Date of Award

Spring 2023

Document Type

Open Access Dissertation



First Advisor

Stanley Dubinsky


The meaning of positive polar questions (PPQs) is relatively straightforward, so the truth conditions of PPQs can be decided easily. In contrast, the meaning of negative polar questions (NPQs) may vary, and simple yes-no answers to NPQs have seemingly unpredictable interpretations. For example, a simple yes answer to a PPQ like ‘Did you have lunch today?’ is easily interpreted as ‘I ate lunch.’ In contrast, the same yes answer to an NPQ like ‘Did you not eat lunch today?’ is not obvious out of context. Why are NPQs more ambiguous than PPQs? Based on our empirical observations of the difference in degree of ambiguity between PPQs and NPQs, it is assumed that the negation in NPQs somehow affects truth-conditions syntactically, semantically, and pragmatically.

Traditionally, the answering pattern of NPQs is categorized into two distinct systems: polarity-based and truth-based. Following this typology, it has been widely received that a yes answer to ‘Didn’t you eat lunch today?’ denotes ‘I ate lunch’ in polarity-based languages, whereas it denotes ‘I didn’t eat lunch’ in truth-based languages. A major part of this dissertation is devoted to proposing that the traditional dichotomy is only an apparent one and that the superficial “typological” distinctions posited for them are, in fact, attributable to the distinct structures of negation in each language, the potential for ambiguity in some of these, and to the relative complexity and frequency of negation structures in each language.

Furthermore, the inherent ambiguity of NPQs raises several intriguing questions regarding the discrepancy between L1 and L2 interpretations. The distinguished linguistic features of NPQ structures consequently affect the predominant interpretation of NPQs in a language. The existence of cross-linguistic differences between L1-L2 might cause severe misunderstanding if L2 learners do not have sufficient proficiency to understand the delicate nuance of various PQs in the target language. The final chapter of this dissertation, as a supplement to the main chapters of the dissertation, will introduce some teachability and learnability issues on the L2 acquisition of NPQs and establish research agendas for future studies.

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