Focus (linguistics)

Focus (linguistics)

Focus is a concept in linguistic theory that deals with how information in one phrase relates to information that has come before. Focus has been analyzed in a variety of ways by linguists. Historically, there have been two main approaches to focus – the generative approach and the functional approach. In the generative approach, the term "focus" is used to refer to words or expressions that are either prosodically or syntactically prominent, generally because they introduce “new” information. In the functional approach, the term "focus" is used to refer to words or expressions that establish coherence in the text or conversation. Although most articles in linguistic theory on focus are devoted to its effects in English, there is also extensive research on focus not only in topic-prominent languages such as Korean and Japanese, but also in languages such as Hungarian, Italian and Russian.

Generative Approaches

In generative linguistics, focus determines which part of the sentence contributes new or “textually and situationally non-derivable information” Citation
first = M.
last = Halliday
author =
authorlink =
coauthors =
title = Notes on Transitivity and Theme in English (Part 2)
version =
publisher = Journal of Linguistics 3.
date = 1967
url =
page = 206
accessdate =
] .Standard generative approaches to grammar argue that phonology and semantics cannot exchange information directly ("See Fig. 1"). Therefore, syntactic mechanisms including features and transformations include prosodic information regarding focus that is passed to the semantics and phonology.

Focus may be highlighted either prosodically or syntactically or both, depending on the language. In syntax this can be done assigning focus markers, as shown in (1), or by preposing as shown in (2):

(1) I saw [JOHN] f.

(2) [JOHN] f, I saw.

In (1), focus is marked syntactically with the subscripted ‘f’ which is realized phonologically by a nuclear pitch accent. Clefting induces an obligatory intonation break. Therefore in (2), focus is marked via word order and a nuclear pitch accent.

Focus also relates to phonology and has ramifications for how and where suprasegmental information such as rhythm, stress, and intonation is encoded in the grammar, and in particular intonational tunes which mark focus Citation
first = David I. & Brady Z. Clark
last = Beaver
author =
authorlink =
coauthors =
title = Sense and Sensitivity: How Focus Determines Meaning
version =
publisher = Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
date = 2008
url =
page =
accessdate =
] . Speakers can use pitch accents on syllables to indicate what word(s) are in focus. New words are often accented while given words are not. The accented word(s) forms the focus domain. However, not all of the words in a focus domain need be accented. ("See" Citation
first = E.
last = Selkirk
author =
authorlink =
coauthors =
title = Phonology and Syntax: The Relation between Sound and Structure
version =
publisher = Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
date = 1984
url =
page =
accessdate =
] Citation
first = E.
last = Selkirk
author =
authorlink =
coauthors =
title = Sentence Prosody: Intonation, Stress, and Phrasing
version =
publisher = In: J. A. Goldsmith (ed.): The Handbook of Phonological Theory. London: Basil Blackwell, pp. 550–569.
date = 1995
url =
page =
accessdate =
] Citation
first = R.
last = Schwarzschild
author =
authorlink =
coauthors =
title = GIVENness, AvoidF and other Constraints on the Placement of Accent
version =
publisher = Natural Language Semantics 7(2), 141–177.
date = 1999
url =
page =
accessdate =
] "for rules on accent placement and focus-marking"). The focus domain can be either "broad", as shown in (3), or "narrow", as shown in (4) and (5):

(3) Did you see a grey dog or a cat? I saw [a grey DOG] f. (4) Did you see a grey dog or a grey cat? I saw a grey [DOG] f. (5) Did you see a grey dog or a black dog? I saw a [GREY] f dog.

The question/answer paradigm shown in (3) – (5) has been utilized by a variety of theorists Citation
first = C.
last = Roberts
author =
authorlink =
coauthors =
title = Information Structure in Discourse: Towards an Integrated Formal Theory of Pragmatics
version =
publisher = OSU Working Papers in Linguistics 49. Papers in Semantics.
date = 1996
url =
page =
accessdate =
] to illustrate the range of contexts a sentence containing focus can be used felicitously. Specifically, the question/answer paradigm has been used as a diagnostic for what counts as new information. For example, the focus pattern in (3) would be infelicitous if the question was ‘Did you see a grey dog or a black dog?’.

In (3) and (4), the pitch accent is marked in bold. In (3), the pitch accent is placed on "dog" but the entire noun phrase "a grey dog" is under focus. In (4), the pitch accent is also placed on "dog" but only the noun "dog" is under focus. In (5), pitch accent is placed on "grey" and only the adjective "grey" is under focus.

