Negative Inversion

"Can't nobody stop it."

(Labov et al. 1968)


Negative inversion is a phenomenon in which a declarative sentence begins with a negated auxiliary or modal, such as can't, ain't, or won't, followed by a quantificational (or indefinite) subject, such as nobody. Below are several examples of this phenomenon:

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)

Negative inversion is also referred to as declarative negative auxiliary inversion (NAI) in Lisa Green's work.

Who says this?

Negative inversion is attested in African American English throughout the country (Labov et al. 1968; Labov 1972; Martin 1992; Martin et al. 1998; Sells et al. 1996; Parrott 2000; Green 2002, 2011a, 2011b; White-Sustaíta 2010). It is also attested in varieties of white speakers in the south, such as Alabama English in Anniston, Alabama (Feagin 1979), Appalachian English (Wolfram and Christian 1976, Montgomery and Hall 2004), and West Texas English (Foreman 1999).

Syntactic properties

Only in negative sentences

Negative inversion is restricted to negative sentences. 'Positive inversion'— inversion in affirmative sentences—is not possible. Thus, the following examples are unacceptable:

2) a. *Can somebody beat 'em.
(African American English; Parrott 2000)

b. *Will everybody fit in that car.
(West Texas English; William Salmon personal correspondence)

Sentential negation

The presence of sentential negation is obligatory. (Sentential negation is negation achieved by negating the auxiliary or modal—that is, the head of TP—such as by turning can to can't or by turning would to wouldn't). The presence of a negative subject without sentential negation does not license negative inversion, so the examples in (3) are unacceptable:

3) a. *Can nobody beat 'em.
(African American English; Parrott 2000)

b. *Will none of the students go to the party.
(West Texas English; Foreman 1999)

Sentential negation must be achieved through the contracted morpheme n't and not through the uncontracted form not, so the examples in (4) are not acceptable:

4) a. *Can not nobody beat 'em.
(African American English; Parrott 2000)

b. *Will not none of the students go to the party.
(West Texas English; William Salmon personal correspondence)

c. *Will none of the students not go to the party.
(West Texas English; Foreman 1999)

Subjects

Subjects are usually quantificational or indefinite. Definite subjects such as pronouns, proper names, and DPs headed by definite or possessive elements are not possible, so none of the following are allowed:

5) a. *Don't the police break up a fight.
(African American English; Parrott 2000)

b. *Won't they catch us.
(African American English; Parrott 2000)

c. *Wouldn't Sally and Jean help the poor man.
(African American English; Martin and Wolfram 1998)

Some quantificational or indefinite subjects are also ruled out, such as subjects headed by few or some, making the following examples unacceptable:

6) a. *Don’t few of them live around here.
(African American English; Sells et al. 1996)

b. *Didn't some people come.
(West Texas English/African American English; Larry Horn personal correspondence)

In embedded structures

Negative inversion is possible in embedded structures with an overt complementizer such as that, as in the following examples:

7) a. I know a way that can't nobody start a fight.
(African American English; Labov et al. 1968)

b. She loves the fact that don't nobody like her.
(West Texas English/African American English; Foreman 1999)

Tag questions

Tag questions target the element that is in the subject position syntactically. With negative inversion constructions, tag questions target the subject which follows the auxiliary (as in the (a) examples below) and cannot refer to an expletive (as in the (b) examples below):

8) a. Ain't no man gonna cheat on a woman like that, is he?
(West Texas English; Foreman, 1999)

b. *Ain't no man gonna cheat on a woman like that, is there?
(West Texas English; Foreman, 1999)

9) a. Ain't nobody doin' nothin' wrong, are they?
(West Texas English; Foreman, 1999)

b. *Ain't nobody doin' nothin' wrong, is/are there?
(West Texas English; Foreman, 1999)

10) a. I guess, cain't no man live forever, can he?
(West Texas English; Foreman, 1999)

b. *I guess, cain't no man live forever, can there?
(West Texas English; Foreman, 1999)

