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Review of  The Oxford Handbook of Negation

Reviewer: Peter Backhaus
Book Title: The Oxford Handbook of Negation
Book Author: Viviane Déprez M. Teresa Espinal
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Morphology
Issue Number: 32.1311

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The Oxford Handbook of Negation, edited by Viviane Déprez and M. Teresa Espinal, is an impressive 896-pages piece of work divided into seven main sections. Like all handbooks in the OUP series, it comes with an introduction by the editors, an extensive list of abbreviations, a list of contributors, as well as a summarized list of references at the end of the book.

The first section is about the “Fundamentals” of negation. It starts with Laurence R. Horn’s introduction to the basics, such as Aristotle’s laws of non-contradiction and the excluded middle, the distinction between contrary and contradictory negation and their respective locations in the Square of Opposition, and the common trend for contradiction to acquire contrary meaning (where “not happy” normally means “unhappy”). In the next chapter, Jacques Moeschler examines negative predicates such as “unmarried” and their differences with morphosyntactic negation (“not married”). In Chapter 4, David Ripley studies the relationship between denial and negation. Karen De Clercq gives a concise overview of the different types of negation, taking at its center Klima’s (1964) distinction between sentence (wide-scope) and constituent (narrow-scope) negation, plus his classic diagnostic tests. She also discusses her own classification of negative markers and speculates on the existence of an additional layer of “pure” external negation, as recently attested for Jewish Babylonian Aramaic (Bar-Asher Siegal 2015). Section I closes with Shrikant Joshi’s account of the various types of affixal negation and how to classify them, including his own categorization of direct vs. indirect negation.

Section II deals with the syntactic aspects of negation. Johan van der Auwera and Olga Krasnoukhova use a (“convenient” but fairly solid) data sample to present an overview of syntactic types of negation and their distribution, typological and areal, across the world’s languages. In the next chapter, Chiara Gianollo discusses the various syntactic realizations that negation markers may take (as affixes, particles, auxiliaries, etc.). Possible syntactic slots for negation markers are explored by Cecilia Poletto, who presents exhibits from various Italian dialects. In Chapter 10, Elizabeth Pearce examines the effect of negation on word order, such as a common reshuffle of VSO languages into SVO when a negative marker is inserted. The section concludes with Josep Quer’s introduction to how sign languages across the globe express negation, by manual and non-manual markers. He identifies both points in common with spoken languages (e.g. negative concord), and some “modality-particular ingredients” (195) where signing clearly has a modal edge over speaking.

Section III moves on to the syntax-semantics interface. It opens with another contribution by Horn, who gives an overview of the phenomenon of neg-raising (NR), as in “I don’t think you’re right” (wide-scope, contradictory) in the sense of “I think you’re wrong” (narrow, contrary). In Chapter 13, Clemens May discusses how negation causes intervention effects that disallow certain interrogative forms, with focus on negative islands and so-called Beck effects. Chapter 14, by Maribel Romero, interrogates three major types of negative interrogatives, followed by Denis Delfitto’s account of grammaticalized wishful not-thinking, as in French “Je crains qu’il ne vienne” (lit., “I’m afraid that he (not) comes”). Section III closes with Nicholas Fleisher’s examination of the complex scopal entanglements of negation and quantifiers. Acknowledging that pragmatic factors constitute a driving force behind the phenomenon, this provides a perfect transition to the next section, which deals with the semantics and pragmatics of negation.

Naomi Francis and Sabine Iatridou kick off Section IV with a discussion on how modals scope with (and without) negation. Barry Schein offers a spectacular view on negation through the cabin window of event semantics. Focus is the focus of Chapter 19, in which Anamaria Fălăuş investigates the intricate relationship between negation and focus constituents such as “even” and “only,” and their eccentric negative kin. In Chapter 20, Ana Maria Martins discusses the concept of metalinguistic negation as it was first named by Ducrot (1972), and more rigidly defined in Horn’s 1989 classic. Allowing some overlay with the previous chapter, David Beaver and Kristin Denlinger explore what negation does with presuppositions, and how it keeps some intact while others are cancelled (e.g. “Danny didn’t stop smoking” normally doesn’t deny the presupposition that Danny smoked previously, but can also do just that, as in “Danny didn’t stop smoking because he never smoked in the first place”).

