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3.3. Negative and affirmative contexts

This section discusses the use of negative and affirmative adverbs with adjectives, subsection I starts with the question of what negative/affirmative adverbs modify in predicative constructions such as Jan is niet/wel aardig'Jan is not/aff nice': Is it the adjective or the clause? This is followed in Subsection II by a discussion of some special uses of these negative/affirmative adverbs, subsection III discusses cases of “quasi"-negation, that is, cases in which negation is implicitly expressed by modifiers like weinig'little/not very' in APs like weinig behulpzaam'not very helpful', subsection IV concludes with the discussion of a number of modifiers that only occur in negative contexts.

[+]  I.  Negation and affirmation

When negation is present in a predicative construction, it is often not a priori clear what it modifies. Consider the near synonymous sentences in the primeless and primed examples of (281). Given that the copula does not express a meaning that can be negated (its presence is instead motivated by the need to express the tense and agreement features of the clause), semantic considerations do not help to conclude whether niet modifies the whole clause or just the AP.

Example 281
a. Jan is niet aardig.
  Jan is not  kind
  'Jan isnʼt kind.'
a'. Jan is onaardig
  Jan is unkind
b. Ik vind Jan niet aardig.
  I consider  Jan not  kind
  'I donʼt consider Jan kind.'
b'. Ik vind Jan onaardig.
  I consider  Jan unkind

The constituency test shows, however, that it is the clause and not the adjective that is modified: the (a)- and (b)-examples of (282) show that whereas topicalization of the adjective alone is fully acceptable, pied piping of the negative adverb leads to ungrammaticality. The (c)-examples show that, in this respect negation behaves just like the clausal adverb zeker'certainly' in examples such as Dit boek is zeker leuk'This book is certainly amusing'. We may therefore conclude that the negative adverb and the adjective do not form a constituent; negation acts as a clausal adverb.

Example 282
a. Aardig is Jan niet.
  kind  is Jan not
a'. * Niet aardig is Jan.
b. Aardig vind ik Jan niet.
  kind  consider  Jan not
b'. * Niet aardig vind ik Jan.
c. Leuk is dit boek zeker.
  amusing  is this book  certainly
c'. * Zeker leuk is dit boek.

      The conclusion that the negative adverb niet acts as clausal negation also accounts for the fact that the two (a)-examples in (281) are not fully equivalent. This is clear from the fact that (283a) is not contradictory. The felicitousness of this example is due to the fact that Jan is niet aardig is applicable to a larger part of the implied scale of “kindness’ than Jan is onaardig; it also included the neutral zone. Example (283a) therefore entails that Janʼs kindness is situated in the neutral zone, as can be seen from the schematized representation in (283b).

Example 283
a. Jan is niet aardig, maar ook niet onaardig.
  Jan is not kind,  but  also  not  unkind
  'Jan isnʼt kind, but he isnʼt unkind either.'
b. Scale of “kindness"

The semantic difference between the two (a)-examples in (281) can also be expressed by means of the logical formulae in (284): in the former the negation expressed by niet has sentential scope, whereas the scope negation expressed by the prefix on is restricted to the adjective.

Example 284
a. ¬∃d [ AARDIG (Jan,d) ]
b. ∃d [ ONAARDIG (Jan,d) ]

Note, however, that the inclusion of the neutral zone is lost if the negative element niet is modified by an absolute modifier like absoluut'absolutely' or helemaal totally. Example (285a) expresses that Jan is quite unkind, and example (285b) that Jan is quite kind.

Example 285
a. Jan is helemaal niet aardig.
  Jan is totally  not kind
  'Jan is quite unkind.'
b. Jan is absoluut niet onaardig.
  Jan is absolutely  not  unkind
  'Jan is quite kind.'

      Example (286a) shows that negation can also be used if an amplifier like erg'very' is present. In (286b), we indicate the range of scale implied by niet erg aardig. In (286c), the semantic representation of niet erg aardig is given. If the amplifier expresses an extremely high degree, such afgrijselijk'terribly', the result is less felicitous: in other words, the amplifiers in (21) give rise to a marked result.

