The Negation Operator

Linguistics 322

Intermediate Syntax


Note: This an older form. The subject is now generated under VP (PromP)

Negation of simple clauses is formed with the negative particle not. There are two kindes of negation: simple sentence negation and contrastive negation.

Let us start with sentence negation. At S-structure the negative particle is adjoined to the first auxiliary verb in the clause:

(1).     Mary went to the movies.
(2).     Mary did not go to the movies.

Negation is an operator. Its function is to claim that the proposition it modifies is false. In (2), for example, the speaker is claiming that the proposition that Mary went to the movies is false. In the logical system developed here, Neg is an operator forming a Neg-proposition with its argument VP, local head mood (C):

(3a)     Neg-Proposition --> [NEG] <M-proposition>.(logical rule)

(3b)     VP --> Neg VP[C] (syntactic rule, where [C] is local head.


In the first pass to the lexicon[NEG] is bound in that it needs T as a host and it is weak (default setting)

 not, n't orthographic form
 +Bound, +Weak, T\____  features
 NEG  Conceptual Form
 Neg  Syntactic Node

Following a binary analysis, NEG contains the feature [+Neg]. [+Neg] is negative, while [-Neg] is positive. It is almost always empty phonetically. When two people are having a disagreement, one may say:

(5)     I think not.

And the other one may reply:

(6)     I think so.

It appears that so may be the positive marker. If so, it is the only case I can think of in English wheree[-Neg] has a phonetic form. o that (5) I think not does not means the same thing as I don't think. Not in (5) is negating the understood complement which is empty here.

The logical structure (2) is the following:


Negation is a weak operator in that it does not trigger movement. The S-structure for (2) is the following:


The S-structure for the first clause in (3) is the following:


Why is Neg adjoined to V? If Neg is generated at D-structure adjoined to V, then there can be no explanation. There is reason to believe that operators form heads of projections not just tense. That is there should be a projection of Neg dominated by NegP. If we were to assume Neg P, where would it go? It would dominate CP which in turn dominates TP:

(5).       NegP > CP > TP > VP.

Any declarative statement that we make can be affirmative (unmarked normally) or negative (usually marked with Neg). If (5) is correct, then Neg originates in NegP and then it must lower to the verb. Neg is a weak particle which means that it cannot stand alone unless the remainder of the sentence is omitted:

(4) I guess not.

Here, not is the only form left after the remainder of the sentence is omitted:

(5). I guess [ not [that he is coming ]].

If the argument of not is not omitted, then not must lower:

(6). I guess [[ that he is not coming ]].


It is a parameter of English that the only acceptable host for the particle Neg can be an inflected auxiliary (strong) verb. This explains why not does not lower to NP (Mary). It cannot lower to go because go is neither an auxiliary verb nor is it inflected here. If there is no auxiliary verb verb, Neg cannot lower to the main verb:

(7).      *Mary went not to the movies.

The functional (dummy) auxiliary verb do must be inserted to function as a host for tense which licenses Neg:

(8).     Mary did not go to the movies.

The infinitive provides some further evidence. The negative particle cannot lower to the uninflected auxiliary (or a the main verb) in an infinitival clause:

(9).     To have been loved or not to have been loved is the question.
(10).    *To have been loved or to have not been loved is the question.

Although the negative particle is adjoined to the inflected word, it is tense that licenses the lowered negative particle. not is strong only when it cannot lower. The strengthening of not is a last resort.

Constrastive negation is where any node (phrasal node?) is the complement of not, and the negated phrase is conjoined to a positive phrase with the conjunction but. not is adjoined to the phrase:

(3).     Mary may go not to the movies but to a play.
(4).     Mary may go [ not to the movies ] but to a play.

To go to theta roles click here.

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This page last updated 11 DE 99