Section V is dedicated to the topic of negative dependencies. It starts with Lucia M. Tovena’s succinct discussion of one of the core items in negation research, negative polarity items (NPIs). Next, Susagna Tubau explores the work of minimizers and maximizers as (positive or negative) polarity items and their differing degrees of “strength.” Hedde Zeijlstra examines negative quantifiers and the “nall” problem, i.e., why negative universals such as “not all” so stubbornly refuse to lexicalize. In Chapter 25, Andrew Weir explores (syntactically) incomplete answers (“To Paris,” “Nothing”) and what they tell us about specific aspects of negation. Next, Anastasia Giannakidou discusses the common phenomenon of two (or more) negative components producing a single interpretation of negation, also known as negative concord. This is closely related, obviously, to the topic of double negation, which Henriëtte de Swart explores in Chapter 27. Using data from two larger multilingual corpora, she compares double negation languages (English, German, Dutch) with languages that regularly exhibit negative concord (Italian, Spanish), thereby uncovering some typologically rather unexpected findings. Her approach suggests that data-driven methods can make an important contribution to the theory of negation.

Section VI is about variation in negation. Phillip Wallage gives a diachronic account of what Tottie (1991) first called “no/not negation” in English (“I saw nothing” vs. “I didn’t see anything”). In Chapter 29, Christina Tortora and Frances Blanchette study negation in non-standard varieties, with examples from English, West Flemish and Romance varieties that show some noteworthy differences with negation in their respective standard varieties. Negative cycles, best-known the one first described by Jespersen (1917), are the topic of Anne Breitbarth’s chapter, followed by Gianollo’s second contribution, on the evolution of negative dependencies. In the last chapter of the section, on the role of pragmatics in negative change, Pierre Larrivée adds some meat to the intuitive but fuzzy idea that new negation markers tend to emerge from material originally used for intensifying effects.

Section VII, about the emergence and acquisition of negation, starts with Manuel Bohn, Josep Call, and Christoph J. Völter’s discussion about to what extent non-human animals (big apes, parrots, etc.) are capable of negative reasoning. Making a basic distinction between proto-negation (based on mutually exclusive extensions) and negation proper (i.e., of propositions), the authors show that while there is as yet “no compelling evidence for negation proper in nonhuman animals” (588), some recent studies point to the possibility of negative reasoning beyond proto-negation. We return to our own species in Chapter 34, in which Jean-Rémy Hochmann explores pre-lexical nay-say in human infants, whose development of truth-functional negation evolves through previous stages of expressing denial and unfulfilled expectations. L1 acquisition of negation is also the topic of Rosalind Thornton’s contribution, which studies at what age successively complex forms of negation such as negative questions, double negation, and NPIs become mastered. Finally, Liliana Sánchez and Jennifer Austin deal with the acquisition of negation in second language learning, and likely differences (or not) depending on one’s L1.

The final section is labelled “Experimental Investigations of Negation.” Barbara Kaup and Carolin Dudschig discuss the major research questions in processing negation and the differences with processing non-negated constructions, a problem that will keep popping up in the subsequent chapters. Hanna Muller and Colin Phillips review the literature on negative polarity illusions, i.e., NPIs that only appear to be licensed, by “luring” negative material in the syntactic periphery. In Chapter 39, Pilar Prieto and M. Teresa Espinal highlight the importance of prosody and gesture in expressing negation, arguing that both complements are indispensable for a proper understanding of negation as a whole. Yosef Grodzinsky and his collaborators review seminal and more recent psycholinguistic studies that localize negation outside the brain’s language areas. Veena D. Dwivedi draws attention to some systematic individual differences in the processing of negative constructions. She advocates a “semantics before syntax model” to better account for these differences. Chapter 42, by Ken Ramshøj Christensen, explores how negation is neurologically processed. The “somewhat consistent picture” (738) that emerges from previous research suggests that negation is more difficult to handle than positive structures. In the final chapter, Liuba Papeo and Manuel de Vega partially argue against this view, presenting results from recent neurolinguistic research that suggests negative meanings seep in just as swiftly as their affirmative counterparts.