Historically, generative proposals made focus a feature bound to a single word within a sentence. Chomsky & Halle Citation
first = N. & M. Halle
last = Chomsky
author =
authorlink =
coauthors =
title = The Sound Pattern of English
version =
publisher = MIT Press.
date = 1968
url =
page =
accessdate =
] formulated a Nuclear Stress Rule that proposed there to be a relation between the main stress of a sentence and a single constituent. Since this constituent is prominent sententially in a way that can contrast with lexical stress, this was originally referred to as "nuclear" stress. The purpose of this rule was to capture the intuition that within each sentence, there is one word in particular that is accented more prominently due to its importance - this is said to form the nucleus of that sentence.

Focus was later suggested to be a structural position at the beginning of the sentence (or on the left periphery) in Romance languages such as Italian, as the lexical head of a Focus Phrase (or FP, following the X-bar theory of phrase structure). Jackendoff Citation
first = R.
last = Jackendoff
author =
authorlink =
coauthors =
title = Semantic Structures
version =
publisher = MIT Press.
date = 1972
url =
page =
accessdate =
] , Selkrik , Rooth Citation
first = M.
last = Rooth
author =
authorlink =
coauthors =
title = Association with Focus
version =
publisher = Ph.D. thesis, UMass. Amherst: Graduate Linguistics Students Association.
date = 1985
url =
page =
accessdate =
] Citation
first = M.
last = Rooth
author =
authorlink =
coauthors =
title = A Theory of Focus Interpretation
version =
publisher = Natural Language Semantics 1, 75–116.
date = 1992
url =
page =
accessdate =
] , Krifka Citation
first = M.
last = Rooth
author =
authorlink =
coauthors =
title = A Compositional Semantics For Multiple Focus Constructions
version =
publisher = Informationsstruktur und Grammatik 4.
date = 1992
url =
page =
accessdate =
] , Schwarzchild argue that focus consists of a feature that is assigned to a node in the syntactic representation of a sentence. Because focus is now widely seen as corresponding between heavy stress, or nuclear pitch accent, this feature is often associated with the phonologically prominent element(s) of a sentence.

Sound structure (phonological and phonetic) studies of focus are not as numerous, as relational language phenomena tend to be of greater interest to syntacticians and semanticists. But this may be changing: a recent study found that not only do focused words and phrases have a higher range of pitch compared to words in the same sentence but that words following the focus in both American English and Mandarin Chinese were lower than normal in pitch and words before a focus are unaffected. The precise usages of focus in natural language are still uncertain. A continuum of possibilities could possibly be defined between precisely enunciated and staccato styles of speech based on variations in pragmatics or timing.

Currently, there are two central themes in research on focus in generative linguistics. First, given what words or expressions are prominent, what is the meaning of some sentence? Rooth , Jacobs Citation
first = J.
last = Jacobs
author =
authorlink =
coauthors =
title = Fokus und Skalen
version =
publisher = T¨ubingen: Niemeyer.
date = 1983
url =
page =
accessdate =
] , Krifka , and von Stechow Citation
first = A.
last = von Stechow
author =
authorlink =
coauthors =
title = Focusing and backgrounding operators
version =
publisher = Universitat Konstanz, Fachgruppe Sprachwissenschaft, Arbeitspapier Nr. 6. Konstanz. Press.
date = 1989
url =
page =
accessdate =
] claim that there are lexical items and construction specific-rules that refer directly to the notion of focus . Dryer Citation
first = M. S.
last = Dryer
author =
authorlink =
coauthors =
title = The pragmatics of association with only
version =
publisher = Paper presented at the 1994 Winter Meeting of the L.S.A. Boston, Massachusetts.
date = 1994
url =
page =
accessdate =
] , Kadmon Citation
first = N.
last = Kadmon
author =
authorlink =
coauthors =
title = Formal Pragmatics: Semantics, Pragmatics, Presupposition and Focus
version =
publisher = Oxford: Blackwell.
date = 2001
url =
page =
accessdate =
] , Marti Citation
first = L.
last = Marti
author =
authorlink =
coauthors =
title = Contextual Variables
version =
publisher = Ph.D. thesis, University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT and MIT Working Papers in Linguistics.
date = 2003
url =
page =
accessdate =
] , Roberts , Schwarzschild Citation
first = R.
last = Schwarzschild
author =
authorlink =
coauthors =
title = Why Some Foci Must Associate
version =
publisher = Unpublished ms., Rutgers University.
date = 1997
url =
page =
accessdate =
] , Vallduvi Citation
first = E.
last = Vallduvi
author =
authorlink =
coauthors =
title = The Information Component
version =
publisher = Ph.D. thesis, University of Pennsylvania.
date = 1990
url =
page =
accessdate =
] , and Williams Citation
first = E.
last = Williams
author =
authorlink =
coauthors =
title = Blocking and Anaphora
version =
publisher = Linguistic Inquiry 28(4), 577–628.
date = 1997
url =
page =
accessdate =
] argue for accounts in which general principles of discourse explain focus sensitivity . Second, given the meaning and syntax of some sentence, what words or expressions are prominent?

