LINGUIST List 10.1117

Thu Jul 22 1999

Sum: Referential/Expressive Meaning

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. George Elgin, Suzette Haden Elgin, "Referential/Expressive"

Message 1: "Referential/Expressive"

Date: Thu, 22 Jul 1999 13:09:24 -0600
From: George Elgin, Suzette Haden Elgin <>
Subject: "Referential/Expressive"

July 22, 1999

Dear Linguists,

Recently I requested help with explaining -- especially to nonlinguists --
the meaning difference between a pair of sentences which (in my dialect)
differ only in terms of their intonation. They were:

1. "How could you do that?"

2. "HOW could you DO that??"

I provided contexts for the two, as follows:

3. Q: "How could you do that?"
 A: "Well, I guess I could start by putting them all in
alphabetical order."

4. Q: "HOW could you DO that??"
 A: "Well, if I hadn't done it she wouldn't have *gone* to Bermuda
with me!"

The asterisks in (4A) were intended to indicate acoustic stress, not
unacceptability; the all-caps sequences in (2) and (4Q) were intended to
indicate heavier acoustic stress. This caused confusion; my fault, and I

Thank you very much indeed for all your letters. I am especially grateful to:

 Jaakko Leino <>
 Michael Israel <> (John K. Hellermann)
Stephen Helmreich <>
 Mai Kuha <>
 Timothy Dunnigan <>
 John Lawler <>
 randall henry eggert <>

It immediately became clear to me as I read your responses that each and
every one of you did understand the meaning difference. I expected that,
but one never knows; if you hadn't, it would have been intriguing. Quite
an array of explanations for the difference were offered. Most people, much
to my surprise, proposed that it was a difference revolving around
tense/aspect. At least in my dialect, the problem of explaining the meaning
difference would remain even if more care were taken with tense/aspect.
That is, precisely the same problem exists for "How could you have done
that?" versus "HOW could you have DONE that??", or for any combination or
assortment of the possible forms, as for the original pair. I don't find
that difference relevant, though it may be for highly-educated Urban Yankee
English speakers, for all I know. Similarly, although I agree that one
possible difference has to do with the two possible meanings of "can/could"
(ability versus permission), it doesn't answer the question. A number of
people explained the difference by translating the two sentences into other
languages which, it was claimed, would require them to have very different
forms; I am interested to know that, but I don't think it would be helpful
to English-speaking nonlinguists for me to explain that " The difference
between the two is that in other languages they're not worded alike."
Finally, I agree that moving the acoustic stresses around is possible and
would produce even more potential readings. All very interesting, and much

The most useful response, to my mind, was this one from Pierre Larrivee:

"Dear Suzette,

I think the difference can straighforwardly be explained with reference to
Jackendoff (1972) analysis of focus (which has been followed ever since by
an impressive number of linguists, especially germanists, folks like
Joachim Jacobs, Mats Rooth, Arnim von Stechow (also influencing on Krifka
and Taglicht), by also by Y. Kato for Japanese). While Jackendoff's
analysis isn't empirically absolutely watertight, it presents attractive
correlations that often work, the simplicity of which should appeal to
nonlinguists. It goes along the following lines: phonological focus on an
item involves entailment of alternatives of that focus and textual
partition between the focused new information and the nonfocused background
assumptions. In (2), focus on the verb semantically contrasts its assertion
(You did something horrible) with its negation (You should NOT have done
something horrible), and textually determines that it is this action which
is under discussion; in (1), notextual partition is made between new and
old info and so the sentence is potentially all new information, with no
alternatives being implied. On new/old and to further investigate this, I
suggest you read Lambrecht (1995)'s book ion information structure."

I agree absolutely with the recommendation for the Jackendoff (1972)
analysis. But consider, please: "Phonological focus on an item involves
entailment of alternatives of that focus...... In (2) focus on the verb
semantically contrasts its assertion (You did something horrible) with its
negation (You should NOT have done something horrible)..." This is, for me,
the crux of the matter.

I would refine the proposed focus sequence just a tad; I think that we
understand "HOW could you have DONE that??" to assert not just "You did
something horrible" but "You did something horrible that you should not
have done." (It is possible for people to do something horrible that they
in fact *should* have done.) I agree that the phonological focus (my
"acoustic stress") entails not only that assertion but its negation, which
I believe would be "You should not have done that horrible thing that you

What the nonlinguists querying me want to know is this: Where does the
positive assertion come from? WHY does (2) mean "You did something horrible
that you should not have done?" Obviously it's not the words of the two
sentences, since, if that were it, example (1) would also mean "You did
something horrible that you should not have done." The only difference
between the two is stress on HOW and stress on DO, and -- as the
nonlinguists point out to me -- you can read dictionary entries for "how"
and "do" all day without learning that either one of those or the two
combined entails immoral behavior. I can of course say, as I have heard
others say, "Oh, well, it's just intonation, see Bolinger " but I would
prefer to say something less opaque.

As with the even more infuriating "You could at LEAST...." versus "You
could at least..." pairs, which I refrained from inflicting on the list,
the effect of the phonological focus is to convey the message that the
speaker feels moral horror about (roughly speaking) what comes next.
People find this curious. Non-native speakers of English find it worse than

Thank you for your input; if anything else should occur to you, I would be
interested, no matter how long it takes.

Suzette Haden Elgin
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