Negative Concord

“I don't never heard of that before.”

(Feagin 1979)


“Nothing don't come to a sleeper but a dream.”

(Green 2002)


Negative concord is a phenomenon in which more than one negative element occurs in a sentence, but the sentence is interpreted as only being negated once. Below are three examples (with roughly equivalent paraphrases in standard English given in quotes):

1) I ain't never been drunk.
'I've never been drunk.'
(Alabama English; Feagin 1979)

2) Nobody ain't doin' nothing' wrong.
'Nobody is doing anything wrong.'
(West Texas English; Foreman 1999)

3) I don't never have no problems.
'I don't ever have any problems.'
(African American English; Green 2002)

Who says this?

Negative Concord is a widespread phenomenon across many varieties of English. In the literature, it is discussed for the following varieties of North American English: Alabama White English (Feagin 1979), African American English (Labov et al. 1968; Labov 1972; Green 2002; White-Sustaita 2010), Appalachian English (Wolfram & Christian 1976), and West Texas English (Foreman 1999).

Syntactic properties

Negative concord can be instantiated in a number of configurations. The configurations discussed below involve two types of negation: sentential negation and n-words. Sentential negation refers to negation of the entire sentence achieved by negating the auxiliary or modal—that is, the head of the TP—such as by turning can to can't or turning would to wouldn't. N-words are negative words such as never, no, and nobody, which are called n-words because of their tendency to start with n.

The first type of negative concord is the co-occurrence of sentential negation with n-words after the negated auxiliary or modal, as in (4) and (5):

4) I don't eat no biscuit.
(Alabama White English; Feagin 1979)

5) I ain't never lost a fight.
(African American English; Labov 1972)

Secondly, it is also possible to have n-words in the subject position co-occurring with sentential negation, as in (6) and (7):

6) Nobody couldn't handle him.
(Appalachian English; Wolfram & Christian 1976)

7) And neither of the boys can't play a lick of it.
(Alabama White English; Feagin 1979)

Thirdly, there can be co-occurrence of n-words in an embedded clause with sentential negation in the matrix clause (with the possibility of n-words in the matrix clause as well), as in (8) and (9):

8) I don' 'spect I ever kin reckomember much no more.
(African Nova Scotian English; Schneider 1989)

9) I don't feel like nobody pets me.
(Alabama White English; Feagin 1979)

Finally, there can be sentential negation in both the matrix clause and the embedded clause (with the possibility of n-words in either or both of the clauses), as in (10) and (11):

10) We ain't never really had no tornadoes in this area here that I don't remember.
(Alabama White English; Feagin 1979)

11) It ain't no cat can't get in no coop.
(African American English; Labov 1972)

There is variation in the types of negative concord that different English varieties allow. For an overview, see Smith (2001).

Negative concord data

(open the map in a new window | see the data in spreadsheet format)

Page contributed by Sabina Matyiku on June 11, 2011

Page updated by Tom McCoy on August 22, 2015

References

Feagin, Crawford. 1979. Variation and Change in Alabama English: A Sociolinguistic Study of the White Community. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.

Foreman, John. 1999. Syntax of negative inversion in non-standard English. In Kimary Shahin, Susan Blake, and Eun-Sook Kim [eds.] The Proceedings of the 17th West Coast Conference on Formal Linguistics, 205-219. Stanford, CA: CSLI.

Green, Lisa. 2002. African American English: A Linguistic Introduction. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Labov, William. 1972. Negative attraction and negative concord in English grammar. Language 48:773–818.

Labov, William, Paul Cohen, Clarence Robins, and John Lewis. 1968. A study of the nonstandard English of Negro and Puerto Rican speakers in New York City. Final Report, Cooperative Project No. 3288, United States Office of Education.

Schneider, Edgar W. 1989. American Earlier Black English. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.

Smith, Jennifer. 2001. Negative concord in the Old and New World: Evidence from Scotland. Language Variation and Change 13:109-134.

White-Sustaita, Jessica. 2010. Reconsidering the syntax of non-canonical negative inversion. English Language and Linguistics 14:429–455.

Wolfram, Walt, and Donna Christian. 1976. Appalachian Speech. Arlington, VA: Center for Applied Linguistics.

Further reading

Henry, A., R. MacLaren, J. Wilson, and C. Finlay. 1997. The acquisition of negative concord in non-standard English. In Elizabeth Hughes, Mary Hughes, and Annabel Greenhill [eds.] Proceedings of the 21st Annual Boston University Conference on Language Development, volume 1, 269-280. Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Press.

Zanuttini, Raffaella. Oct. 22, 2014. "Our Language Prejudices Don't Make No Sense." Pacific Standard. Available here.