focus (linguistics)
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In
linguistics Linguistics is the scientific study of language A language is a structured system of communication Communication (from Latin Latin (, or , ) is a classical language belonging to the Italic languages, Italic branch of the Indo ...

linguistics
, focus (
abbreviated An abbreviation (from Latin Latin (, or , ) is a classical language belonging to the Italic languages, Italic branch of the Indo-European languages. Latin was originally spoken in the area around Rome, known as Latium. Through the power ...
) is a grammatical category that conveys which part of the sentence contributes new, non-derivable, or contrastive information. In the
English English usually refers to: * English language English is a West Germanic languages, West Germanic language first spoken in History of Anglo-Saxon England, early medieval England, which has eventually become the World language, leading lan ...

English
sentence "Mary only insulted BILL", focus is expressed prosodically by a
pitch accent A pitch-accent language is a language that has word accents in which one syllable in a word or morpheme is more prominent than the others, but the accentuated syllable is indicated by a contrasting pitch Pitch may refer to: Acoustic frequency ...
on "Bill" which identifies him as the only person Mary insulted. By contrast, in the sentence "Mary only INSULTED Bill", the verb "insult" is focused and thus expresses that Mary performed no other actions towards Bill. Focus is a cross-linguistic phenomenon and a major topic in linguistics. Research on focus spans numerous subfields including
phonetics Phonetics is a branch of linguistics Linguistics is the scientific study of language, meaning that it is a comprehensive, systematic, objective, and precise study of language. Linguistics encompasses the analysis of every aspect of lang ...

phonetics
,
syntax In linguistics Linguistics is the scientific study of language, meaning that it is a comprehensive, systematic, objective, and precise study of language. Linguistics encompasses the analysis of every aspect of language, as well as the ...

syntax
,
semantics Semantics (from grc, σημαντικός ''sēmantikós'', "significant") is the study of reference Reference is a relationship between objects in which one object designates, or acts as a means by which to connect to or link to, another ...
,
pragmatics In linguistics Linguistics is the scientific study of language, meaning that it is a comprehensive, systematic, objective, and precise study of language. Linguistics encompasses the analysis of every aspect of language, as well as the m ...
, and
sociolinguistics Sociolinguistics is the descriptive study of the effect of any and all aspects of society A society is a group A group is a number A number is a mathematical object used to counting, count, measurement, measure, and nominal number, ...
.


Functional approaches

Information structure has been described at length by a number of linguists as a grammatical phenomenon. Lexicogrammatical structures that code prominence, or focus, of some information over other information has a particularly significant history dating back to the 19th century. Recent attempts to explain focus phenomena in terms of discourse function, including those by Knud Lambrecht and Talmy Givón, often connect focus with the packaging of new, old, and contrasting information. Lambrecht in particular distinguishes three main types of focus constructions: predicate-focus structure, argument-focus structure, and sentence-focus structure. Focus has also been linked to other more general cognitive processes, including
attention Attention is the behavioral and cognitive process Cognition () refers to "the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses". It encompasses many aspects of intellectual funct ...

attention
orientation. In such approaches, ''contrastive focus'' is understood as the coding of information that is contrary to the presuppositions of the interlocutor. The
topic–comment In linguistics, the topic, or theme, of a sentence is what is being talked about, and the comment (rheme or Focus (linguistics), focus) is what is being said about the topic. This division into old vs. new content is called information structur ...
model distinguishes between the topic (theme) and what is being said about that topic (the comment, rheme, or focus).


Formalist approaches

Standard formalist approaches to grammar argue that
phonology Phonology is a branch of linguistics Linguistics is the scientific study of language, meaning that it is a comprehensive, systematic, objective, and precise study of language. Linguistics encompasses the analysis of every aspect of lan ...

phonology
and
semantics Semantics (from grc, σημαντικός ''sēmantikós'', "significant") is the study of reference Reference is a relationship between objects in which one object designates, or acts as a means by which to connect to or link to, another ...
cannot exchange information directly (''See Fig. 1''). Therefore, syntactic mechanisms including features and
transformations Transformation may refer to: Science and mathematics In biology and medicine * Metamorphosis, the biological process of changing physical form after birth or hatching * Malignant transformation, the process of cells becoming cancerous * Transf ...

