The term focus is used to refer to the highlighting of parts of utterances for communicative purposes, typically by accent. For example, a question like Who did Mary invite for dinner is answered by Mary invited BILL for dinner, not by Mary invited Bill for DINner (capitals mark the syllable with main accent, cf. STRESS, LINGUISTIC and PROSODY AND INTONATION). A contrastive statement like Mary didn't invite BILL for dinner, but JOHN is also fine, whereas Mary didn't invite Bill for DINner, but JOHN is odd. Finally, notice that Mary only invited BILL for dinner means something different from Mary only invited Bill for DINner. Expressions like only that depend on the choice of focus are said to associate with focus (Jackendoff 1972).

Focus is typically expressed in spoken language by pitch movement, duration, or intensity on a syllable (cf. Ladd 1996). In addition, we often find certain syntactic constructions, like cleft sentences (It was BILL that she invited for dinner). There are languages that make use of specific syntactic positions (e.g., the preverbal focus position in Hungarian), dedicated particles (e.g., Quechua), or syntactic movement of nonfocused expressions from their regular position (e.g., Catalan; cf. É Kiss 1995). In American Sign Language (see SIGN LANGUAGES), focus is marked by a nonmanual gesture, the brow raise (cf. Wilbur 1991).

Focus marking is often ambiguous, which gives rise to misunderstandings and jokes. When the notorious bank robber Willie Sutton was asked by a reporter, Why do you rob banks? he replied: Because that's where the money is. The answer makes sense with focus on banks, but the intended focus clearly was on rob banks; Sutton was asked why he robs banks in contrast to doing other things. The focus is marked by accent on banks in both cases. In general, accent on a syntactic argument often helps to mark broad focus on predicate + argument (cf. Schmerling 1976; Gussenhoven 1984; Selkirk 1984). Take the difference between (a) John has PLANS to leave and (b) John has plans to LEAVE. (a) is understood as John has to leave plans, with plans as object argument, whereas (b) is understood as John plans to leave, with VP argument to leave. In both cases, plans to leave is in focus.

On the semantic side, one influential line of research has been to analyze focus as expressing what is new in an utterance (DISCOURSE; cf. Halliday 1967; Sgall, Hajicová, and Panenová 1986; Rochemont 1986). The question Who did Mary invite for dinner? can be answered by Mary invited BILL for dinner, inasmuch as it presupposes that Mary invited someone for dinner, and the new information is that this person was Bill. Consequently, Bill is accented, and the other constituents, which are given information, are deaccented. What should count as "given" often requires inferencing, as in the following example: Many tourists visit (a) Israel / (b) Jerusalem. When BILL arrived in the Holy City, all hotels were booked. In the (a) case, Holy City is accented, while in the (b) case, it is deaccented because it is mentioned before, though not literally.

Another influential research program sees focus as indicating the presence of alternatives to the item in focus (cf. Rooth 1992, 1995). For example, a question like Who did Mary invite for dinner? asks for answers of the form Mary invited X for dinner, where X varies over persons. The focus in the answer, Mary invited BILL for dinner, identifies a particular answer of this form. In general, focus on an expression marks the fact that alternatives to this expression are under consideration. This idea naturally also applies to the contrastive use of focus and to association with focus. A sentence like Mary invited BILL for dinner can be used in contrast to sentences of the type Mary invited X for dinner, where X applies to some alternative to Bill. And a sentence like Mary only invited BILL for dinner says that Mary did not invite any alternative to Bill to dinner. Other focus-sensitive operators can be explained similarly. For example, Mary also invited BILL for dinner presupposes that there is an alternative X to Bill such that Mary invited X for dinner is true. And Mary unfortunately invited BILL for dinner presupposes that there is an alternative X to Bill such that it would have been more fortunate for Mary to invite X for dinner. Sedivy et al. (1994) have used eyetracking techniques to observe the construction of such alternative sets during sentence processing.

The two lines of research sometimes lead to different analyses. Consider the following exchange: A: My car broke down. B: What did you do? A can answer with (a) I called a meCHAnic or with (b) I FIXed the car. If focus expresses newness, (a) should have focus on called a mechanic, and (b) should have focus just on fixed, as the car is given. But if focus indicates the presence of alternatives, (b) should have focus on fixed the car, as the question asks for an activity. The lack of accent on the car in (b) shows that even focus theories based on alternatives must allow for givenness as a factor in accentuation. Notice that there are expressions that are never accentuated, for example, the indefinite pronoun something, as in A: What did you do? B: I FIXed something.

