Monday, August 19, 2013

barrier verbs as negative verbs

This is the fifth in a series of posts detailing data and analysis from my not-quite-entirely-completely-achieved linguistics dissertation (list of previous posts here).

Recall that if an entity wants to achieve a certain outcome, yet is impeded by some force, this situation can be encoded by a barrier verb in English, such as prevent, ban, protect.

Barrier Verbs as Negative Verbs

It has been assumed since at least Klima 1964 (pdf) that some verbs are inherently negative. This means that they entail that some event did NOT occur. For example, the (a) sentence is from Laka (1990:105):
a. The witnesses denied [that anybody left the room before dinner].
b. Jean neglected [to turn off the lights].
For (a), it should be intuitively clear to a native speaker of English that it is part of the semantics of deny which entails that the proposition encoded by the embedded clause is false. Similarly the end state of the lights in (b) should be on, the opposite of off. The verb neglect entails that the event encoded by the embedded clause did not occur. This inherent negativity is a crucial feature in the semantics of barrier verbs.

Core barrier verbs are negative verbs that indicate an event did not happen (some non-barrier verbs can be coerced into a barrier verb interpretation, by being used within the barrier verb construction, but these verbs do not meet barrier verb entailments outside of the construction).
a. The roof prevented the car from [getting wet] → the car did NOT get wet.
b. The law exempted Tom from [paying taxes] → Tom did NOT pay taxes.
Laka draws some testable conclusions about negative verbs based on their interaction with negative polarity items (NPIs). In (a) the NPI anything fails to be licensed by the negative verb deny, while in (b) a negative complementizer is selected that in turn licenses anything in the embedded clause.
a. *The witness denied anything.
b. I deny that the witness denied anything.
The negation entailed by deny is not consistent with the NPI anything. There are two kinds of NPIs, licensed and free. There are three criteria to distinguish NPIs:

1) 'Just' Force
The adverb just forces a ‘free choice’ interpretation (where ‘free choice’ = “press any key”; your choice, but you must choose one) interpretation on licensed NPIs.The adverb just reverses negation:
I didn’t eat anything = I ate nothing
I didn’t eat just anything = I ate something
2) Verb Force
Negative verbs (N-verbs) force licensed NPI sentences to become ungrammatical. N-verbs play no role in licensing any, so they play no role in grammaticality.

3) Affective 'All'
N-verbs license affective ALL reading of “a single N”; Laka says that “a single N” has no ‘free choice reading available” (110).

CONCLUSION -- NPI’s are licensed only in clausal comps of N-verbs.

My interpretation of Laka is that any means either ALL or ONE. Negated N-verbs entail the ALL reading. So, acceptable examples of a negative verb candidate embedded under a negative verb in a clausal complement with an NPI should establish the legitimacy of that candidate verb as an N-verb (Phew! That's a sentence only a linguist could love).

In order to test the interaction between barrier verbs and NPIs, I performed a set of simple tests. First, I created a template of four sentences, each representing a verb’s interaction with the NPI anything. Then, I inserted each barrier verb into the verb slot and judged the grammaticality of the result. Then, I Googled searches of the form "* from [barrier verb] anything". This was designed to return cases of verbs that took a clausal barrier verb + NPI complement. Two examples here should suffice:
a. *Bob prevented anything.
b. *John prevented Bob from anything.
c. John didn’t prevent Bob from anything.
d. John prevented Bob from preventing anything.

Google results for "* from preventing anything"
  • FEMA must be prevented from preventing anything when hours are lives.
  • What is to stop the govt from preventing anything from being shown "for the good of society"?
  • I stopped my firewall from preventing anything from working and i reinstalled limewire.
a. *Bob protected anything.
b. *John protected Bob from anything.
c. John didn’t protect Bob from anything.
d. John prevented Bob from protecting anything.

Google results for "* from protecting anything"
  • In addition, an "idea/expression dichotomy" in copyright law prevents copyrights from protecting anything on the "idea" level.
  • Far from protecting anything, the technobabble creates a pointless risk.
What these tests show is that barrier verbs by and large do not allow an NPI unless they are first embedded under a negative verb, like the I deny that the witness denied anything example. This, at least at first blush, confirms that English barrier verbs are N-verbs under Laka’s definition. The second Google protect sentence (Far from protecting anything) is particularly interesting in that it seems to be the preposition from which licenses the NPI, suggesting that from has a negative entailment all its own, which conforms to Jackendoff's and Van Valin's analysis (yet to be discussed).

In the (a) examples below, the verb stop is neutral with respect to the event of barking; it is the presence of the word from which adds the negation in (b):
a. Chris stopped the dogs barking = the dogs were barking, then they stopped
b. Chris stopped the dogs from barking = the dogs were never barking
In the examples below, the verb prevent negatively entails the event of barking, regardless of the presence of the word from
a) Chris prevented the dogs barking = the dogs were never barking.
b) Chris prevented the dogs from barking = the dogs were never barking.
One of the issues here is the temporal relationship between the event of preventing and the event of barking. Barrier verbs entail no temporal overlap between the two events. This will be taken up in a later post.


Bert Cappelle said...

Hi Chris,

Good to see your Great Barrier Verb Reef is teeming with life again. On the "+/- from" alternation, I saw a poster presentation at the ICLC conference in Edmonton. I tried to paste it below but it exceeded the length. Here's the title and author information, anyway.

Poster Session Tuesday 25 June / 12:30-14:00 / PCL Lounge
Asymmetric causation types in the competing complements of negative causative verbs: NP (from) V-ing Katsuko Tomotsugu Shizuoka Institute of Science and Technology

Not sure whether you can use this work, but I figured you guys might get in touch. Here's his email address:

All best,

Chris said...


Great, thanks for the pointer. I found the right link pretty easily.

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