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Pragmatics of Focus  

Jon Scott Stevens

Generally speaking, ‘focus’ refers to the portion of an utterance which is especially informative or important within the context, and which is marked as such via some linguistic means. It can be difficult to provide a single precise definition, as the term is used somewhat differently for different languages and in different research traditions. Most often, it refers to the linguistic marking of (i) contrast, (ii) question-answering status, (iii) exhaustivity, or (iv) discourse unexpectability. An illustration of each of these possibilities is given below. In English, the focus-marked elements (indicated below with brackets) are realized with additional prosodic prominence in the form of a strong pitch accent (indicated by capital letters). (i) An [AMERICAN] farmer met a [CANADIAN] farmer… (ii) Q: Who called last night? A: [BILL] called last night. (iii) Only [an ELEPHANT] could have made those tracks. (iv) I can’t believe it: The Ohioans are fighting [OHIOANS] ! The underlying intuition common to all these instantiations is that a focus represents the minimal information needed to convey an important semantic distinction. Focus can be signaled prosodically (e.g., in the form of a strong pitch accent), syntactically (e.g., by moving focused phrases to a special position in the sentence), or morphologically (e.g., by appending a special affix to focused elements), with different crosslinguistic focus marking strategies often carrying slightly different restrictions on their use. Example (i) evokes a set of two contrasting alternatives, {‘American farmer,’ ‘Canadian farmer’}, and the meaning ‘farmer’ is common to both members of the set. That is, within this evoked set of alternatives, ‘farmer’ is redundant, and it is the nationality of the farmers which differentiates the two people. Example (ii) exhibits a similar property. One of the standard theories of question semantics represents questions as sets of possible appropriate answers. For (ii), this would be a set of propositions like {‘Bill called last night, ‘Sue called last night,’ etc.}. As with (i), there is an evoked set of meanings whose members share some overlapping semantic material. Within this set, the verb phrase meaning ‘called last night’ is redundant, and it is the identity of the subject that serves to differentiate the true answer. Example (iii) demonstrates a relationship between focus and certain words like only. The sentence means something like ‘of all the animals who might have made these tracks, it must be an elephant.’ As with (i) and (ii), this involves a set of alternatives: the set of possible track makers. That the sentence serves to single out a unique member of this set as being the true track maker makes the subject an elephant a natural focus of the sentence. Finally, in (iv), we see that focus on ‘Ohioans’ is being used to contrast the semantic content of the sentence with some preconception, namely that Ohioans are unlikely fighters of Ohioans. Examples (iii) and (iv) point to more specific uses of focus in different languages. In Hungarian, so-called identificational focus, which is marked syntactically, requires an exhaustive interpretation, as if a silent only were present. And in some Chadic languages, a meaning of “discourse unexpectability,” as in (iv), is required to mark focus via syntactic or morphological means.


Focus and Focus Structures in the Romance Languages  

Silvio Cruschina

Focus is key to understanding processes of syntactic and prosodic readjustments in the Romance languages. Since, prosodically, it must be the most prominent constituent in the sentence, focus associates with the nuclear pitch accent, which may be shifted from its default rightmost position when the syntactic position of the focus also changes. The application of specific syntactic operations depends both on the size and on the subtype of focus, although not always unambiguously. Subject inversion characterizes focus structures where the domain of focus covers either the whole sentence (broad-focus) or a single constituent (narrow-focus). Presentational constructions distinctively mark broad focus, avoiding potential ambiguity with an SVO structure where the predicate is the focus and the subject is interpreted as topic. In narrow-focus structures, the focus constituent typically occurs sentence-final (postverbal focalization), but it may also be fronted (focus fronting), depending on the specific interpretation associated with the focus. Semantically, focus indicates the presence of alternatives, and the different interpretations arise from the way the set of alternatives is pragmatically exploited, giving rise to a contextually open set (information focus), to contrast or correction (contrastive or corrective focus), or to surprise or unexpectedness (mirative focus). Whether a subtype of focus may undergo fronting in a Romance language is subject to variation. In most varieties it is indeed possible with contrastive or corrective focus, but it has been shown that focus fronting is also acceptable with noncontrastive focus in several languages, especially with mirative focus. Finally, certain focus-sensitive operators or particles directly interact with the narrow-focus constituent of the sentence and their association with focus has semantic effects on the interpretation of the sentence.


