LINGUIST List 12.1356

Thu May 17 2001

Review: Herburger, What Counts: Focus & Quantification

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  1. Yura Lander, Review of H.Herburger, What Counts

Message 1: Review of H.Herburger, What Counts

Date: Thu, 17 May 2001 22:43:51 +0400
From: Yura Lander <land_yumail.ru>
Subject: Review of H.Herburger, What Counts

Herburger, Helena (2000) What Counts: Focus and
Quantification. (Linguistic Inquiry Monographs # 36.)
The MIT Press. Paperback, xiv + 184 pp.

The publisher's announcement: LINGUIST List 11.2614

Reviewed by Yury A. Lander, Institute of Oriental
Studies, Moscow.

The issues of focus influence on quantification (which
can be illustrated by the truth-conditional difference
between "John always introduces Bill to SUE" and "John
always introduces BILL to Sue") have been widely
discussed by formal semanticians during the last decade
(e.g., Rooth 1996, Benedicto et al. 1998, Hajicova et
al. 1998). While most approaches to this phenomenon were
based on presupposition analyses or on the Roothian
semantics of alternatives, Herburger presents a rather
novel approach within the framework of neo-Davidsonian
semantics (i.e. using a special event variable bound by
default with a tacit existential quantifier). The basic
idea is that focus reshapes the quantificational
structure of a sentence providing its non-focussed part
as a restriction of various sentential, although not
unselective quantifiers.

In Chapter 1 ("Overview and Background") Herburger
introduces a reader to the neo-Davidsonian approach,
comparing it to various alternative approaches to the
formal semantic representation of sentences. Verbs are
considered here as descriptions of events, and verb
arguments are related to these events via theta-
relations (so, for example, both sentences above can be
viewed as describing an event of introducing, which
Agent is John, and with an adverb of quantification
binding an event argument). Such a decomposition allows
limit scopes of quantifiers to parts of the sentence,
which do not surfacely refer to any proposition.

Chapter 2 ("Negated and Nonnegated Sentences") seems to
be the core description of Herburger's theory. First,
she discusses other theories of focus and outlines their
shortcomings, which become apparent in negated
sentences. Then Herburger presents her own theory,
according to which the non-focussed part serves as a
restriction of a sentential operator (due to "focal
mapping") and hence is what the sentence is about (i.e.
topic). This "aboutness" is not related to
presuppositions (as in many previous theories), although
it may give rise to (existential) "focal background
entailments" if the sentential operator is not placed in
the scope of a decreasing operator (e.g., negation).
Furthermore, Herburger argues that different scopes of
negation (that is, whether the negation operator is
placed in the restriction or only in the nuclear scope,
or even negates the very existence of an event) together
with the different shaping of quantificational structure
may give different interpretations, of which one (with
the negation taking scope only over the focus) is
prototypical due to its pragmatic unmarkedness. This
chapter also contains an appendix where the relations
between various kinds of intonation and different
interpretations are discussed.

As one can see from the title of Chapter 3 ("Adverbial
Quantifiers"), the goal of this part of the monograph is
to show how the proposed analysis works with overt
adverbs of quantification ("always", "rarely" etc.). One
of the given empirical points is that the non-focussed
part in a sentence with an adverb of quantification can
serve not only as its restriction but also as the
restriction of some "external" existential quantifier
binding an event that contains events quantified by
adverbs. This allows Herburger to give a complex but
nevertheless sufficient representation of the examples
with second occurrence focus (i.e. when the main focus
is not placed in the scope of the adverb). After that
Herburger turns to the discussion of embedded clauses:
she concludes that while IF- and preverbal WHEN- clauses
always restrict the quantifier of the main clause,
postverbal WHEN-clauses are different in this respect in
that their focussed material joins that quantifier's
scope. It is shown then that the quantificational
variability effect of indefinites (the dependence of an
indefinite's interpretation on interpretation of the
adverb) works only if these indefinites are non-focussed
and therefore are in the restriction.

Chapter 4 ("ONLY and EVEN") is devoted to two well-known
focus-sensitive operators. Herburger assumes a process
of Q-raising, which can move these "admanythings" words
to the adverbial position and consequently allows them
to function in a way similar to quantificational
adverbs. The author argues that "only" (as well as
"every") is a universal(-like) quantifier over events,
which has existential force. Still, "only" is different
from another universal quantifier "always" in that
members of its restriction are not quantified directly
but assumed to be related (as parts or as ranked lower
on some scale) to the focussed event, which existence is
asserted. The discussion of "even" seems to be a little
less informative in that most of it is simply a
discussion of advantages and shortages of other
theories. Thus, Herburger adopts the view that there is
a separate negative polarity item "even". The main
semantic component of "even" is presented as
"noteworthiness" of the assertion in comparison with
other possible members of the restriction (cp. the
notion of "likelihood" used in many previous theories),
and it is nicely shown that this noteworthiness may be
relativized not only to the speaker but also to the
argument of a higher propositional attitude. Besides
that, Herburger argues that the very existence of other
members in restriction is not necessarily for the use of
"even", although in many contexts it is pragmatically
inferred.