The Oxford Handbook of Negation brings together a most competent team of authors, with a list of contributors that reads like a who is who in negation research. The articles have been rigorously peer reviewed, as acknowledged in footnotes and comments. Most contributions provide a comprehensive and balanced overview of their respective topic, without pushing a certain view or overemphasizing the author’s own research.

Some thematic overlap between articles is perhaps unavoidable, and allows each contribution to stand on its own. Particularly for a handbook, this is certainly a plus since it means that you won’t have to read the whole piece from cover to cover. Unless you are a reviewer, in which case you might at times wonder why crucial topics such as negative polarity items and negative concord are fully dealt with only at a relatively late point in the book. On the other hand, there is certainly no perfect logical order to a plot as deceitful and twisted as that of negation.

The writing of most articles is clear and often entertaining, as when van der Auwera and Krashnoukova observe, almost Mel Brooks-like, that “The similarity between privatives and negative existentials is obvious: when a state of affairs is without something then this something does not exist in the state of affairs” (109). Or, applying the Klima test to their own prose, “Another problem is that to propose that there would be a natural tendency for an early placement of the negator Jespersen had few data, and neither had Horn” (104). Speaking of the latter, Horn has been careful to update his renowned example sentences, as in “Nobody but Trump, I don’t suppose, would have said that” (15). In this respect, too, the Handbook of Negation is fully up to date (as of fall 2020).

Though mentioned in several chapters, I had the impression that a bit more attention could have been paid to negation in discourse. This aspect was dearly missed, for instance, in the chapter on negative questions, where the conversational context seems to matter so much, and where constructed examples fail to properly do the job. Where the discursive aspect was mentioned, that was mainly done passim (e.g. Chapter 39), or only to be eventually refuted in favor of syntactic parameters (Chapter 36). Other relevant topics I would have loved to see covered are negation in works of literature (e.g. Hidalgo-Downing 2003, Nørgaard 2007), or the visual mapping of negation as commonly done in prohibitions, warning signs, and other types of “don’t” illustrations (e.g. Johnson 2006, Stones et al. 2013).

The Handbook of Negation has been edited with great care, and there are only a few minor typos. The list of abbreviations at the beginning will certainly be welcomed by readers with different backgrounds, though a few important symbols (e.g. # for pragmatic anomality) are missing. In addition, there were sometimes problems with examples from languages other than English. For instance, there seems to be something amiss with the Vietnamese excerpts presented under (40) in Chapter 7, and some of the French and Italian examples in Chapter 9 come without an English translation.

It is not the case though, that these minor points would weaken the overall weight and value of the work under review. To everyone who ever wanted assembled the fascinating whims of no, not, non-, and never between two covers, I gladly recommend: Say yes to this book.


Bar-Asher Siegal, Elitzur. 2015. The case for external sentential negation: Evidence from Jewish Babylonian Aramaic. Linguistics 53(3). 1031-78.

Ducrot, Oswald. 1972. Dire et ne pas dire: Principes de sémantique linguistique. Paris: Hermann.

Hidalgo-Downing, Laura. 2003. Negation as a stylistic feature in Joseph Heller's Catch-22: A corpus study. Style 37(3). 318-340.

Horn, Laurence R. 1989. A natural history of negation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Jespersen, Otto. 1917. Negation in English and other languages. Copenhagen: A.F. Høst & Søn.

Johnson, Daniel A. 2006. Practical aspects of graphics related to safety instructions and warnings. Michael S. Wogalter (ed.), Handbook of warnings, 463-476. Mahwah: Erlbaum.

Klima, Edward. 1964. Negation in English. Jerry A. Fodor and Jerrold Katz (eds.), The Structure of Language, 246-323. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.

Nørgaard, Nina. 2007. Disordered collarettes and uncovered tables: Negative polarity as a stylistic device in Joyce’s “Two Gallants”. Journal of Literary Semantics, 36(1). 35-52.

Stones, Catherine, Peter Knapp & Laura Malmgren. 2013. The interpretation of triangular borders to indicate warning in medicines pictograms and the potential influence of being a driver. Information Design Journal 20(2).161-170.

Tottie, Gunnel. 1991. Negation in English speech and writing: A study in variation. San Diego: Academic Press.
Peter Backhaus is Professor at the Department of English Language and Literature at Waseda University, Tokyo. His main research interests are in pragmatics and stylistics.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9780198830528
Pages: 832
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