Why we should ever bother about wh-questions: On NPI-licensing properties of wh-questions in Swedish

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This paper is an attempt to solve the somewhat elusive polarity item licensing properties of wh-questions in Swedish. As has been observed by Klima (1964) for English, NPIs are gener¬ally not compatible with genuinely information seeking wh-questions, but tend to induce rhe¬torical interpretations. Distin-guishing between three types of wh-questions and the kind of information they request, I will systematically review the syntactic, semantic and pragmatic properties of each wh-type. Based on that overview, I argue that NPI-licensing in wh-ques¬tions is dependent on the relation between the implication of exis-tence associated with the wh-word and the presupposition induced by the expressed proposition. According to my analysis, wh-words should not be regarded as NPI-licensing operators. Being place-holders, wh-words inherit whatever properties are associated with the item they replace. The licensing property of the wh-word is thus dependent on the licensing property of the referent. Thus, only wh-words referring to downward entailing expressions will license NPIs in their scope (e.g. when pointing to an empty set). Such wh-questions tend to be interpreted rhetorically.


  • Johan Brandtler
Research areas and keywords

Subject classification (UKÄ) – MANDATORY

  • Languages and Literature


  • polarity, wh-questions, negation, presupposition, implicature
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)83-121
JournalWorking Papers in Scandinavian Syntax
Publication statusPublished - 2008
Publication categoryResearch

Bibliographic note

The information about affiliations in this record was updated in December 2015. The record was previously connected to the following departments: Swedish (015011001)

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