[Lingtyp] Universal trend: biclausal -> monoclausal?

Bill Palmer bill.palmer at newcastle.edu.au
Mon Dec 3 01:05:54 UTC 2018

Hi Martin

I’m a native speaker of English and “I want to not make a mistake” is absolutely fine, not even borderline or questionable for me.


From: Lingtyp <lingtyp-bounces at listserv.linguistlist.org> On Behalf Of Jorge Rosés Labrada
Sent: Saturday, 1 December 2018 2:07 AM
To: haspelmath at shh.mpg.de
Cc: list, typology <lingtyp at listserv.linguistlist.org>
Subject: Re: [Lingtyp] Universal trend: biclausal -> monoclausal?

Dear Martin,

Regarding your negability test, I am a non-native speaker of English so take this with a grain of salt but your “I want[/would like] to not make [any] mistake[s]” doesn’t sound so bad to me (perhaps with some emphatic intonation on the negator).

And a collocation with a modal “could” and two negators (e.g. “I could not not come”) is totally possible for me (with some emphatic intonation on the second negator). It seems like at least in the COCA corpus, this is attested (n=10):


Jorge Emilio Rosés Labrada
Assistant Professor, Indigenous Language Sustainability
Department of Linguistics
University of Alberta
Tel: (+1) 780-492-5698<tel:(+1)%20780-492-5698>
jrosesla at ualberta.ca<mailto:jrosesla at ualberta.ca>

The University of Alberta acknowledges that we are located on Treaty 6 territory, and respects the history, languages, and cultures of the First Nations, Métis, Inuit, and all First Peoples of Canada, whose presence continues to enrich our institution.

On Nov 30, 2018, at 5:01 AM, Martin Haspelmath <haspelmath at shh.mpg.de<mailto:haspelmath at shh.mpg.de>> wrote:

On 29.11.18 00:30, Adam James Ross Tallman wrote:
It seems to be generally true that biclausal structures can become monoclausal structures over time and not the reverse.

This is indeed an interesting observation that has not been discussed very widely, I think. Harris & Campbell (1995) (in their book on diachronic syntax) discuss such phenomena at some length, but they don't seem to explain the unidirectionality. So it would be nice to see a convincing explanation.

But in order to make this claim fully testable, one needs a general definition of "clause", and I don't know of a very good definition. My working definition is in terms of negatability: If a structure that contains two verbs can be negated in two different ways, it's biclausal, but otherwise it's monoclausal:

She was able [to do it]. (biclausal)

(She was not able to do it / She was able not to do it)

She could do it. (monoclausal)

(She could not do it – there is no contrast between "she could [not do it]" and "she could not [do it]")

This indicates that "want" clauses are monoclausal in English, because "I want to not make a mistake" sounds bad. But the judgements are subtle, and one may perhaps even have something like "The king ordered the non-destruction of the city" (vs. "The king didn't order the distruction of the city", which is normally considered monoclausal).

So the negation criterion isn't very good, but I know of no better way of distinguishing in general between monoclausal and biclausal constructions.


Martin Haspelmath (haspelmath at shh.mpg.de<mailto:haspelmath at shh.mpg.de>)
Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History
Kahlaische Strasse 10
D-07745 Jena
Leipzig University
Institut fuer Anglistik
IPF 141199
D-04081 Leipzig

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