Example 286
a. Jan is niet erg/?afgrijselijk aardig.
  Jan is not  very/terribly  kind
b. Scale of kindness:
c. ¬∃d [ AARDIG (Jan, d) & (d > dn) ]

      Despite the fact that Jan is niet erg aardig has the meaning in (286c), the intended range of the scale can be further restricted by means of accent. If the amplifier has accent, as in (287a), the most salient interpretation is that Jan is kind, but only to a lesser extent; in other words, the degree to which Jan is kind is situated somewhere between the neutral zone and the point where the range denoted by erg aardig begins. If the adjective has accent, as in (287b), the most salient interpretation is that Jan is unkind, which means that we are dealing with some form of litotes; cf, subsection IIB.

Example 287
a. Jan is niet erg aardig.
  Jan is not  very kind
b. Jan is niet erg aardig.
  Jan is not  very kind

The contrast between (287a) and (287b) can be partly accounted for by assuming that they differ in the scope of negation. We may be dealing with constituent negation in (287a), with the scope of negation restricted to the intensifier erg'very'. If so, it is only the clause d > dn that is negated, and the sentence is assigned the interpretation d [AARDIG (Jan, d) & ¬(d > dn)], which is equivalent to [AARDIG (Jan, d) & (d ≤ dn)]; this correctly picks out the range between the neutral zone and the range denoted by erg aardig. Of course, if we are dealing with clausal negation in (287b), this sentence will be assigned the interpretation in (286c). The fact that the most salient interpretation of (287b) is that Jan is unkind does not follow from this but might be accounted for by appealing to Griceʼs (1975) maxim of manner: when the speaker wants to express that Jan is kind, but not very kind, he can do so straightforwardly by using (287a), and as a result (287b) can be seen as a pragmatically dispreferred means to refer to this range of the scale.
      The presence of a downtoner in the scope of clausal negation normally yields an unacceptable result. One possible account of this would be to assume that the intended range on the implied scale referred can be more economically indicated by means of niet aardig'not kind', as is shown in (288b). However, it seems unlikely that (288b) is the correct schematization of the meaning of (288a); the meaning we would expect to arise is given in (288d), which corresponds to the schema in (288c). If (288c) is indeed the correct representation, sentence (288a) can be excluded by appealing to Griceʼs (1975) maxim of quantity, given that it yields an uninformative message in the sense that niet vrij aardig refers to two opposite sides of the scale.

Example 288
a. % Jan is niet vrij aardig.
  Jan is not  rather  kind
b. Incorrect representation of (288a):
c. Correct representation of (288a):
d. ¬∃d [ AARDIG (Jan,d) & (d < dn) ]

This solution for the infelicity of (288a) is consistent with the fact that (288a) becomes more or lesss acceptable if it is used to deny some presupposition or a statement that is made earlier in the discourse, as in (289).

Example 289
Jan is vrij aardig. Nee, hij is niet vrij aardig, maar een klootzak.
  Jan is rather  kind  no,  he  is not  rather kind,  but  a bastard

Example (288a) also becomes acceptable if used to express constituent negation, but in that case accent must be assigned to the intensifier vrij. The first conjunct of example (290a) will then be assigned the semantic representation in (290b), which is equivalent to the representation in (290b'), which correctly predicts that the assertion in (290a) is non-contradictory and coherent.

Example 290
a. Nee, hij is niet vrij aardig, maar ontzettend aardig.
  no he is not  rather  kind,  but  terribly  kind
b. ∃d [ AARDIG (Jan,d) & ¬ (d < dn) ]
b'. ∃d [ AARDIG (Jan,d) & (d ≥ dn) ]

      The use of constituent negation in (290) resembles the use of the (stressed) marker wel, which can be seen as the positive counterpart of niet. As is shown in (291b), the presence of wel does not affect the part of the scale that the adjectives onaardig'unkind' and aardig'kind' refer to. Its main function is to contradict some presupposition or statement made earlier in the discourse; (291a), for instance, is only acceptable if the presupposition is that Jan is not kind.

