Plenary talk – Manfred Krifka

Focus in answers and questions in Commitment-Space Semantics

Manfred Krifka

Leibniz-Zentrum Allgemeine Sprachwissenschaft & Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
Time: Wednesday, March 8, 2017, 9:30 – 10:30
Location: Building B 4.1, Raum 0.01

Focus has long been seen as one of the dimensions of information structure, used to identify parts of an utterance that come with non-realized alternatives that are relevant for the interpretation of the whole utterance. The classical use of focus is in answers to constituent questions, where the focus of the answer corresponds to the wh-constituent of the question, as in Which flower did Mary give to John?Mary gave the ROSE to John. But focus also occurs in polarity questions, cf. Did Mary give the TULIP to John?, which may be answered by a simple Yes, or by a combination of No and another sentence, e.g. Mary gave the ROSE to John.

In this talk, I will show how both focus in answers and focus in polarity questions can be interpreted as indicating alternatives. For polarity questions, it will be essential to couch the proposal in the framework of Commitment-Space Semantics, developed by the author in recent work. Commitment Spaces are common grounds with their possible continuations; a question does not add information to the common ground but restricts the possible continuations to those that answer the question. This allows for the notion of a monopolar question, a polarity questions that propose just one proposition, not two or more, as in other semantic frameworks. I argue that Did Mary give the TULIP to John? is such a biased monopolar question that wants to elicit from the addressee the assertion of Mary gave the tulip to John. Focus indicates that there are alternative elicitations of assertions of the form Mary gave X to John. I will show that the disjunction of these alternative elicitations are identical to the meaning of the constituent question What / Which flower did Mary give to John? If the addressee negates the intended assertion proposed by Did Mary give the TULIP to John?, the discourse state falls back to the disjunction of the alternative elicited assertions, i.e. the meaning of the constituent question, and the answer carries focus, as predicted.

I will also consider focus in wh-questions, as in What did MARY give to John?, arguing that focus indicates alternative wh-questions here. This focus is typical of contrastive topics, which indicate a partial answer to a complex question under discussion.