Prominence and Meaning

Focus directly affects the semantics, or meaning, of a sentence. Different ways of pronouncing the sentence affects the meaning, or, what the speaker intends to convey. Focus distinguishes one interpretation of a sentence from other interpretations of the same sentence that do not differ in word order, but may differ in the way in which the words are taken to relate to each other. To see the effects of focus on meaning, consider the following examples:

(6) John only introduced Bill to SUE.

In (6), accent is placed on Sue. There are two readings of (6) - broad focus shown in (7) and narrow focus shown in (8):

(7) John only [introduced Bill to SUE] f.

(8) John only introduced Bill to [SUE] f.

The meaning of (7) can be summarized as "the only thing John did is introducing Bill to Sue". The meaning of (8) can be summarized as "the only person to whom John introduced Bill is Sue".

In both (7) and (8), focus is associated with the focus sensitive expression "only". This is known as association with focus. The class of focus sensitive expressions in which focus can be associated with includes exclusives ("only", "just") non-scalar additives ("merely", "too") scalar additives ("also", "even"), particularlizers ("in particular", "for example"), intensifiers, quantificational adverbs, quantificational determiners, sentential connectives, emotives, counterfactuals, superlatives, negation and generics . It is claimed that focus operators must c-command their focus.

Alternative Semantics

Beginning with Rooth , the effects of focus on semantics can be said to be the introduction of a set of alternatives that contrasts with the ordinary semantic meaning of a sentence. Consider the following example:

(9) Mary only likes [SUE] f.

:

::likelangle Mary, Sue angle

(9) is true if and only if "Mary" stands in the "like" relation to "Sue". The set of alternatives that is a resultant of "Sue" being focused is the set:

::{likelangle Mary, y angle |y in E}, where "E" is the domain of entities or individuals.

The relevant alternatives for example (9) might be the set:

::{likelangle Mary, Sue angle, likelangle Mary, Bill angle, likelangle Mary, Lisa angle}.

In (9), the set of alternatives is said to contrast with the ordinary semantic meaning of because the speaker indicates that the ordinary semantic meaning is true while every alternative is false. For example in (9), "Mary likes Sue" is true while "Mary likes Bill" and "Mary likes Lisa" are both false. Generally, the meaning of (9) can be summarized as "Mary likes Sue and no one else".

tructured Meanings

Following Jacobs and Williams , Krifka argues differently. Krifka claims focus partitions the semantics into a background part and focus part, represented by the pair:

::langle B,F angle

The logical form of which represented in lambda calculus is:

::langle lambda x.x, A angle

This pair is referred to as a "structured meaning". Structured meanings allow for a compositional semantic approach to sentences that involve single or multiple foci. This approach follows Frege's (1897) Principle of Compositionality: the meaning of a complex expression is determined by the meanings of its parts, and the way in which those parts are combined into structured meanings. Krifka’s structured meaning theory represents focus in a transparent and compositional fashion it encompasses sentences with more than one focus as well as sentences with a single focus. Krifka claims the advantages of structured meanings are two-fold: 1) We can access the meaning of an item in focus directly, and 2) Rooth's alternative semantics can be derived from a structured meaning approach but not vice versa. To see Krifka’s approach illustrated, consider the following examples of single focus shown in (10) and multiple foci shown in (11):

(10) John introduced Bill to [SUE] f.

(11) John only introduced [BILL] f to [SUE] f.

Generally, the meaning of (10) can be summarized as "John introduced Bill to Sue and no one else", and the meaning of (11) can be summarized as "the only pair of persons such that John introduced the first to the second is Bill and Sue".

