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Review of  A History of English Negation

Reviewer: Rong Chen
Book Title: A History of English Negation
Book Author: Gabriella Mazzon
Publisher: Pearson Linguistics
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Language Family(ies): New English
Issue Number: 16.709

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Date: Tue, 08 Mar 2005 07:21:46 -0800
From: Ron Chen
Subject: A History of English Negation

AUTHOR: Mazzon, Gabriella
TITLE: A History of English Negation
SERIES: Longman Linguistics Library
YEAR: 2004

Rong Chen, Department of English, California State University, San


The title of Mazzon's History of English Negation is an apt description of
the monograph itself. The reader is led by a careful scholar back to the
beginning of the English language, then forward to the present day,
through the maze of English negation. Along the way, the reader will pick
up much valuable information on the topic; at the end of the journey, she
will come away with a rather clear idea about how Modern English has
evolved into such a negation-complex language.

Of the six chapters of the book, Chapter I introduces the reader
to "general and typological issues." Chief among the host of topics
discussed are several typological principles in natural languages. Neg-
First Principle, first noted by Jesperson (1917, 1924), refers to the
trend that "negation tends to be attracted leftwards" and "precede the
words over which it has scope." The principle of End-Weight -- "the
tendency to concentrate communicatively significant elements towards the
second part of a clause" --however, provides an opposing force to the Neg-
First Principle: since negation carries much semantic weight, the End-
Weight Principle exerts pressure for the negation element to move
rightward. This tug-of-war has been believed to be the driving force in
the evolution of negation, commonly called "the negative cycle."

The negative cycle consists of three stages. In Stage 1, the negator
precedes the verb (Neg + V), representing the Neg-First Principle. End-
Weight, however, gradually imposes itself by either placing an extra
negator in the second part of the clause or turning an element that has
been there into one, both resulting from the heavy semantic load of
negation. This leads to Stage 2 of the cycle: Neg + V + Neg (whereby a
clause is negated twice). Through phonological and pragmatic weakening,
however, the preverbal negator gets dropped, leading negation to its third
stage: V + Neg.

Chapter 2 of the book takes the reader to Old English (OE) and Early
Middle English. With regard to Old English, Mazzon first cautions the
reader about the difficulty of assigning a basic order to the language,
difficulty that stems from the long-standing disagreement among linguists
on how to define basic word order in languages in general and the absence
of a statistically dominant order in OE in particular. Therefore, Mazzon
presents a wealth of information about the variation of OE negation,
highlighting structures such as neg-incorporation, neg-concord, neg-
attraction, expletive negation, and negative affixation. Among this
variety of means to negate a sentence, however, the structure of Neg + V
still seems to be the most prevalent.

Chapter 3 covers the middle ages and early modern period-between ca. 1200
to ca. 1700-a period of major changes of the English language and a period
in which the negation of the language went through Stage 2 and reached
Stage 3. At the end of OE, the most versatile preverbal negator, "ne," was
more and more reinforced by other negative words, most notably "nawiht"
('nothing'), which transformed, via "noght" and later "nawt," to "not."
This was apparently the Neg + V + Neg stage. The third stage, V + Neg, was
reached soon after, largely for reasons that have been found in other
languages: the post verbal negator gradually gained prominence because of
its towards-the-end position while at the same time the preverbal "ne" was
reduced and then disposed of, resulting in structures such as "I say not,"
whose existence lasted till the first part of the 1800s.

However, while the "I say not" structure was trying to survive-and doing a
good job at it-the fundamental negation device of English was being
formed, due largely to the introduction of do-support and the simultaneous
fixing of the SVO word order. Once the position of "do" was established as
an auxiliary, it makes sense for the negator to be close to it for
contraction in declarative sentences and for the formation of negative
interrogatives. Thus the language arrived at the stage we are still at
today: auxiliary + Neg + verb.

Note that, like the major machinery of the language, the cornerstones of
negation had been laid in the early modern period and the way English
negates its sentences has to a large extent remained the same in the last
three hundred years. What would the author of a book on the history of
English negation say do a chapter on the modern period of the language? In
Chapter 4, Mazzon turns to two major issues: the different theoretical
orientations in linguistics to the study of negation and the complexity of
negation in present-day English. On the former point were surveyed
classical works such as Klima (1964), Jackendoff (1969) and Horn (1989);
on the latter, the author offers a rich discussion of topics such as the
scope of negation, negation with indefinites, quantifiers, and
comparatives, Neg-Concord, negative coordination, negation and modality,
negation and inversion, emphatic negation, and affixal negation.

Chapter 5 concentrates on multiple negations in various dialects of
English. Chapter 6 reports a few studies in the acquisition of negation by
both first and second language learners and discusses the possibility of
discovering negation universals.


Mazzon makes no pretense to compare her own book with that of Horn's
(1989) tome but hers is as valuable as one expects it to be in its own
right. The reader is promised a treatment to the history of English
negation; and she gets that, clearly and convincingly. She walks way with
the idea that the development of English negation has followed a pattern
similar to other European languages; she is in a better position to
understand and appreciate the complexity of the structures of English
negation; she is even likely to develop a deeper sense of how the English
language has become the way it has become. If she is interested in a
particular topic within the general realm of negation, e.g., neg-
coordination, she could find a point of departure for her investigation by
reading relevant parts of the book.

My somewhat negative comments on this book of negation are both minor.
First, the tables can be jarring to understand, particularly the first few
ones. For instance, the author typically mentions a percentage based on a
table without telling her readers how that percentage is arrived at.
Second, I had a nagging feeling-from reading between the lines-that the
author seems to place a bit too much emphasis on typological
considerations. I have always assumed, for instance, that typological
statements such as "a language with a structure X is expected to also
exhibit structure Y" are tentative statistical possibilities. Therefore, I
was a bit surprised to read "We could thus hypothesize that the partial
maintenance of 'ne', and the temporary success of the pattern 'I not say',
were both strategies aiming at PRESERVING TYPOLOGICAL CONSISTENCE ... "
[Emphasis mine], although I am aware that the author is speaking


Horn, L. (1989). A Natural History of Negation. Chicago: Chicago
University Press.

Jackendoff, R. S. (1969). An interpretive theory of negation. Foundations
of Language, 5:

Jesperson, O. (1917). Negation in English and other languages. In:
Selected Writings by Otto Jesperson. London: Allen & Urwin, 1963/9: 3-151.

Jesperson, O. (1924). The Philosophy of Grammar. London: Allen & Urwin.

Klima, E. S. (1964). Negation in English. In J. A. Fodor and J. J. Katz,
eds. The Structure of Language. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall. 246-322.


Rong Chen is professor of English and Linguistics at California State
University, San Bernardino. He has published two books more than twenty
articles in thirteen linguistics journals. His latest work is English
Inversion: A Ground-before-Figure Construction (Cognitive Linguistics
Research 25), Mouton de Gruyter, 2003.

Format: Paperback
ISBN: 0582381851
ISBN-13: N/A
Pages: 192
Prices: U.K. £ 29.99