Non-inverted counterparts

Negative inversion constructions always have a well-formed non-inverted counterpart. Sentences exhibiting negative inversion are given in (11a) and (12a), and their non-inverted counterparts are given in (11b) and (12b):

11) a. Ain't nobody know about no club.
(African American English; Labov 1972)

b. Nobody ain't know about no club.
(African American English; Labov 1972)

12) a. Didn't everybody go to the party.
(West Texas English; Foreman 1999)

b. Everybody didn't go to the party.
(West Texas English; Foreman 1999)

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

13) a. Ain't none of the students done their homework.
(West Texas English; Foreman 1999)

b. *None of the students ain't done their homework.
(West Texas English; Foreman 1999)

14) a. Ain't nobody doin' nothin' wrong.
(West Texas English; Foreman 1999)

b. Nobody ain't doin' nothin' wrong.
(West Texas English; Foreman 1999)

Expletives

In the southern white speaker varieties, negative inversion constructions are compatible with expletive subjects, as in (15):

15) a. They didn't nobody like him.
(Alabama English; Feagin 1979)

b. They can’t many people say that.
(Appalachian English; Dante Oral History Project)

c. We don't any of us need anything.
(Appalachian English; Montgomery & Hall 2004)

d. There didn't five of em go to sleep, and I thought they was gonna be trouble.
(West Texas English; William Salmon personal correspondence)

(For more discussion of sentences like these and whether their initial pronouns should be treated as expletives, see our page on split subjects.)

However, negative inversion constructions are incompatible with expletives in African American English, so the examples in (16) are ungrammatical for speakers of African American English:

16) a. *There didn't nobody laugh.
(African American English; Martin and Wolfram 1998)

b. *It can't no man round here get enough money to buy they own farm.
(African American English; Martin and Wolfram 1998)

c. *Dey didn't nobody see it.
(African American English; Weldon 1994)

d. *It don't nobody be drinking tea.
(African American English; 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.
(African American English; Bailey et al. 1991)

b. But they'd give me a note so there would' nobody interfere with me.
(African American English; Bailey et al. 1991)

c. dey didn' nobody hab ter stan' over 'em...
(African American English; Chestnutt & Sollors 2002)

With negative concord

Negative inversion is often said to co-occur with negative concord in African American English. The co-occurrence typically refers to the acceptability of subjects headed by no, as in (18a), and the unacceptability of subjects headed by the negative polarity item any, as in (18b):

18) a. Don't nobody break up a fight.
(African American English; Labov 1972)

b. *Don't anybody break up a fight.
(African American English)

Other types of subjects that are not negative are possible, such as subjects headed by a and many, as in (19):

19) a. Ain't a damn thing changed.
(African American English; Parrott 2000)

b. Don't many of them live around here.
(African American English; Labov 1972)

Click here to see our 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, as in (20) and (21):

20) a. Hain't nobody hardly believed it.
(Appalachian English; Wolfram and Christian 1976)

b. Dudn't anybody seem to understand...
(Alabama English; Feagin 1979)

21) a. Won't none of the students go to the party.
(West Texas English; Foreman 1999)

b. Didn't any of them answer the question.
(West Texas English; William Salmon personal correspondence)

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.
(African American English; Labov et al. 1968)

b. Ain't no farmer made money this year.
(African American English; 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.

As evidence for there being two types of negative inversion, Labov (1972) points out that a sentence can be ambiguous between the two interpretations. The sentence in (23a) can be interpreted as an existential construction with an expletive followed by a subject relative clause, as in (23b), or as a negative inversion construction whose counterpart is in (23c):

23) a. Ain't nobody know about no club.
(African American English; Labov 1972)

b. (It) ain't nobody (that) know about no club.
(African American English; Labov 1972)

c. Nobody ain't know about no club.
(African American English; Labov 1972)

Additionally, while negative inversion constructions always have a well-formed non-inverted counterpart (as shown in (11) and (12)), this is not the case for existential be constructions. Existential be constructions are given in the (a) examples below, and their ungrammatical, non-inverted counterparts are given in the (b) examples below:

24) a. Ain't no trouble to make another trip.
(African American English; Martin 1993)

b. *No trouble ain't to make another trip.
(African American English; Martin 1993)