Example 291
a. Jan is wel aardig.
  Jan is aff  kind
b. Scale of “kindness"

      If we are dealing with an absolute adjective, negation just indicates that the property denoted by the adjective does not hold. Like approximative and absolute modifiers, negation can itself be modified. However, whereas the examples in (273) and (278) have shown that the first two can be modified by both al'already' and nog'still', the examples in (292) show that negation can only be modified by nog. Again, example (292a) can only be felicitously used when we are emptying bottles, and (292b) when we are filling them.

Example 292
a. De fles is nog/*al niet leeg.
  the bottle  is still/already  not  empty
b. De fles is nog/*al niet vol.
  the bottle  is still/already  not  full

      If the adjective is modified by an absolute modifier like helemaal'completely', the combination of negation and the modifier is more or lesss equivalent to an approximative: example (293a) is more or lesss synonymous with De tafel is vrijwel rond'The table is almost round'. Approximative modifiers give rise to a weird result in the presence of negation, as is shown in (293b).

Example 293
a. De tafel is niet helemaal rond.
  the table  is not  totally  round
b. % De tafel is niet vrijwel rond.
  the table  is not  almost  round

Example (293b) is marked with a percentage mark because it is acceptable if used to deny some presupposition or a statement that is made earlier in the discourse; cf. (294). This use of negation resembles the use of the marker wel in (291) discussed above.

Example 294
a. De tafel is vrijwel rond.
  the table  is almost  round
b. De tafel is niet vrijwel rond, maar vierkant.
  the table  is not  almost  round,  but  square
b'. De tafel is niet vrijwel rond, maar helemaal rond.
  the table  is not  almost  round,  but  totally round
[+]  II.  Other uses of the elements wel/niet

Subsection I has shown that the scope of both the negative adverb niet and the affirmative marker wel is sometimes confined to the intensifier of an adjective, in which case they contradict some presupposition or statement made earlier in the discourse. This subsection discusses other uses of niet and wel with restricted scope.

[+]  A.  The use of wel as a downtoner

The affirmative marker wel in “denial" contexts should not be confused with the use of wel as a downtoner: the two can easily be distinguished, as the former must (whereas the latter cannot) receive accent and requires that accent be placed on the following adjective; below, we will orthographically represent unaccented wel as wĕ l. The downtoner wĕ l is special in that it can only be combined with adjectives that denote properties that are positively valued; cf. van Riemsdijk (2005). This becomes clear from comparing the primeless examples with wĕ l in (295) with the primed examples with the downtoner vrij'rather'.

Example 295
a. Hij is wĕl aardig/*?onaardig.
  he  is wel  kind/unkind
  'Heʼs rather nice.'
a'. Hij is vrij aardig/onaardig.
  he  is rather kind/unkind
b. Dit boek is wĕl boeiend/*?saai.
  this book  is wel  fascinating/boring
  'This book is rather fascinating.'
b'. Dit boek is vrij boeiend/saai.
  this book  is rather fascinating/boring
c. Jan is wĕl lief/*?stout.
  Jan is wel  sweet/naughty
  'Jan is rather sweet.'
c'. Jan is vrij lief/stout.
  Jan is rather sweet/naughty

Observe that negatively valued adjectives are not the same as negative adjectives. Despite the fact that ongedwongen'relaxed' in (296) is prefixed by the negative affix on-, it is a positively valued adjective and, consequently, modification by wĕl yields an acceptable result.

Example 296
Het sollicitatiegesprek was wĕl ongedwongen.
  the interview  was wel  relaxed
'The interview took place in a rather relaxed atmosphere.'

Observe also that wĕl can be combined with a negatively valued adjective if it is followed by an intensifier, which must be assigned heavy accent. The examples in (297) show that the intensifier must be an amplifier and cannot be a downtoner, which would be consistent with the earlier observations, provided that we assume that wel modifies the intensifier and that amplifiers and downtoners differ in that the former are positively valued and the latter negatively.

