Negative Inversion

"Can't nobody stop it."

(Labov et al. 1968)

Negative inversion, also referred to as declarative negative auxiliary inversion (NAI) in Lisa Green's work, refers to declarative clauses in which a negated auxiliary or modal precedes a quantificational (or indefinite) subject, as exemplified in (1):

(1) a. Can't nobody beat 'em. (African American English; Labov et al. 1968)
     b. Didn't nobody get hurt or nothin'. (Appalachian English; Wolfram and Christian 1976)
     c. Won't anybody hit us. (Alabama English; Feagin 1979)
     d. Cain't all o' ya go at once. (West Texas English; Foreman 1999)

Who says this?

Negative inversion is attested in African American English (AAE) throughout the country (Labov et al. 1968; Labov 1972; Martin 1991, 1992; Martin and Wolfram 1998; Sells et al. 1996; Parrott 2000; Green 2002, 2010; White-Sustaíta 2010). It is also attested in varieties of white speakers in the south, such as:

  • Alabama English (AnE) in Anniston, Alabama (Feagin 1979)
  • Appalachian English (AppE) (Wolfram and Christian 1976, Montgomery and Hall 2004)
  • West Texas English (WTE) (Foreman 1999)

Syntactic properties

  • Negative inversion is restricted to negative sentences. 'Positive inversion' -- inversion in affirmative sentences -- is not possible:

    (2) a. *Can somebody beat 'em. (AAE; Parrott 2000)
         b. *Will everybody fit in that car. (WTE; William Salmon p.c.)
  • The presence of sentential negation is obligatory. The presence of a negative subject does not license negative inversion:

    (3) a. *Can nobody beat 'em. (AAE; Parrott 2000)
         b. *Will none of the students go to the party. (WTE; Foreman, 1999)
  • Sentential negation must be the inflected morpheme n't and cannot be not:

    (4) a. *Can not nobody beat 'em. (AAE; Parrott 2000)
         b. *Will not none of the students go to the party. (WTE; William Salmon p.c.)
         c. *Will none of the students not go to the party. (WTE; Foreman, 1999)
  • Subjects are usually quantificational or indefinite. Definite subjects such as DPs headed by definite or possessive elements, pronouns and proper names are not possible:

    (5) a. *Don't the police break up a fight. (AAE; Parrott 2000)
         b. *Won't they catch us. (AAE; Parrott 2000)
         c. *Wouldn't Sally and Jean help the poor man. (AAE; Martin and Wolfram 1998)
  • Some quantificational or indefinite subjects are also ruled out, such as subjects headed by few or some:

    (6) a. *Don’t few of them live around here. (AAE; Sells et al. 1996)
         b. *Didn't some people come. (WTE/AAE; Larry Horn p.c.)
  • Negative inversion is possible in embedded structures with an overt complemetizer such as that:

    (7) a. I know a way that can't nobody start a fight. (AAE; Labov et al. 1968)
         b. She loves the fact that don't nobody like her. (WTE/AAE; Foreman 1999)
  • Tag questions target the element that is in the subject position syntactically. In negative inversion constructions, tag questions target the subject which follows the auxiliary (as in the (a) examples) and cannot refer to an expletive (as in the (b) examples):

    (8) a. Ain't no man gonna cheat on a woman like that, is he? (WTE; Foreman, 1999)
         b. *Ain't no man gonna cheat on a woman like that, is there? (WTE; Foreman, 1999)
    (9) a. Ain't nobody doin' nothin' wrong, are they? (WTE; Foreman, 1999)
         b. *Ain't nobody doin' nothin' wrong, is/are there? (WTE; Foreman, 1999)
    (10) a. I guess, cain't no man live forever, can he? (WTE; Foreman, 1999)
  • Negative inversion constructions always have a well-formed non-inverted counterpart. Sentences exhibiting negative inversion are given in the (a) examples and their non-inverted counterparts are given in the (b) examples.

