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date: 26 March 2017

Pragmatics of Focus

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics. Please check back later for the full article.

Generally speaking, focus refers to the portion of an utterance that is especially informative or important within the context, and that is marked as such via some linguistic means. It can be difficult to provide a single precise definition, as the term is used variously to refer to the linguistic marking of: (i) contrast, (ii) question-answering status, (iii) exhaustivity, (iv) unpredictability, and more. An example 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 a strong pitch accent (indicated by capital letters).

(i) An [AMERICAN] farmer was talking to a [CANADIAN] farmer.

(ii) Q: Who came to dinner last night?

A: [BILL] came to dinner.

(iii) Only [an ELEPHANT] could have made those tracks.

(iv) I was shocked to see [OHIOANS] fighting other [OHIOANS]!

The underlying intuition common to all these instantiations is that a focus represents the minimal information needed to convey some 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 cross-linguistic 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 that 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 came to dinner,” “Mary came to dinner,” 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 ‘came to dinner’ is redundant, and it is the identity of the subject that serves to differentiate the true answer. Example (iii) demonstrates a close 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), 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.

Though there exist more subtle and complex phenomena involving focus marking, these core cases point toward a single core function: to make the most informative material within an utterance the most prominent.