Giving a shit about negative polarity items
Ann: So, you’re happy to be back at work?
Leslie: Well our budget’s been slashed to zero. I tried to buy fertilizer the other day for the soccer field…request denied. We literally can’t buy shit. (gif source)
Not only is this last line great evidence that “literally” can still have a non-figurative interpretation, given the right context, but it’s also a nice illustration of one of my favourite parts of speech that non-linguists have never heard of: the NPI.
NPI stands for Negative Polarity Item, and they’re called that because they tend to be found in the scope of negation and serve to emphasize that negation. Classic examples are any, ever, and even, which sound great in negative sentences like (1-4) but pretty weird in the positive equivalents in (5-8).*
(1) I don’t love anyone.
(2) We are never, ever, getting back together.
(3) I don’t even know myself.
(4) I don’t want to go to sleep either.
(5) *I love anyone.
(6) *We are ever getting back together.
(7) *I even know myself.
(8) *I want to go to sleep either.
There are also some more vivid examples of NPIs, including the one in the gif that started this discussion:
give a shit/damn/fuck/care
budge an inch
lift a finger
drink a drop
sleep a wink
bat an eye
have a red cent
An even more extensive list of NPIs and environments can be found here, but one thing to notice is that the more vivid NPIs are pretty obviously derived from expressions with a literal meaning of a small or insignificant amount, but that have become conventionalized to have a broader meaning. What makes the “literally” joke so effective in the Parks and Recreation example is that both the literal and the figurative meaning make sense in the context.
*It’s actually quite a bit more complicated than just under negation, since you can also have NPIs with questions and if-statements and certain quantifiers (like some), and English NPIs can sometimes become Free Choice Items when found with modals (can, may, etc). For a more detailed explanation, try here.
Footnote: Interestingly, even as tumblr-speak has made even into a verb, it has preserved a lot of its NPI properties: negative “I don’t even” and “I’ve lost the ability to even” sound a lot better than positive “?I even/I do even” or “?I’ve retained the ability to even”.