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
OHN Ohn is a Burmese name Burmese names lack the serial structure of most modern names. The Bamars have no customary patronymic A patronymic, or patronym, is a component of a based on the of one's father, grandfather (avonymic), or an earlier ...
f. (2)
OHN Ohn is a Burmese name Burmese names lack the serial structure of most modern names. The Bamars have no customary patronymic A patronymic, or patronym, is a component of a based on the of one's father, grandfather (avonymic), or an earlier ...
f, I saw. In (1), focus is marked syntactically with the subscripted ‘f’ which is realized phonologically by a nuclear
pitch accent A pitch-accent language is a language that has word accents in which one syllable in a word or morpheme is more prominent than the others, but the accentuated syllable is indicated by a contrasting pitch Pitch may refer to: Acoustic frequency ...
.
Clefting A cleft sentence is a complex sentence In grammar In linguistics, the grammar (from Ancient Greek ''grammatikḗ'') of a natural language is its set of structure, structural constraints on speakers' or writers' composition of clause (linguistic ...
induces an obligatory intonation break. Therefore, in (2), focus is marked via word order and a nuclear pitch accent. In English, focus also relates to phonology and has ramifications for how and where
suprasegmental In linguistics Linguistics is the science, scientific study of language. It encompasses the analysis of every aspect of language, as well as the methods for studying and modeling them. The traditional areas of linguistic analysis include ...
information such as
rhythm Rhythm (from Greek#REDIRECT Greek Greek may refer to: Greece Anything of, from, or related to Greece Greece ( el, Ελλάδα, , ), officially the Hellenic Republic, is a country located in Southeast Europe. Its population is approximatel ...
, stress, and intonation is encoded in the grammar, and in particular intonational tunes that mark focus. 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 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 grey DOGf. (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 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. Noam Chomsky, Chomsky and Morris Halle, Halle 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 sentence nucleus, 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 grammar, phrase structure). Ray Jackendoff, Jackendoff, Selkirk, Rooth, Krifka, Schwarzschild 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 (phonology, phonological and phonetics, 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 enunciation, enunciated and staccato styles of speech based on variations in
pragmatics In linguistics Linguistics is the scientific study of language, meaning that it is a comprehensive, systematic, objective, and precise study of language. Linguistics encompasses the analysis of every aspect of language, as well as the m ...
or timing (linguistics), 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, Krifka, and von Stechow claim that there are lexical items and construction specific-rules that refer directly to the notion of focus. Dryer, Kadmon, Marti, Roberts, Schwarzschild, Vallduvi, and Williams 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 was introduce 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

In the alternative semantics approach to focus pioneered by Mats Rooth, each constituent \alpha has both an ordinary denotation [\![\alpha]\!]_o and a focus denotation [\![\alpha]\!]_f which are composed by parallel computations. The ordinary denotation of a sentence is simply whatever denotation it would have in a non-alternative-based system while its focus denotation can be thought of as the set containing all ordinary denotations one could get by substituting the focused constituent for another expression of the same semantic type. For a sentence such as (9), the ordinary denotation will be the proposition which is true iff Mary likes Sue. Its focus denotation will be the set of each propositions such that for some contextually relevant individual 'x', that proposition is true iff Mary likes 'x'. (9) Mary likes [SUE]f. In formal terms, the ordinary denotation of (9) will be as shown below: * [\![\text]\!]_o = \textit(\textit)(\textit). Focus denotations are computed using the ''alternative sets'' provided by alternative semantics. In this system, most unfocused items denote the singleton set containing their ordinary denotations. * [\![\text]\!]_f = \ * [\![\text]\!]_f = \ Focused constituents denote the set of all (contextually relevant) semantic objects of the same type. * \, where ''E'' is the domain of type theory, entities or individuals. In alternative semantics, the primary composition rule is ''Pointwise Functional Application''. This rule can be thought of as analogous to the cross product. * Pointwise Functional Application: If \alpha is a constituent with daughters \beta and \gamma which are of type \langle \sigma, \tau \rangle and \sigma respectively, then [\![\alpha]\!] = \{ f(x) , f \in [\![\beta]\!], x \in [\![\gamma]\!] Applying this rule to example (9) would give the following focus denotation if the only contextually relevant individuals are Sue, Bill, Lisa, and Mary * [\![\text{Mary likes SUE}]\!]_f = \{like(Mary)(Sue), \, like(Mary)(Bill), \, like(Mary)(Lisa), \, like(Mary)(Mary)\} The focus denotation can be "caught" by focus-sensitive expressions like "only" as well as other covert items such as the squiggle operator.


Structured 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\rangle The logical form of which represented in lambda calculus is: ::\langle \lambda x.x, A\rangle 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 Gottlob Frege, 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 twofold: 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\rangle 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 lambda calculus, 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 "Anaphora (linguistics), 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. 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. The percolation of F-markings in a syntactic tree is sensitive to argument structure and head-phrase relations.


Selkirk and accent placement

Selkirk develops an explicit account of how F-marking propagates up parse tree, syntactic trees. Accenting indicates F-marking. F-marking projects up a given syntactic tree such that both lexical items, i.e. Terminal and nonterminal symbols, terminal nodes and phrasal levels, i.e. Terminal and nonterminal symbols, 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 (15b) allows F-marking to project from the direct object to the head verb ''adopted''. Rule (15a) 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.


Schwarzschild and accent placement

Schwarzschild 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. Schwarzschild 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 (16): (16) Definition of given: An utterance of U counts as given if it has a salient antecedent A and ::a. if U is type type theory, 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 entailment, entailed by the context". For example, the result of \exists-type-shifting the VP in (17) is (18): (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 (21b) counts as given. Schwarzschild assumes an optimality theory, optimality theoretic grammar. 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 Schwarzschild proposes is seen in (25): (25) GIVENness, Foc >> AvoidF >> HeadArg As seen, GIVENness relates F-marking to discourse status. Foc relates F-marking to accent placement. Foc simply requires that a constituent(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 by German ''et al.'' suggests that both Selkirk’s and Schwarzschild’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 Schwarzschild 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 trace (linguistics), 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 and Boersma that more fluidly accounts for how speakers accent words in discourse.


See also

*Information structure *Topic–comment *Topic-prominent language *Question under discussion *Squiggle operator


Notes


References

*Guglielmo Cinque, Cinque, Guglielmo (1993). "A null theory of phrase and compound stress". ''Linguistic Inquiry'' 24: 239–267. *Ad Neeleman, 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. *Asya Pereltsvaig, 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 (journal), Lingua'' 114(3), 229–254. *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. {{DEFAULTSORT:Focus (Linguistics) Grammatical categories Syntactic entities Semantics Formal semantics (natural language)