English Language and Linguistics

Research Article

Never again: the multiple grammaticalization of never as a marker of negation in English   1


a1 Department of Linguistics, SOAS, University of London, Thornhaugh Street, London WC1H 9XG, UK [email protected]

a2 Department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics, University of Cambridge, Sidgwick Avenue, Cambridge CB3 9DA, UK [email protected]


In both standard and nonstandard varieties of English there are several contexts in which the word never functions as a sentential negator rather than as a negative temporal adverb. This article investigates the pragmatic and distributional differences between the various non-temporal uses of never and examines their synchronic and historical relationship to the ordinary temporal quantifier use, drawing on corpora of Early Modern and present-day British English. Primary focus is on (i) a straightforward negator use that in prescriptively approved varieties of English has an aspectual restriction to non-chance, completive achievement predicates in the preterite, but no such restriction in nonstandard English; and (ii) a distinct categorical-denial use that quantifies over possible perspectives on a situation. Against Cheshire (1998), it is argued that neither of these uses represents continuity with non-temporal uses of never in Middle English, but both are instead relatively recent innovations resulting from semantic reanalysis and the semanticization of implicatures.

(Received September 30 2010)

(Revised April 05 2012)


1   This research was carried out as part of the project The development of negation in the languages of Europe. The authors would like to express their thanks to the Arts and Humanities Research Council for funding the project, to Anne Breitbarth, Wim van der Wurff and three anonymous referees for useful comments and suggestions on drafts of the article and to audiences at New Reflections on Grammaticalization 4 (Leuven 2008) and the 20th International Conference on Historical Linguistics (Osaka 2011). Any errors or omissions remain our own.