    (11) a. Ain't nobody know about no club. (AAE; Labov 1972)
           b. Nobody ain't know about no club. (AAE; Labov 1972)
    (12) a. Didn't everybody go to the party. (WTE; Foreman 1999)
           b. Everybody didn't go to the party. (WTE; Foreman 1999)

    Note, however, that in West Texas English, the inverted word order is preferred when the only elements bearing negative morphology are the auxiliary and subject, as in (13). When more elements bear negative morphology, such as nothin' in (14), the non-inverted word order is possible.

    (13) a. Ain't none of the students done their homework. (WTE; Foreman 1999)
           b. *None of the students ain't done their homework. (WTE; Foreman 1999)
    (14) a. Ain't nobody doin' nothin' wrong. (WTE; Foreman 1999)
           b. Nobody ain't doin' nothin' wrong. (WTE; Foreman 1999)
  • The difference between a sentence exhibiting negative inversion and its non-inverted counterpart has been characterized in several different ways in the literature.
    • The constructions exhibiting negative inversion are believed to have an "affective" or "emphatic" interpretation in Labov et al. (1968) and Green (2002, 2010).
    • Foreman (1999) notes a scopal interaction between quantificational subjects and negation. Non-inverted sentence are ambiguous between negation taking wide scope or narrow scope with respect to the quantificational subject. A sentence exhibiting negative inversion is, however, unambiguous, with negation necessarily taking wide scope over the quantificational subject.
    • White-Sustaíta (2010) suggests that clauses exhibiting negative inversion are associated with an existential interpretation. In comparison, non-inverted constructions are associated with a generic interpretation.
  • In the southern white speaker varieties, negative inversion constructions are compatible with expletives.

    (15) a. They didn't nobody like him. (AnE; Feagin 1979)
           b. They can’t many people say that. (AppE; Dante Oral History Project)
           c. We don't any of us need anything. (AppE; Montgomery & Hall 2004)
           d. There didn't five of em go to sleep, and I thought they was gonna be trouble. (WTE; William Salmon p.c.)

    Negative inversion constructions are incompatible with expletives in African American English, as in (16).

    (16) a. *There didn't nobody laugh. (AAE; Martin and Wolfram 1998)
           b. *It can't no man round here get enough money to buy they own farm. (AAE; Martin and Wolfram 1998)
           c. *Dey didn't nobody see it. (AAE; Weldon 1994)
           d. *It don't nobody be drinking tea. (AAE; Green 2006)

    There are, however, some examples of such constructions in older varieties of African American English, such as the ones given in (17), which come from ex-slave diaries written in the mid-eighteen hundreds.

    (17) a. There couldn't many of them go to school. (AAE; Bailey et al. 1991)
           b. But they'd give me a note so there would' nobody interfere with me. (AAE; Bailey et al. 1991)
           c. dey didn' nobody hab ter stan' over 'em... (AAE; Chestnutt & Sollors 2002)
  • Negative inversion is often said to co-occur with negative concord in African American English. The co-occurrence typically refers to the availability of subjects headed by no, as in the (a) examples, and the unavailability of subjects headed by NPI any, as in the (b) examples.

    (18) a. Don't nobody break up a fight. (AAE; Labov 1972)
           b. *Don't anybody break up a fight. (AAE)

    Other types of subjects that are not negative are possible, such as subjects headed by a and many.

    (19) a. Ain't a damn thing changed. (AAE; Parrott 2000)
           b. Don't many of them live around here. (AAE; Labov 1972)

    Database search suggestions:
    Click here to see the database filtered for well-formed examples exhibiting negative inversion without negative concord in African American English.

    Click here to see the data aggregated by the properties of negative inversion and negative concord for well-formed examples in African American English.

    In the southern white speech varieties, however, both subjects headed by no and subjects headed by any are possible.

    (20) a. Hain't nobody hardly believed it. (AppE; Wolfram and Christian 1976)
           b. Dudn't anybody seem to understand... (AnE; Feagin 1979)
    (21) a. Won't none of the students go to the party. (WTE; Foreman 1999)
           b. Didn't any of them answer the question. (WTE; William Salmon p.c.)

    Database search suggestions:
    Click here to see the database filtered for well-formed examples exhibiting negative inversion without negative concord in varieties other than African American English.

    Click here to see the data aggregated by the properties of negative inversion and negative concord for well-formed examples in varieties other than African American English.

