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I heard a sentence like this:

How will Bill ever know that?

Can someone tell me if this is a positive or negative sentence and what are the guidelines to decide which it is?

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It is neither positive nor negative, intrinsically. It could be either depending on context. –  Robusto Jan 26 '13 at 21:21
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It is neither; it is an interrogative sentence. –  StoneyB Jan 26 '13 at 21:21
    
An interrogative sentence can be a reproof or an expression of approval, which is what I presume the OP means by positive or negative. Don't you know that? (An example of a reproof.) –  Robusto Jan 26 '13 at 21:24
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I think you might want to expand on how you would define positive and negative. –  deutschZuid Jan 26 '13 at 21:44
    
@JamesJiao I would assume they meant as per grammatical polarity. –  Jon Hanna Jan 26 '13 at 21:54
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2 Answers

up vote 3 down vote accepted

It is an affirmative (or "positive" if you prefer) sentence in the interrogative mood, though it is likely used sarcastically.

The sentence itself is affirmative because it doesn't use negation in the way that "Wouldn't Bill know that?" or "Are you not happy with this answer?" would.

But the ever suggests that the person asking can't envision a situation in which Bill could know. It could be that (due to prior conversation) they're prepared to believe that Bill could learn the information in question but still don't see how. It would more often be the case that what the speaker is really trying to express is "Bill will never know that".

This doesn't change the polarity of the sentence itself from being positive/affirmative though.

We can't describe an implied statement as having grammatical polarity, because grammar refers to what is expressed not what is implied (though it will affect what is implied). If we were to express the implied view directly rather than with sarcasm we could use either negative ("Bill will never know that") or affirmative ("Bill will forever be ignorant of that") clauses to express the same thing.

Edit: Sorry, I missed the bit about how to decide if a sentence (and by extension, a clause, verbal phrase, etc.) is negative or positive.

The simple rule is that they are all positive (also called affirmative) unless they are explicitly negated by one of the following:

  1. "No." as a sentence on it's own is a negative sentence, the full meaning of which is to negate the suggestion of the question or statement it is in response to.*

  2. The use of not or the contraction of not into -n't.

  3. The use of never, neither, nobody, none, nor, nothing or nowhere to invert the meaning there would be without them or with the positive equalivent (ever, either, anybody/somebody/everybody, some/all/any, or, anything/everything/something, somewhere/everywhere/anywhere.

As stated above, the same idea can be expressed in an affirmative or negative clause: "I don't know anything about modern Croatian poetry" is negative but "I am completely ignorant about modern Croatian poetry" is affirmative, but both mean the same thing. It's not what is expressed that makes it negative or affirmative, but how it is expressed.

Note that a sentence can mix affirmative and negative parts:

I am going to go on holidays in the winter, not the summer.

*An interesting side-effect of the fact that Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Manx and Welsh all lack a direct equivalent to one-word no and yes is that there is a greater tendency in Ireland, Man, Wales and the areas of Scotland that spoke Gaelic more than Scots (all predominantly English-speaking today) to use a full clause response even in English. E.g. "I am" or "I am not" rather than "Yes" or "No", or else to double-up; "I am, yes" or "I'm not, no". Sadly, "I don't, no" sounds like "I don't know" to customs officers from outside those areas, and you never want a customs officer to hear you say that you don't know if there are electronics in your bag.

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Thanks for such elaborative answer. The fact that you mentioned that it is said sarcastically is exactly what i had in my mind. Also the usage of word "ever" affirms the belief. You guessing that it might be because of the prior conversation is all setting the context for my question, which i omitted intentionally. Thanks a lot for letting me know so many things in the answer. –  Sameer Patil Jan 28 '13 at 10:09
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Only statements can be negated, because only statements can be true or false. Neither of the following non-statement sentences, for instance, can be said to be either true or false:

  • Did you vote for Reagan?
  • Please open the door.

However, non-statements can contain negative triggers -- structures, phrases, or words that license the occurrence Negative Polarity Items -- but that's a different thing.

All questions, for instance, are negative environments, in the sense that NPIs like anybody, ever, and yet can occur grammatically in them, even though they can't in the corresponding statements.

  • Did he see anybody in the window?
  • *He saw anybody in the window.
  • When did you ever see that?
  • *I ever saw that yesterday.
  • Has he arrived yet?
  • *He has arrived yet.
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Really? I've always taken interrogative and imperative statements as being affirmative or negative in terms of the way they are expressed, so I'd have said "Did you not vote for Reagan?" and "Please don't open the door!" were each negative where yours are affirmative. –  Jon Hanna Jan 27 '13 at 1:41
    
Negative in form, but not negative in meaning. (I doubt, parenthetically, that a native speaker who expected a serious response would say Did you not vote for Reagan?, without special stress on some word in the sentence. Of course, questions with overt negatives like Didn't you vote for Reagan can occur, so they're used. Generally they indicate the speaker's belief that you did vote for Reagan, however, so they're very much not negative semantically. –  John Lawler Jan 27 '13 at 3:49
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Yes, I'd always taken "negative" to be about the form, considering that you can negate a meaning without a negative form and "the water was cooled below zero degrees to freeze it" and "the ice was warmed above zero degrees to melt it" are exact opposite in meaning and both positive. –  Jon Hanna Jan 27 '13 at 9:46
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