In Chapter 5 ("Determiners") the author examines focus-
sensitivity of some weak determiners. Herburger proposes
that focus-sensitive determiners (although they quantify
over individuals rather than events) may behave
similarly to "only" and "even" thanks to the same
process of Q-raising, that is movement to the position
which neutralizes the distinction between internal and
external arguments and hence allows the employment of
focal mapping. On the other hand, strong determiners can
undergo only QR movement, i.e. they move with the whole
noun phrase. For "many" and "few" (two main determiners
discussed in this chapter) this means that they can get
three reading: (1) strong proportional and (2) weak
cardinal where the focus affects only the event
quantifier, and (3) weak proportional where the focus
reshapes the quantificational structure of the
determiner. For other weak determiners these readings
are available as well, although in many cases they do
not differ from each other due to some specific
properties of these determiners.

CRITICAL EVALUATION

Herburger's monograph is quite easily readable, partly
due to the fact that she often gives "recalling"
summaries of parts of her theory and partly due to many
examples illustrating the proposed ideas. When English
data does not give a clear picture of the phenomenon,
data of other languages (German, Spanish, Basque,
Hungarian) is drawn. Unfortunately, none of the
languages having overt markers of focus is cited, but
this could require much more research. Another important
property of Herburger's examples is that they are often
included in larger contexts, which apparently help to
understand different readings discussed by the author.
It may be, however, that these contexts (and especially
continuations of utterances) are necessarily, since the
very examples do not give the full information (and
therefore have not the whole range of meanings Herburger
assigns to them), but this could be regarded only as a
matter for debates. In any case, one of the main goals
of Herburger's book is to show that many (but not all,
as is seen from the discussion of "even") pragmatic
repercussions of focus are derivated from its semantic
effects (p. 11), and it seems to me that this attempt is
more or less successful. Moreover, it should be noted
that the proposed theory looks quite compatible with
dynamic semantics, although this needs further work.

Without going into some technical difficulties of
Herburger's theory (which may partly be related to
alternative interpretation of focus, see Babko-Malaya
1998), I would like nevertheless to draw the reader's
attention to Herburger's conception of "event".
Herburger uses this notion not only with respect to
episodic predicates but also with respect to statives.
This means that one can introduce "event" variable even
in cases where there is possibly no event at all, for
example in focussed possessor phrases like "JOHN's
mother" (there is an event of being somebody's mother
such that this is an event of being mother of John) or
even in cases of adjectival modification. In fact, there
are two possible solutions to this problem. First, one
can reduce the event variable and theta-relations and
manage with representations like

Exist x [(Restriction) mother-of(x,y)] (Scope) mother-
of(x,y) & y=John

which, however, run into problems with various
quantificational structures. Another possibility (and it
seems that Herburger implicitly accepted it) is to
extend the notion of "event" so that it could be used
not only to verbal expressions but to all RELEVANT FACTS
(perhaps in the sense related to Kiparsky & Kiparsky's
(1971) concept). Note that this perhaps could give a
solution to another problem, that is sentences with
focussed focus-sensitive operators. Although Herburger
does not mention this issue directly (but see p. 147,
note 7), she approached to it when she discussed the
second occurrence focus and had to introduce a separate
event variable only RELATED to an event quantified by
the adverb. What we need then, however, is to work with
these very abstract relations.

This all demonstrates that the issues of focus-
quantification interaction are still not closed and
surely wait for subsequent investigations. Hopefully
Herburger's monograph will become one of their bases.

References:

Babko-Malaya, O. (1998) Context-dependent quantifiers
restricted by focus. In Benedicto et al. 1998.

Benedicto, E., M. Romero, & S. Tomioka (eds.) (1998)
Proceedings of the Workshop on Focus. UMass Working
Papers in Linguistics 21. Amherst: GLSA.

Hajicova, E., B. Partee, & P. Sgall (1998) Topic-focus
Articulation, Tripartite Structures, and Semantic
Content. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

Kiparsky, P. & C. Kiparsky (1971) Fact. In D. Steinberg
& L. Jakobovits (eds.), Semantics: An interdisciplinary
reader. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rooth, M. (1996) Focus. In S. Lappin (ed.), The Handbook
of Contemporary Semantic Theory. Oxford: Blackwell.


The author of the review is a research fellow in the
Institute of Oriental Studies, Moscow. His main
interests include the typology of noun phrases
(especially, possessive constructions as one could see
above), quantification, Austronesian and Slavic
linguistics.
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