In July 1994, The New Yorker published a short piece by Jack Winter called “How I Met My Wife.” The story is a barrage of sentences like this one: “I was, after all, something to sneeze at, someone you could easily hold a candle to….” Sentences like this one sound odd because the idioms in it are usually used in negative sentences; for example, That’s nothing to sneeze at, or The movie is OK, but it can’t hold a candle to the book.
Because of this restriction, linguists call words and phrases like these negative polarity items. Actually, that name’s not entirely accurate, since negative polarity items can also occur in questions, like Is that anything to sneeze at?, or in a few other constructions, such as Few books can hold a candle to Pilkey’s Captain Underpants series. Still, negative polarity items, or NPIs, is the name that has stuck.
Not all NPIs are idioms. One of the most common NPIs in English is the word any. You can say I didn’t see any turtles, or Do you have any gum?, or Few people have any idea what goes on here, but sentences like I saw any turtles, She has any gum, and Lots of people have any idea what goes on here just don’t make sense.
However, there’s one NPI in English that in some dialects has broken free of negations and questions. It’s the word anymore. Just about every English speaker will accept anymore as a negative polarity item, in sentences like I don’t love you anymore, or Why don’t we ever go out anymore?