I'm translating the following sentence, and am stumped on how to translate 何ひとつ in a negated sentence.


my name, my family, my friends...I cannot remember x.

I know it can mean ("(not) at all", "(not) a thing") according to this answer, but this leaves me with a issue of possible double negation.

Therefore, does the 何ひとつ indicate a negative, or does it indicate what is not being negated via 何ひとつ? For example, does it function as the 'not' in "(not) at all" or does it refer to what is not in the ()?


1 Answer 1


This 何ひとつ is a negative polarity item. This means 何ひとつ is always followed by a negative expression, and 何ひとつ by itself is an intensifier. You asked about "何ひとつ in a negative sentence", but there is no such thing as "何ひとつ in an affirmative (non-negative) sentence"! (何ひとつ思い出せる is simply ungrammatical.) The translation of your sentence is "I cannot remember (even) a thing".

This (not) or (ない) enclosed in parentheses is a common way to indicate a phrase is a negative polarity item. You seem to have seen しか(ない), まったく(ない) or (not) at all elsewhere, and this (not) is the same. Jisho.org also uses this notation (for example see 何一つ and 夢にも).

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    @Toyu_Frey, the nuance rendered in English isn't far from "even one" or "any at all" in a negative sentence, such as "name, family, friends ... I can't even remember one of them.""I can't remember any of them at all." Feb 12, 2020 at 4:14
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    @naruto I didn't know that 何ひとつ is always followed by a negative sentence. And I didn't know that (not/ない) in parenthesis meant the phrase was a polarity item. Thanks for introducing me to the concept of negative polarity items, I've never heard of them before, or at least not in depth.
    – Toyu_Frey
    Feb 12, 2020 at 20:50
  • @naruto To clarify, a (not) or (ない) enclosed in parentheses isn't a negation, but merely a indication the item is a negative polarity item?
    – Toyu_Frey
    Feb 17, 2020 at 6:45
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    @Toyu_Frey Yes. It signals ない/ぬ/etc will be accompanied elsewhere in the sentence, but this ない itself is not part of the meaning of the word.
    – naruto
    Feb 17, 2020 at 6:47
  • @naruto You said in your answer that "何ひとつ by itself is an intensifier". Now I'm wondering if 何ひとつ is being used as a intensifier in my sentence. I have a suspicion that 何ひとつ is being used as one, but 何ひとつ is not by itself in my sentence...
    – Toyu_Frey
    Mar 11, 2020 at 2:49

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