Two kinds of negative inversion?

In the literature on African American English, negative inversion constructions are distinguished from existential negative inversion in which the auxiliary is the copula be (henceforth existential 'be'). The two constructions look superficially similar, as a negated copula occurs clause-initially and is followed by an indefinite subject. Some examples of existential 'be' constructions are given in (22).

(22) a. Wasn't nobody home. (AAE; Labov et al. 1968)
       b. Ain't no farmer made money this year. (AAE; Martin 1993)

It can be difficult to tell the two constructions apart because ain't can have several meanings. It can be the negative copula be+n't, but it can also be the negative perfect auxiliary corresponding to have+n't in Standard English or the negative past tense auxiliary do+n't.

Evidence for two types of negative inversion:

  • Labov (1972) points out that a sentence can be ambiguous between the two interpretations. The sentence in (a) can be interpreted as an existential construction with an expletive followed by a subject relative clause, as in (b) or as a negative inversion construction whose counterpart is as in (c).

    (23) a. Ain't nobody know about no club. (AAE; Labov 1972)
           b. (It) ain't nobody (that) know about no club. (AAE; Labov 1972)
           c. Nobody ain't know about no club. (AAE; Labov 1972)
  • While negative inversion constructions always have a well-formed non-inverted counterpart (as shown in (11)-(12)), this is not the case for existential 'be' constructions. Existential 'be' constructions are given in the (a) examples and their non-inverted counterparts are given in the (b) examples.

    (24) a. Ain't no trouble to make another trip. (AAE; Martin 1993)
           b. *No trouble ain't to make another trip. (AAE; Martin 1993)
    (25) a. Ain't nothin' you can do about it. (AAE; Labov 1972)
           b. *Nothin' ain't (that) you can do about it. (AAE; Labov 1972)
  • Negative inversion constructions are incompatible with expletives in African American English, as given in (16), while expletives can always occur in existential 'be' constructions. Existential 'be' constructions are given in the (a) examples and their minimally different counterparts in (b) contain the expletive 'it'.

    (26) a. Ain't no trouble to make another trip. (AAE; Martin 1993)
           b. It ain't no trouble to make another trip. (AAE; Martin 1993)
    (27) a. Ain't nothin' you can do about it. (AAE; Labov 1972)
           b. It ain't nothin' you can do about it. (AAE; Labov 1972)
  • Green (2001) suggests that existential 'be' constructions without the expletive are not restricted to negative sentences. An example of a non-negative existential 'be' construction is given in (a) while its minimally different counterpart containing an expletive is given in (b).

    (28) a. Should be some candy in the dish. (AAE; Green 2001)
           b. It should be some candy in the dish. (AAE; Green 2001)
  • Foreman (1999) points out that the tag questions of existential 'be' constructions target an expletive, as in (29). This fact contrasts with the tag questions of negative inversion constructions, which target the subject following the auxiliary, as given in (8)-(10).

    (29) Ain't no black Santa Claus, is there? (WTE; Foreman 1999)

Page contributed by Sabina Matyiku

Negative inversion data

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

Negative inversion in popular culture

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 Proceedings of WCCFL 17, ed. Kimary Shahin, Susan Blake, and Eun-Sook Kim. Stanford, CA: CSLI.

Green, Lisa. 2002. African American English: A linguistic introduction. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Green, Lisa. 2011a. Force, focus and negation in African American English. Paper presented at LSA Annual Meeting.

Green, Lisa. 2011b. Language and the African American child. Cambridge: 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.

Martin, Stefan E. 1992. Topics in the syntax of nonstandard English. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Maryland, College Park.

Parrott, Jeffrey K. 2000. Negative inversion in African American Vernacular English: A case of optional movement? In Proceedings of the 28th Western Conference on Linguistics (WECOL), ed. Nancy Mae Antrim, Grant Goodall, Martha Schulte-Nafeh, and Vida Samiian, volume 11, 414–427. Department of Linguistics, Fresno: California State University.

Sells, Peter, John Rickford, and Thomas Wasow. 1996. An Optimality Theoretic approach to variation in negative inversion in AAVE. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 14:591–627.

White-Sustaíta, 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.