Insignificance is significant: Interpretation of the wh-pronoun shenme 'what' in Mandarin Chinese

Aijun Huang*

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

    6 Citations (Scopus)


    This paper offers a semantic analysis of the 'insignificance' reading observed in negative sentences with the wh-pronoun shenme 'what' in Mandarin Chinese. We propose that shenme is a proform of NP modifiers, partitioning the denotation of the NP it modifies into kinds of entities. Under certain pragmatic conditions, this semantic property of shenme determines that the insignificance reading can be assigned to negative sentences with shenme. The proposed analysis is extended to explain the lack of the insignificance reading in a class of cases, including (i) sentences with the Negative Polarity Item renhe 'any'; (ii) sentences with 'head' wh-pronouns, such as shei 'who'; (iii) sentences with the adverb of quantification dou 'all'; (iv) sentences with bare nouns; (v) sentences involving imperfective aspect; and (vi) sentences with non-local negation. The examination of the insignificance reading hence indicates that a variety of aspects of Chinese grammar play a role in licensing this reading.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)1-45
    Number of pages45
    JournalLanguage and Linguistics
    Issue number1
    Publication statusPublished - 2013


    • Insignificance reading
    • Kind
    • Mandarin wh-pronouns
    • Modifier
    • Negative polarity item

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