Specifically, the structured meaning of (10) is:

::langle introd(j, b, x), s angle where "introd" is the denotation of "introduce", j "John", b "Bill" and s "Sue".

The background part of the structured meaning is; "introd (j, b, x)"; and the focus part is "s".

Through a (modified) form of functional application (or beta reduction), the focus part of (10) and (11) is projected up through the syntax to the sentential level. Importantly, each intermediate level has distinct meaning.

Focus Marking

It has been claimed that "new" information in the discourse is accented while "given" information is not. Generally, the properties of "new" and "given" are referred to as a word's discourse status. Definitions of "new" and "given" vary. Halliday defines "given" as “anaphorically” recoverable, while "new" is defined to be “textually and situationally non-derivable information”. To illustrate this point, consider the following discourse in (12) and (13):

(12) Why don’t you have some French TOAST?

(13) I’ve forgotten how to MAKE French toast. Citation
first = Robert D.
last = Ladd
author =
authorlink =
coauthors =
title = The structure of intonational meaning: Evidence from English.
version =
publisher = Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
date = 1980
url =
page =
accessdate =
]

In (13) we note that the verb "make" is not given by the sentence in (12). It is discourse new. Therefore, it is available for accentuation. However, "toast" in (13) is given in (12). Therefore, it is not available for accentuation. As previously mentioned, pitch accenting can relate to focus. Accented words are often said to be in focus or F-marked often represented by F-markers. The relationship between accent placement is mediated through the discourse status of particular syntactic nodes Citation
first = J., Pierrehumbert, J. and Kaufmann, S.
last = German
author =
authorlink =
coauthors =
title = Evidence for phonological constraints on nuclear accent placement
version =
publisher = Language 82(1), 151-168.
date = 2006
url =
page =
accessdate =
] . The percolation of F-markings in a syntactic tree is sensitive to argument structure and head-phrase relations .


=Selkirk & Accent Placement=

Selkirk develops an explicit account of how F-marking propagates up syntactic trees. Accenting indicates F-marking. F-marking projects up a given syntactic tree such that both lexical items, i.e. terminal nodes and phrasal levels, i.e. nonterminal nodes, can be F-marked. Specifically, a set of rules determines how and where F-marking occurs in the syntax. These rules are shown in (1) and (2):

(14) Basic Rule: An accented word is f-marked.

(15) Focus Projection:

::a. F-marking the head of a phrase licenses F-marking of the phrase.

::b. F-marking of the internal argument of a head licenses the F-marking of the head. ::c. F-marking of the antecedent of a trace left by NP or wh-movement licenses F-marking of the trace.

To see how (14) and (15) apply, consider the following example:

:: [Judy] f [adopted f a parrot f] f] foc

Because there is no rule in (14) or (15) that licenses F-marking to the direct object from any other node, the direct object "parrot" must be accented as indicated in bold. Rule (15a) allows F-marking to project from the direct object to the head verb "adopted". Rule (15b) allows F-marking to project from the head verb to the VP "adopted a parrot". Selkirk assumes the subject "Judy" is accented if F-marked as indicated in bold .


=Schwarzchild & Accent Placement=

Schwarzchild points out weaknesses in Selkirk’s ability to predict accent placement based on facts about the discourse. Selkirk’s theory says nothing about how accentuation arises in sentences with entirely old information. She does not fully articulate the notion of discourse status and its relation to accent marking. Schwarzchild differs from Selkirk , in that he develops a more robust model of discourse status. Discourse status is determined via the entailments of the context. This is achieved through the definition in (9):

(16) Definition of given: An utterance of U counts as given iff it has a salient antecedent A and

::a. if U is type e, then A and U corefer;

::b. otherwise: modulo exists-type-shifting, A entails the existential F-closure of U.