Example 297
a. Hij is wĕl zeer/*vrij onaardig.
  he  is wel  very/rather  unkind
b. Dit boek is wĕl erg/*vrij saai.
  this book  is wel  very/rather  boring
c. Jan is wĕl ontzettend/*nogal stout.
  Jan is wel  terribly/rather naughty

      Since the sequence wĕl + adjective can be placed in clause-initial position, we conclude that it is a constituent, in contrast to the sequence of stressed affirmative marker wel + adjective; cf. the constituency test.

Example 298
a. Wĕl aardig vond ik die jongen.
  wel  kind  consider  that boy
a'. * Aardig vond ik die jongen wĕl.
b. * Wel aardig vond ik die jongen.
  aff  kind  consider  that boy
b'. Aardig vond ik die jongen wel.

Another difference between the downtoner wĕl and the affirmative marker wel is that only the first can be modified by the element best. This is illustrated in (299).

Example 299
a. Hij is best wĕl/*wel aardig.
b. Dit boek is best wĕl/*wel boeiend.
c. Jan is best wĕl/*wel lief.
[+]  B.  Litotes

Examples like (300a&b) are often referred to as litotes, the trope by which one expresses a property by means of negation of its antonym, and require that the adjective denote a property that is negatively valued. The examples in (300) are more or lesss semantically equivalent to those with wĕl in (295). It should be noted, however, that there is no one-to-one correspondence; niet stout in (300c), for instance, sounds distinctively odd under the intended reading, whereas wĕl lief is perfectly acceptable. Of course, all examples in (300) are acceptable if niet is used to express clausal negation, hence the use of the number signs.

Example 300
a. Hij is niet onaardig/#aardig.
  he  is not  unfriendly/friendly
  'Heʼs rather friendly.'
b. Dat boek is niet saai/#boeiend.
  that book  is  not boring/fascinating
  'That book is rather fascinating.'
c. # Jan is niet stout/lief.
  Jan is not naughty/sweet

Note in passing that in the literary and formal registers, litotes is often used to obtain a strong amplifying effect, that is, niet onaardig is used to express something like “extremely friendly". In colloquial speech, on the other hand, it is instead used to express something like “rather friendly", and an amplifying effect is only obtained if niet is modified by an absolute modifier like absoluut'absolutely': absoluut niet onaardig'very friendly'.
      Since litotes requires that the adjective denote a negatively valued property, example (301a) can have only one reading, namely the one that involves clausal negation. Example (301b), on the other hand, is ambiguous: on the first reading, niet expresses clausal negation, just as in (301a), but on the second reading it modifies the adjective.

Example 301
a. Dat boek is niet goed.
  that book  is not  good
  'It isnʼt the case that this book is good.'
b. Dat boek is niet slecht.
  that book  is not  bad
  'It isnʼt the case that this book is bad.'
  'This book is rather good.'

The litotes reading is sometimes even strongly preferred. In order to see this we should briefly discuss the adjective aardig'kind' on its more special meaning “nice", which is in fact the only one possible if applied to non-human entities. The examples in (302) show that this special reading is possible if the adjective is preceded by wĕl, but excluded if preceded by niet or if clausal negation is expressed by means of some other element in the clause, like niets'nothing'.

Example 302
a. Dat boek is wĕl/*niet aardig.
cf. Jan is wel/niet aardig 'Jan is (not) kind.’
  that book  is  wel /not nice
  'That book is rather nice.'
b. * Niets is aardig.
cf. Niemand is aardig 'Nobody is kind’
  nothing  is  nice

The adjective onaardig can likewise have the special meaning “not nice", provided that it is in a litotes context: as a result niet cannot be construed as clausal negation in (303a). This is also clear from the fact that negation cannot be realized on some other element in the clause; this implies that we are dealing with clausal negation so that onaardig can only be interpreted with the regular meaning “unkind" and, consequently, (303b) is only acceptable with a human subject.

Example 303
a. Dat boek is niet/*wĕl onaardig.
  that book  is not/wel  not.nice
  'That book is rather nice.'
b. Niemand/*Niets is onaardig.
  nobody/nothing  is unkind

The fact that the downtoner wĕl and niet in litotes contexts can also be used in attributive constructions such as (304) also shows that these elements have restricted scope; the examples in (305) show that the affirmative/negative adverbs wel/niet normally cannot be used internally to the noun phrase.

