The speech act of denying operates on words and on sentences.

1. Word negation

The lexical relation of opposition can connect morphologically different words, or pairs of words produced by prefixation.

The attachment of a prefix to a base word or to a root morpheme produces a new word, belonging to the same grammatical category. Negative prefixes produce derived negative terms. The base term and the derived terms are antonyms, that is opposites.

Frequently, the derived negative word serves to add a “not” to the whole semantic content of the positive word:

agree, agreement => don’t agree / dis-agree / dis-agreement.

Negative derived words do, however, tend to become independent:

they made, reached an agreement / they made, reached a disagreement

The specific nature of the opposition between base and derived words is idiosyncratic, that is, it is not possible to attach a semantic-lexical rule to the negative prefix in order to pinpoint the meaning of the derived word from the meaning of the base word.

Various negative prefixes can operate on the same basis:

social => unsocial, asocial, antisocial, nonsocial (after WCD)

Some dis- words do not have a positive counterpart, but are clearly negative, for example to discard: “to get rid of… useless, unwanted.” (MW, art. Discard).

Argumentation based on derived words is characterized by the fact that it leaves aside the variation of meaning between the base word and its derivative, in particular negative derivatives, S. Derived words.

2. Sentence negation

A negative statement E1 can be analyzed as not-E° (but cf. 2.3). Total negation rejects as globally untrue, incorrect, inadequate; it dismisses, turns down, refutes, rebuts, rectifies, … the primitive statement . Partial negation rectifies a segment or a feature of .

From the point of view of practical argumentation analysis, and following Ducrot (1972), there are three main types of sentence negation.

2.1 Dialogic negation

corresponds to an existing statement previously produced by another participant in the same linguistic action. This “confrontational metalinguistic negation” (Ducrot 1972, p. 38) is basic for refutation. Examples (after Ducrot, s. d).

— Rejection of a claim:

L0:   — The next presidential election will be held in two years.
L1:   — No, it will take place next year.

— Invalidation of a presupposition:

L0:   — Peter stopped smoking
L1:   — No, Peter never smoked.

— Rectification of the degree:

L0:   — Flood damages are substantial
L1:   — No, they are not substantial, they are indeed negligible / catastrophic.

— Correction of a linguistic rule:

L0:   — Look at the childsi
L1:   —No, Not the childs, the children.

— Correction of a contextual mismatch:

Student to teacher: — Wyhh, it’s 3.30! (end of class; in a whining and demanding tone)
Teacher to student: — No, it’s not 3.30! (said in the same tone), it is 3.30 (said in a factual and positive tone)

When working on a corpus of texts or argumentative interactions, the practical rule for the analysis of a negative statement E1 = “not ” is to browse through the previous context for an addressed statement (or something close to the semantic content of ). If there is one then, E1 rectifies , and the precise nature of the rectification can be specified, in the broad context of the argumentative question structuring the exchange.

may be in the “short” or “long” memory of the interaction. When dealing with a complex argumentative situation, that is to say with a question debated at different times, on various places according to several genres and formats, the discursive distance to retrieve may be rather long.

2.2 Polyphonic negation: E° is not recoverable in the context

There is no actual statement or semantic content corresponding to , for example when the speaker of E1 anticipates a foreseeable objection, S. Prolepsis. In that case, according to Ducrot’s original and robust version of the polyphonic nature of language, we can consider that the negative utterance articulates two voices, that of the rectifier and that of the rectified. As in the preceding case, the speaker adopts the position of the rectifier. Ducrot speaks in such cases of “conflictual polemical negation” (ibid.).

The two uses of negation, according to whether is or is not recoverable in context, are perfectly continuous. If the statement cannot be recovered in the immediate context, one will opt for a polyphonic analysis, referring the contents to voices, and not to actual participants, S. Interaction, Dialogue, Polyphony. There will however remain some doubt as to the precise scope of the rectification operated by the negation.

2.3 Descriptive negation

Ducrot mentions the case of a “descriptive negation”, which could not be split into two antagonistic voices:

Some uses of a syntactically negative sentence have neither conflictual nor opposing character. Negation is used without paying attention to its negative character, without, therefore, introducing into it any idea of dispute or doubt. Thus, to point out that today the weather is perfectly fine, I can use a negative sentence “not a cloud in the sky” as well as a positive sentence “the sky is perfectly blue and clear”. (Ibid.)

Such negative sentences have an autonomous meaning. This analysis is suitable for negative polarity statements, from which it is impossible to retrieve an underlying positive statement:

You can’t hold a candle to him.

It is also appropriate for negative prefix words without corresponding positive terms (see above).

3. Denying

The dialogic character of negation is systematically exploited in psychoanalysis, in which the negative utterance is considered to be the result of a negotiation between the conscious and the unconscious:

The manner in which our patients bring forward their associations during the work of analysis gives us an opportunity for making some interesting observations. “Now you’ll think I mean to say something insulting, but really I’ve no such intention.” We realize that this is repudiation, by projection, of an idea that has just come up. Or: “You ask who this person in the dream can be. It’s not my mother.” We amend this to: “So it is his mother.” In our interpretation we take the liberty of disregarding the negation and of picking out the subject matter alone of the association. It is as though the patient had said: “it’s true that my mother came into my mind as I thought of this person, but I don’t feel inclined to let the association work.”
Thus the content of a repressed image or idea can make its way into consciousness, on condition that it is negated. Negation is a way of taking cognizance of what is repressed; indeed it is already a lifting of the repression, though not, of course, an acceptance of what is repressed. We can see how in this the intellectual function is separated from the affective process. (Freud, [1925], p. 235)

4. Argumentative strategies using various forms of negation

The relation between discourse and counter-discourse is fundamental for the definition of an argumentative situation, negation and denial are therefore at the very foundation of argumentation studies.

S. Contradiction; Non contradiction principle
Figures of Opposition
Opposite words;Opposites – A contrario —  Refutation by the opposite
Destruction of Speech; Objection; Refutation; Counter-argumentation.