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?
On the other hand, most English speakers stumble over sentences like these:
• Kids grow up fast anymore.
• It’s always rainy anymore.
• Anymore, I do the cooking.
If those sentences sound fine to you, then your variety of English grammar allows what linguists call positive anymore. If they don’t sound fine, then feel free to mentally replace anymore with these days or nowadays.
Although it’s not a good idea to use the positive anymore in your formal writing, you should know that it’s not a grammar mistake; it’s a regionalism. The Oxford English Dictionary labels positive anymore as a feature of Irish English, and has its earliest citation from 1898 in Northern Ireland. It also tags positive anymore as colloquial American English, and according to the Yale Grammatical Diversity Project’s webpage on positive anymore, positive anymore is most common in the Midwest. There’s also a small pocket of positive anymore speakers in Arizona.
That’s all—or should I say, “There isn’t any more.”
That segment was written by Neal Whitman, who has a PhD in linguistics and blogs at LiteralMinded.wordpress.com.
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