25) a. Ain't nothin' you can do about it.
(African American English; Labov 1972)

b. *Nothin' ain't (that) you can do about it.
(African American English; Labov 1972)

Furthermore, negative inversion constructions are incompatible with expletives in African American English, as shown in (16), while expletives can always occur in existential be constructions. Existential be constructions are given in (26a) and (27a), and their minimally different counterparts in (26b) and (27b) contain the expletive it:

26) a. Ain't no trouble to make another trip.
(African American English; Martin 1993)

b. It ain't no trouble to make another trip.
(African American English; Martin 1993)

27) a. Ain't nothin' you can do about it.
(African American English; Labov 1972)

b. It ain't nothin' you can do about it.
(African American English; Labov 1972)

Green (2001) suggests that existential be constructions without the expletive are not restricted to negative sentences, which is another difference from examples of negative inversion. An example of a non-negative existential be construction is given in (28a) while its minimally different counterpart containing an expletive is given in (28b):

28) a. Should be some candy in the dish.
(African American English; Green 2001)

b. It should be some candy in the dish.
(African American English; Green 2001)

Finally, Foreman (1999) points out that the tag questions of existential be constructions target an expletive, as in (29):

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

This fact contrasts with the tag questions of negative inversion constructions, which target the subject following the auxiliary, as given in (8)-(10).

Semantic properties

The semantic difference between a sentence exhibiting negative inversion and its non-inverted counterpart has been characterized in several different ways in the literature.

First, the constructions exhibiting negative inversion are believed to have an "affective" or "emphatic" interpretation in Labov et al. (1968) and Green (2002, 2011a, 2011b).

Foreman (1999) notes a scopal interaction between quantificational subjects and negation. Non-inverted sentences 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. By contrast, non-inverted constructions are associated with a generic interpretation.

Negative inversion data

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

Recent Survey Results

The following map shows the results from a recent survey, with 361 participants. The red pins show people who accepted the sentence "He won't go, and can't nobody make him." The white pins show people who rejected that sentence. The background colors are based on the dialect regions from the Atlas of North American English. The colors show the average judgment in each of those regions. This map shows that negative inversion is widely accepted but more so in the south than anywhere else.

Negative inversion in popular culture

Cris Carter, ESPN NFL analyst, NFL Hall of Fame receiver, and recovering alcoholic said, "When I quit drinking everybody's buying. When I was drinking, wasn't NOBODY buying," on the Mike & Mike show (Oct. 7th, 2014).

"If I cant play then can't nobody play... Lights out!" occurs in a tweet by James Harrison (Dec. 19, 2011).

"Well, I've heard it said, won't nothing bring you down like your hometown. But won't nothing bring you up like getting down" is a line in the song "Beaumont Rest Stop" by Red Molly (2008).

"Can't nothing interfere with a broomstick except powerful Dark magic" is a quote from the fictional character Hagrid in J.K. Rowling's (1997) Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.

Page contributed by Sabina Matyiku on June 11, 2011

Page updated by Tom McCoy on August 22, 2015

References

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Chesnutt, Charles & Werner Sollors. 2002. Charles W. Chesnutt: Stories, novels & essays. New York: Library of America.

Dante Oral History Project. 2013. Available here.

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. 2001. Negative inversion. MS, University of Texas at Austin.

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

Green, Lisa. 2006. Negative inversion. Presentation, University of Texas at Austin, 17 April.

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.

Martin, Stefan E. 1993. "Negative Inversion" Sentences in Southern White English Vernacular and Black English Vernacular. University of Maryland Working Papers in Linguistics 1:49-56.

Martin, Stefan, Walt Wolfram, S. S. Mufwene, J. R. Rickford, G. Bailey, and J. Baugh. 1998. The Sentence in African American Vernacular English. African American English: structure, history, and use : 11-36.

Montgomery, Michael & Joseph S. Hall. 2004. Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.

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.

Weldon, Tracey. 1994. An HPSG account of negative inversion in African-American Vernacular English. MS, Ohio State University.

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.