Example 304
a. een wĕl aardig/*onaardig boek
  wel  nice/not.nice  book
a'. een niet onaardig/*aardig boek
  not  not.nice/nice  book
b. een wĕl interessant/*oninteressant boek
  wel  interesting/uninteresting  book
b'. een niet oninteressant/*?interessant boek
  not  uninteresting/interesting  book
Example 305
a. De radio is niet/wel kapot.
  the radio is not/wel  broken
b. *? een niet/wel kapotte radio
  not/wel  broken  radio

To conclude, note that there are some isolated cases of “anti-litotes": the positively valued adjective verkwikkelijk'exhilarating' in (306) is used in a metaphoric sense and requires the presence of (quasi-)negation or the negative affix -on.

Example 306
a. Die zaak is *(niet/weinig) verkwikkelijk.
  that affair  is    not/little  exhilarating
  'that is a nasty business.'
b. een *(on-)verkwikkelijke zaak
     nasty  business
[+]  III.  Quasi-negation

Negation can also be expressed by means of quasi-negative phrases, that is, phrases where the negation is in a sense hidden in the meaning of the phrase: weinig'little' in (307a), for instance, can be paraphrased by means of an overt negative as niet veel'not very'. More quasi-negative modifiers are given in (307b&c); in all these cases, the use of the modifier suggests that the property denoted by the adjective does not apply.

Example 307
a. weinig behulpzaam
  little  helpful
  'not very helpful'
b. allesbehalve/allerminst/verre van behulpzaam
  anything.but/not.the.least.bit/far from  helpful
c. niets behulpzaam
  nothing  helpful

The modifier weinig'little' is also compatible with a downtoning interpretation. Examples (308a) shows that under this interpretation, weinig can also be negated and that the resulting meaning is more or lesss equivalent to that of the amplifier zeer'very'. The modifiers in (307b&c) do not allow a downtoning interpretation and the examples in (308b&c) show that negation of these modifiers is excluded.

Example 308
a. niet weinig behulpzaam
  'quite helpful'
b. * niet allesbehalve/allerminst/verre van behulpzaam
c. * niet niets behulpzaam

      The modifier weinig can only be used with scalar adjectives that have an absolute antonym; example (309a) is unacceptable given that the antonym of aardig is also gradable; cf. erg onaardig'very unkind'. The modifiers in (307b), on the other hand, can be used in these contexts.

Example 309
a. ?? weinig aardig
  little  kind
b. allesbehalve/allerminst/verre van aardig
  anything but/very least/far from  kind

The examples in (310) show that the modifier weinig also differs from the modifiers in (307b) in that it cannot be combined with an absolute adjective either.

Example 310
a. * weinig leeg
  little  empty
b. allesbehalve/allerminst/verre van leeg
  anything but/very least/far from  empty

The examples in (311), finally, show that the nominal modifier niets behaves like the modifiers in (307b) in that it can be combined with scalar adjectives that have a scalar antonym, but like weinig'little' in that it cannot be combined with absolute adjectives.

Example 311
a. niets aardig
  nothing  kind
b. *? niets leeg
  nothing  empty
[+]  IV.  Negative Polarity

A special case is constituted by the negative polarity elements al te and bijster. In colloquial speech, these elements normally must occur in the scope of negation; cf. Klein (1997). Some examples are given in (312).

Example 312
a. Dit boek is *(niet) bijster spannend.
  this book  is not  bijster  exciting
  'This book isnʼt very exciting.'
b. Die auto is *(niet) al te groot.
  that car  is    not  al  too big
  'That car is moderate in size.'

The combination al te also occurs without negation in more or lesss fixed expressions like Dit gaat me al te ver'This goes too far for me', Hij maakt het al te gortig'He is going too far', and Dit is me al te veel'This is too much for me', and the proverb Al te goed is buurmans gek, which can be considered relics of the older use of al te as a regular amplifier; in more formal registers al te can still be used without negation. In older stages of Dutch, bijster could also be used as an amplifier in positive contexts, but, to our knowledge, such uses have virtually died out in colloquial speech.
      The negative adverb niet and the adjective do not form a constituent, which is clear from the fact, illustrated in (313), that topicalization of the AP cannot pied-pipe negation.