The operation in (16b) can apply to any constituent. exists-type-shifting “is a way of transforming syntactic constituents into full propositions so that it is possible to check whether they are entailed by the context” (German et al. 2006). For example, the result of exists-type-shifting the VP in (5) is (6):

(17) [hums a happy tune]

(18) exists"x" ["x" hums a happy tune]

Note that (18) is a full proposition. The existential F-closure in (16b) refers to the operation of replacing the highest F-marked node with an existentially closed variable. The operation is shown in (19) and (20):

(19) exists"x" ["x" hums [a happy f tune f] f]

(20) exists"Y"exists"x" ["x" hums "Y"]

Given the discourse context in (21a) it is possible to determine the discourse status of any syntactic node in (21b):

(21)

::a. Sean [hummed a happy tune] VP

::b. Angie [hummed [Chopin’s Funeral March] f] VP

If the VP in (21a) is the salient antecedent for the VP in (21b), then the VP in (21b) counts as given. exists-type-shifed VP in (21a) is shown in (22). The existential F-closure of the VP in (21b) is shown in (23):

(22) exists"x" ["x" hums a happy tune]

(23) exists"Y"exists"x" ["x" hums "Y"]

(22) entails (23). Therefore, the VP of (9b) counts as given. Schwarzchild assumes an optimality theoretic grammar Citation
first = Alan, and Paul Smolensky
last = Prince
author =
authorlink =
coauthors =
title = Optimality theory: Constraint interaction in generative grammar
version =
publisher = New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University, and Boulder, CO: University of Colorado, MS.
date = 1993
url =
page =
accessdate =
] . Accent placement is determined by a set of violable, hierarchically ranked constraints as shown in (24):

(24)

::a. GIVENness: A constituent that is not F-marked is given.

::b. Foc: A Foc-marked phrase contains an accent

::c. AvoidF: Do not F-mark

::d. HeadArg: A head is less prominent than its internal argument.

The ranking Schwarzchild proposes is seen in (25):

(25) GIVENness, Foc >> AvoidF >> HeadArg

As we saw, GIVENness relates F-marking to discourse status. Foc relates F-marking to accent placement. Foc simply requires that a constinuent(s) of an F-marked phrase contain an accent. AvoidF states that less F-marking is preferable to more F-marking. HeadArg encodes the head-argument asymmetry into the grammar directly .

Responses

Recent empirical work German "et al." suggests that both Selkirk’s and Schwarzchild’s theory of accentuation and F-marking makes incorrect predictions. Consider the following context:

(26) Are the children playing their game?

(27) Paul took down their tent that they play their game in.

It has been noted that prepositions are intrinsically weak and do not readily take accent , . However, both Selkirk and Schwarzchild predict that in the narrow focus context, an accent will occur at most on the preposition in (27) as shown in (28):

(28) Paul took down their tent that they [play their game [in f t f] foc] . However, the production experiment reported in German "et al." showed that subjects are more likely to accent verbs or nouns as opposed to prepositions in the narrow focused context, thus ruling out accent patterns shown in (28). German "et al." argue for a stochastic constraint-based grammar similar to Anttila Citation
first = A.
last = Antilla
author =
authorlink =
coauthors =
title = Variation in Finnish phonology and morphology
version =
publisher = Stanford, CA: Stanford University dissertation.
date = 1997
url =
page =
accessdate =
] and Boersma Citation
first = P.
last = Boersma
author =
authorlink =
coauthors =
title = How we learn variation, optionality, and probability
version =
publisher = Proceedings of the Institute of Phonetic Sciences of the University of Amsterdam 21.43–58.
date = 1997
url =
page =
accessdate =
] that more fluidly accounts for how speakers accent words in discourse.

Functional Approaches

ee also

*Topic-comment
*Topic (linguistics)
*Topic-prominent language

References

ources

*Cinque, Guglielmo (1993). 'A null theory of phrase and compound stress'. "Linguistic Inquiry" 24:239-267.
*Neeleman, Ad and Tanya Reinhart (1998). 'Scrambling and the PF-Interface'. In "The Projection of Arguments", CSLI Publications, 309-353.
*Ocampo, Francisco (2003). On the notion of focus in spoken Spanish: An empirical approach. In "Theory, Practice, and Acquisition", ed. by Paula Kempchinsky and Carlos-Eduardo Pineros. Sommerville: Cascadilla Press, 207-226.
*Pereltsvaig, Asya (2002). 'Topic and focus as linear notions: evidence from Russian and Italian'. "Proceedings of the Conference on the Interaction between Syntax and Pragmatics at UCL".
*Szendrői, Kriszta (2004). 'Focus and the interaction between syntax and pragmatics'. "Lingua" 114.
*Xu, Y., C. X. Xu and X. Sun (2004). 'On the temporal domain of focus'. In Proceedings of International Conference on Speech Prosody 2004, Nara, Japan: 81-84.


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