York: Holt, Rinehait and Winston.

Poletto, C. (2017) “Negative doubling: in favor of a big NegP analysis”. In: S. Cruschina, K. Hartmann & E.-M. Remberger (eds.), Studies on negation: syntax, semantics, and variation, 81-104. Göttingen: Vandenhoek & Rupprecht.

Rizzi, L. (1997) “The Fine Structure of the Left Periphery”. In: L. Haegeman (ed.) Elements of Grammar: A Handbook of Generative Syntax, 281-337. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

Starke, M. (2004) “On the inexistence of specifiers and the nature of heads”. In: A. Belletti (ed.), The Cartography of Syntactic Structures, vol. 3:Structures and Beyond, 252-268. New York: Oxford University Press.

Starke, M. (2009) “Nanosyntax: A short primer to a new approach to language”. In: Nordlyd, 36(1), 1-6.

Starke, M. (2014) “Cleaning up the lexicon”. Linguistic Analysis 39, 245-256.

Zanuttini, R. (1997) “Negation and clausal structure: a comparative study of Romance languages”. New York: Oxford University Press.
Please note that the book is reviewed by TWO authors: Andreas Blümel (University of Göttingen) and Mingya Liu (Humboldt University of Berlin) Andreas Blümel is a Postdoc in the German Department of the University of Göttingen. He completed his dissertation 'Propagating Symmetry: Case Studies in Exocentric Syntax' at the University of Frankfurt am Main in 2014. His research interests lie in the syntax of German, long distance dependencies, the syntax of nominal phrases and theoretical syntax more generally. Mingya Liu is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English and American Studies of the Humboldt University of Berlin. She completed her dissertation ''Multidimensional Semantics of Evaluative Adverbs“ at the University of Göttingen in 2012. Her research focuses on formal and experimental semantics and pragmatics, of a.o., negation and polarity items.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9781501520068
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