Example 313
a. Bijster spannend is dit boek niet.
a'. * Niet bijster spannend is dit boek.
b. Al te groot is die auto niet.
b'. * Niet al te groot is die auto.

The claim that niet and the adjective do not form a constituent is also supported by the fact that negation can be external to the clause that contains bijster/al te, as in the (a)-examples of (314), or expressed on some other constituent in the clause, like nooit'never' in the (b)-examples.

Example 314
a. Ik denk niet dat dit boek bijster spannend is.
  think  not  that  this book  bijster  exciting  is
a'. Ik geloof niet dat zijn auto al te groot is.
  believe  not  that  his car  al  too big  is
b. Dat soort boeken zijn nooit bijster spannend.
  that sort of books  are  never  bijster  exciting
b'. Dat soort autoʼs zijn nooit al te groot.
  that sort of cars  are  never  al  too big

If the AP is used attributively, negation can be situated external to the noun phrase, as in the primeless examples in (315), expressed on the determiner, as in the primed examples, or placed within the noun phrase, as in the doubly-primed examples.

Example 315
a. Ik denk niet dat dit een bijster spannend boek is.
  I think not  that this  bijster  exciting  book  is
  'I donʼt think that this book is very exciting.'
a'. Dit is geen bijster spannend boek.
  this  is not.a  bijster  exciting  book
a''. Dit is een niet bijster spannend boek.
  this  is a  not  bijster  exciting  book
b. Ik geloof niet dat hij een al te grote auto heeft.
  believe  not  that he   al too  big  car has
  'I donʼt think that his car is very big.''
b'. Dit is geen al te grote auto.
  this  is not.a  al  too  big  car
b''. Dit is een niet al te grote auto.
  this  is a  not  al  too big car

      Subsection I has shown that there are also modifiers that cannot occur in the scope of negation. This holds especially for downtoners, as is shown in the (a)-examples of (316), subsection I has also shown, however, that use of negation becomes fully acceptable if the downtoner is used contrastively, as in the (b)-examples, in which case we are dealing with constituent negation. The (c)-examples show that downtoners can also occur in the scope of negation in yes/no questions.

Example 316
a. Dat boek is (??niet) vrij saai.
  that book  is     not  rather boring
a'. Jan is (??niet) een beetje gek.
  Jan is     not  a little mad
b. Dat boek is niet vrij saai, maar verschrikkelijk saai.
  that book  is not  rather boring  but  terribly  boring
b'. Jan is niet een beetje gek, maar volledig waanzinnig.
  Jan is not  a little mad  but  completely  insane
c. Is dat boek niet vrij saai?
  is that book  not  rather boring
  'Isnʼt that book rather boring?'
c'. Is Jan niet een beetje gek?
  is Jan not  a little mad
  'Isnʼt Jan a little mad?'

The acceptability of the (b)- and (c)-examples therefore suggests that the impossibility of a downtoner in the scope of negation in the declarative (a)-examples is not due to some inherent semantic property of the downtoners, but has a pragmatic reason; see the discussion of (288) in Subsection I.

  • Grice, H.P1975Logic and conversationCole, P. & Morgan, J. (eds.)Speech acts: Syntax and Semantics 3New YorkAcademic Press41-58
  • Grice, H.P1975Logic and conversationCole, P. & Morgan, J. (eds.)Speech acts: Syntax and Semantics 3New YorkAcademic Press41-58
  • Klein, Henny1997Adverbs of degree in DutchUniversity of GroningenThesis
  • Riemsdijk, Henk van2005Positive polarity and evaluationBroekhuis, Hans, Corver, Norbert, Huybregts, Riny, Kleinhenz, Ursula & Koster, Jan (eds.)Organizing grammar. Linguistic studies in honor of Henk van RiemsdijkBerlin/New YorkMouton de Gruyter
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