Focus in Chinese  

Peppina Po-lun Lee and Yueming Sun

Focus is a phenomenon intertwined between different levels of linguistics and context/discourse, and different languages appeal to different ways in marking focus. Chinese mainly adopts syntactic structures and focus markers for focus marking. Different from European languages, it is widely acknowledged that Chinese uses more syntax and less phonology in focus realization. It is argued that Chinese is a language that exhibits a reverse relationship between syntactic positioning and phonological prominence of focus, and focus types in Chinese are generally viewed from a grammatical perspective. With syntax as a prominent way of focus marking, Chinese appeals to a wide range of syntactic constructions to mark focus. While sentence-final position by default is taken as the position where new information is located, focus can be grammatically marked by constructions like shi…de ‘be…DE’ construction, bare shi construction, and bare de construction, with bare shi construction seemingly representing the closest to cleft constituent among the three. Apart from the variants in different shi constructions, object preposing is also another way of grammatical focus marking in Chinese, which involves the issue of whether the preposed object marks focus or subtopic, with both bearing a contrastive feature. Apart from focus marking through syntactic constructions, Chinese appeals to preverbal focus adverbs as their focus particles. Natural language includes two types of focus particles—namely, restrictive and additive particles. For restrictive adverbs, Chinese appeals to the first group through the adjunction of the exclusive adverb, including zhi(-you/-shi) ‘only(-have/be)’, with exclusiveness conducted by grammatical mechanism. Apart from this, the second group includes the widely recognized restrictive focus particles that do not perform restrictive focus marking through adjunction. Typical members include jiu ‘only’, cai ‘only’, and dou ‘all’, which are sensitive to focus and affect the truth condition of a sentence. Among the restrictive focus particles, jiu and cai are most controversial, with both translated as only in English. For additive particles, one widely discussed focus-marking construction is lian...dou/ye ‘even...all/also’, which is argued to mark inclusive or additive focus. Other additive adverbs include at least four—namely, you ‘again/too’, ye ‘also’, hai ‘still’, and zai ‘again’, with their English counterparts taken as also, even, again, still, or too. Focus markers in Chinese tend to be polysemous in meaning, making their semantics very complicated. On top of this, it is claimed that the linear order of constituents also plays an important role in focus structuring in Mandarin, with discourse and prosody structurally interacting with word order or syntactic structures to determine focus structures in Chinese. Linearity and syntax represent the two major ways of focus marking in Chinese. This is unlike English and other European languages, in which intonation and phonological prominence represent the major way.


Sentence Fragment Ellipsis in Chinese  

Audrey Yen-hui Li and Ting-chi Wei

Understanding what sentence fragments requires a detailed investigation of their properties. Relevant studies have classified fragments into four types according to the use of the copular verb shi ‘be’ with fragments: the occurrence of the sentence-final particle ne, syntactic categories allowed, island effects, P-stranding, and connectivity effects. It is shown that the distinction of fragments into different types is not necessary. The wider range of data considered fails to convincingly support the need for distinction, and a unified analysis of all fragments should be pursued. Three logical possibilities for a unified approach to sentence fragments are evaluated: (a) fragment as a result of deleting all but the fragment of a sentence (movement + deletion approach), (b) fragment base-generated as [pro + copular verb + fragment], and (c) fragment base-generated as a fragment. The first two options face challenges. The last option, even though seemingly a more adequate analysis for the range of facts, requires connectivity effects to be analyzed in semantic terms.


Dislocation in the Romance Languages: Syntax, Semantics, Discourse, Acquisition  

Davide Garassino

Dislocations are syntactic constructions consisting of a core sentence and a detached constituent located outside the clause, either at its left (left dislocation) or at its right (right dislocation). Typically, although not invariably, the clause hosts a resumptive element, often a pronoun, which is co-referent with the detached constituent. This separation between an extra-clausal element and the sentence led to the classification of dislocations as “non-canonical” or “marked” syntactic structures. Dislocations are attested in many language families, to the extent that they can be regarded as a language universal. However, these constructions have predominantly been examined in Germanic and Romance languages, both in formal and functional frameworks. Left and right dislocations are usually analyzed as topic-marking structures, in which the referent of the detached element has the function of sentence topic. However, specific types of topics appear to preferentially occur in either left or right dislocation. For example, left dislocations often convey topic shifts and contrastive topics, while continuous (or familiar) topics are more commonly found in right dislocations. Nonetheless, corpus-based research unveiled a more nuanced situation. Furthermore, interactionally oriented studies also suggest that exploring dislocations in spontaneous conversations is crucial for comprehending their broad functional spectrum. Thus, dislocations present many intriguing challenges to Romance linguistics, including the questions, To what extent do left and right dislocations differ syntactically and pragmatically across Romance languages? Are descriptions framed in terms of “topic establishing” and “topic promotion” truly adequate? What are the main prosodic characteristics of left and right dislocations? and What challenges do L1 and L2 learners encounter in the acquisition of these constructions?