Negative inversion

Matthew Gordon gordonmj at MISSOURI.EDU
Tue Jan 20 21:33:43 UTC 2009

I came across a striking example of negative inversion in Faulkner's The
Sound and the Fury. It occurs in the second part ("June Second, 1910") and
is spoken by a boy the narrator encounters on the street in
Cambridge/Boston. The narrator, referring to a fish, says, "I hope you have
good luck. Only dont catch that old fellow down there. He deserves to be let
And the reply is: "Cant anybody catch that fish."

There appears to be negative inversion without negative concord/multiple
negation. I would have expected "Cant nobody catch that fish" = Std. "Nobody
can catch that fish." Elsewhere some of the boy's companions use mult.
negation (e.g. "We wont catch none nowhere if we dont go on"), and in an
earlier part of the book there's a negative inversion with multiple negation
("Cant nobody see down here from the house, noways").

Has anyone encountered something like this (cant anybody) in the wild? I
wondering whether this is just a Faulknerian creation.

I suppose it's possible that I've got the wrong interpretation of the
meaning. Perhaps it's "That fish can't be caught by just anyone". It's not
clear from the context.

-Matt Gordon

The American Dialect Society -

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