Focus is of interest for the study of the SYNTAX-SEMANTICS INTERFACE, as focus-sensitive operators require a liberal understanding of the principle of COMPOSITIONALITY. Take the view that focus indicates the presence of alternatives. As the VPs only invited BILL for dinner and only invited Bill for DINner differ in meaning, the placement of focus must lead to differences in the interpretation of the embedded VP invited Bill for dinner. One proposal assumes that the item in focus is somehow made "visible," for example by movement on the syntactic level of LOGICAL FORM (cf. MINIMALISM). In this theory, a sentence like Mary only invited BILL for dinner means something like "The only X such that invited X for dinner is true of Mary is Bill" (cf., e.g., von Stechow 1990; Jacobs 1991). A problem is that association with focus seems to disregard syntactic islands (cf. WH-MOVEMENT), as in Mary only invited [BILL's mother] for dinner. Another proposal assumes that expressions in focus introduce alternatives, which leads to alternatives for the expressions with embedded focus constituents ("Alternative Semantics," cf. Rooth 1992). Our example is analyzed as "The only predicate of the form invite X for dinner that applies to Mary is invite Bill for dinner." In general, alternative semantics is more restrictive, but it may not be sufficient for more complex cases in which multiple foci are involved, as in, A: Mary only invited BILL for dinner. She also1 only2 invited BILL2 for LUNCH1, where the second sentence presupposes that there is another person X besides Bill such that Mary invited only Bill to x.

There is another use of the term focus, unrelated to the one discussed here, in which it refers to discourse referents that are salient at the current point of discourse and are potential antecedents for pronouns (cf. Grosz and Sidner 1986).

See also

Additional links

-- Manfred Krifka


Grosz, B., and C. Sidner. (1986). Attention, intention and the structure of discourse. Journal of Computational Linguistics 12:175-204.

Gussenhoven, C. (1984). On the Grammar and Semantics of Sentence Accent. Dordrecht: Foris.

Halliday, M. A. K. (1967). Notes on transitivity and theme in English, part 2. Journal of Linguistics 3:199-244.

Jacobs, J. (1991). Focus ambiguities. Journal of Semantics 8:1-36.

Jackendoff, R. (1972). Semantic Interpretation in Generative Grammar. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

É Kiss, K., Ed. (1995). Discourse Configurational Languages. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ladd, R. (1996). Intonational Phonology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rochemont, M. (1986). Focus in Generative Grammar. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Rooth, M. (1992). A theory of focus interpretation. Natural Language Semantics 1:75-116.

Rooth, M. (1995). Focus. In S. Lappin, Ed., Handbook of Contemporary Semantic Theory. London: Blackwell, pp. 271-298.

Schmerling, S. (1976). Aspects of English Sentence Stress. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Sedivy, J., G. Carlson, M. Tanenhaus, M. Spivey-Knowlton, and K. Eberhard. (1994). The cognitive function of contrast sets in processing focus constructions. In P. Bosch and R. van der Sandt, Eds., Focus and Natural Language Processing. IBM Deutschland Informationssysteme GmbH, Institute for Logic and Linguistics, pp. 611-620.

Selkirk, E. (1984). Phonology and Syntax: The Relation Between Sound and Structure. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Sgall, P., E. Hajicová, and J. Panenová. (1986). The Meaning of the Sentence in Its Semantic and Pragmatic Aspects. Dordrecht: Reidel.

Von Stechow, A. (1990). Focusing and backgrounding operators. In W. Abraham, Ed., Discourse Particles. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, pp. 37-84.

Wilbur, R. (1991). Intonation and focus in American Sign Language. In Y. No and M. Libucha, Eds., ESCOL '90: Proceedings of the Seventh Eastern States Conference on Linguistics. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, pp. 320-331.

Further Readings

Bayer, J. (1995). Directionality and Logical Form. On the Scope of Focussing Particles and Wh-in-Situ. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

König, E. (1991). The Meaning of Focus Particles: A Comparative Perspective. London: Routledge.

Lambrecht, K. (1994). Information Structure and Sentence Form. Topic, Focus and the Mental Representation of Discourse Referents. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Selkirk, E. (1995). Sentence prosody. In J. A. Goldsmith, Ed., Handbook of Phonological Theory. London: Blackwell, pp. 550-569.

Taglicht, J. (1984). Message and Emphasis: On Focus and Scope in English. London: Longman.

Von Stechow, A. (1991). Current issues in the theory of focus. In A. v. Stechow and D. Wunderlich, Eds., Semantik: Ein internationales Handbuch der zeitgenössischen Forschung. Berlin: de Gruyter, pp. 804-825.

Winkler, S. (1997). Focus and Secondary Predication. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.