LINGUIST List 9.950

Thu Jun 25 1998

Sum: Topicalisation and Truth-conditions

Editor for this issue: Julie Wilson <>


  1. Carsten Breul, Topicalisation and truth-conditions

Message 1: Topicalisation and truth-conditions

Date: Thu, 25 Jun 1998 09:12:19 +0000
From: Carsten Breul <>
Subject: Topicalisation and truth-conditions

A big THANK YOU once again to the people who replied to my
query on topicalisation/fronting and truth-conditions
(LINGUIST 9.913). 

Basically, the query was about whether sentences such as the
following have the same truth-conditions:

(1) Almost everybody answered at least one question. 
(2) At least one question, almost everybody answered.

Heim & Kratzer (1998), for example, claim that they do not
have the same truth-conditions; I expressed my doubts about
this claim.

Of the 20 replies that I have got (till 25/6), 9 support
Heim & Kratzer's claim; 10 rather reject it, one of which by
a non-native speaker of English (one reply I wasn't exactly
sure how to interpret).

Several people who disagree with H&K point out however
that H&K's reading of (2) is (strongly) preferred if no
context is supplied. (This reading, the only possible one
for H&K, is that in which the respective question(s) is/are
the same for everybody who anwered it/them.)

Stephen Straight provides the following example,
syntactically analogous to (2), where the reading which is
said to be impossible according to H&K is in fact strongly

(3) At least one pickle, almost everybody ate.

Gregory Ward supplies the following context (and cotext) for
the reading of (2) rejected by H&K:

 "[context: Teacher is administering quiz to class of 30

 Teacher: Class, time is up! Please turn in your
 exams. Students; [groaning, kvetching] Teacher: How
 many people were able to answer all three questions?
 Students: [2 students raise their hands] Teacher: How
 many people were able to answer two of the three
 questions? Students: [5 students raise their hands]
 Teacher: How many people were able to answer one of the
 three questions? Students: [28 students raise their
 hands] Teacher: Good. So at least one question almost
 everybody answered."

The fact that a suitable context has to be 
supplied/invented for the disputed reading has been 
pointed out in a number of replies.

Other aspects mentioned: different intonation (stress)
patterns may support different readings; the topic-focus
distinction of the fronted constituent is relevant; (2) has
a Yiddish dialectal flavour (and has been referred to in the
literature, it seems, as Y(iddish)-movement). 

Bibliographical hints:

Ward, Gregory. 1983: "A Pragmatic Analysis of
Epitomization: Topicalization It's Not". In: Papers in
Linguistics 17:145-161.

- -. 1988: The Semantics and Pragmatics of
Preposing. Outstanding Dissertations in Linguistics
Series. New York: Garland.

Further related questions raised in the replies: What is the
situation in other languages that have fronting? If there
are languages which really allow only one (H&K's) reading of
such sentences, how is the distinction between the two
alternatives acquired? (It was suggested that there are such

Additional comment: For me, the German equivalent of (2) has
both readings:

(4) Mindestens eine Frage hat fast jeder beantwortet.

Interestingly, I do not have the impression that different
sentence accent placements have an effect on which of the
two readings is preferred:

(4') MINdestens eine Frage hat fast jeder beantwortet.
(4'') Mindestens EIne Frage hat fast jeder beantwortet.

Of course, the implications differ, but it is not the 
difference between the two readings under discussion here.
Dr. Carsten Breul
Englisches Seminar
Universitaet Bonn
Regina-Pacis-Weg 5
53113 Bonn

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