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Review of  The Grammar of Focus

Reviewer: Elena Maslova
Book Title: The Grammar of Focus
Book Author: Georges Rebuschi Laurice Tuller
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Syntax
Book Announcement: 12.845

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Georges Rebuschi & Laurice Tuller (eds.) The Grammar of
Focus. Linguistik Aktuell (Linguistics Today). John
Benjamins. Amsterdam/Philadelphia. 1999.

Elena Maslova, University of Bielefeld

This collection of papers grew out of a Paris workshop
(1996) of the same name. The goal, as it is stated in the
editors' introduction, is "an appraisal of the grammar of
focus", after over 20 years of intense cross-linguistic
investigations within the previous incarnations of the
generative theory and in view of its most recent radical
reformulation (Minimalist Program). The editors'
introduction outlines the evolution of focus studies in
the generative tradition and the current "focus issues",
which are elaborated in eleven individual papers dealing
with different languages and focusing on various aspects
of the topic (that is, the grammar of focus).

Manuela Ambar's ("Aspects of the Syntax of Focus in
Portuguese") goal is to arrive at a unified account of
various focus-marking devices in Portuguese (and,
apparently, elsewhere). The proposed solution is based on
the hypothesis that (any) focus requires a "topic-like"
element (different from "pure topic"); accordingly, there
is a functional projection called TopicFocus Phrase, and
Spec, TopicFocusP is occupied by this hypothetical topic-
like element. Further, it is assumed that a contrastive
focus contains its own topic-like element, whereas a non-
contrastive one does not; this accounts for their
different positions with respect to the verb.

Joseph Bauer ("Bound Focus or How can Association with
Focus be Achieved without Going Semantically Astray?")
examines the syntax of focusing particles (like 'only')
in English and German. His goal is to reduce all possible
constructions with such particles to a single
constellation in which the particle occupies the operator
position (and heads a "particle phrase"), as in 'John
would *only* invite Mary'. The paper shows that the
minimalist theoretical machinery does license such a
reduction, and this is because overt and covert
operations are treated in a strictly uniform fashion.
However, the elegant theory of bound focus developed in
the paper requires covert movement of entire phrases,
whereas the assumption of pure feature movement leads to
a host of false predictions.

Anne Clech-Darbon, Georges Rebuschi & Anni Rialland's
paper, "Are There Cleft Sentences in French?", argues for
the negative answer to this question: the authors claim
that there is no specific "construction" corresponding to
what is traditionally called cleft sentences in French
(and probably elsewhere). More precisely, they propose to
analyze the post-focal relative clause as right-adjoined
to an ordinary identificational clause, whereby 'ce' is
assumed to contain a predicate variable. It is claimed
that this analysis predicts the prosodic (duplication of
"terminal intonation") and semantic (uniqueness of the
focused term) properties of cleft sentences.

Nomi Erteschik-Shir ("Focus Structure and Scope")
develops a model of information structure, which she
calls "f-structure theory". F-structure (an annotated
structural description in which Topic and Focus
constituents are marked) is intended to replace the
logical form (LF) component; the scope relations in f-
structures are transparent; topic quantifiers always take
the wide scope. The (pragmatic) interpretation of f-
structures is based on an elaboration of Reinhart's "file
card" metaphor.

Larry M. Hyman ("The Interaction between Focus and Tone
in Bantu") presents a detailed description of focus-
related tone effects in Bantu; examples come from a
variety of Bantu languages, selected to show the range of
possible focus-tone interactions. Hyman shows that there
is no direct focus-tone link (that is, no examples where
"semantic focus" would unambiguously condition a [+focus]
tonal effect, or where the absence of "semantic focus"
conditions a [-focus] effect). In reality, the focus-
related tonal features are conditioned by certain
grammatical configurations, which correlate (but, again,
not unambiguously conditioned by) with "semantic focus".

Sarah D. Kennelly ("The Syntax of the P-Focus Position in
Turkish") explores a sub-class of focused elements (P-
Focus, P for "presentational"), which includes
(minimally) non-specific objects (as indicated by the
absence of the Accusative marker) and interrogative
elements. It is proposed that non-specifics and wh-
elements constitute a "natural class"; they are described
as existential quantifiers of a free-choice partial
function. These elements (when focused) are taken to
occupy an "F" position, which is adjoined to VP. The
analysis is motivated primarily by the fact that P-Focus
only has a cumulative reading with respect to the subject
(i.e. no scope distinctions).

Ayesha Kidwai ("Word Order and Focus Positions in
Universal Grammar") examines four languages: Hindi-Urdu,
Malayalam, Western Bade and Tangale. The paper argues
against positing a "Focus Phrase" and develops a
minimalist theory of [+FOCUS], which is argued to be
[P(honetic) F(orm) [+Interpretable]] and may therefore
survive to the interface unchecked, which explains the
cross-linguistic heterogeneity of focus-marking
mechanisms (word order, morphology, intonation). It is
proposed that structures derived by PF-movement are
interpreted at a level distinct from the LF, Domain
D(iscourse), which is located at the edge of the PF-

Alain Kihm ("Focus in Wolof. A Study of What Morphology
May Do to Syntax") claims that (contrastive) focus
sentences in Wolof are bi-clausal clefts (just like their
English counterparts). This similarity (or even
identity?) is blurred by the morphological complexity of
the copula in Wolof. On the other hand, Wolof draws a
formal distinction between two structures ("focus" vs.
"presentational") which happened to coincide in one
formal structure in English (and other languages).
Interestingly, although the analysis of "real" (i.e.
focus) clefts is essentially the same as suggested by
Clech-Darbon et al. for French, yet the interpretation is
quite different: not only the existence of clefts is not
rejected, but this structure is taken as a kind of
universal "focusing" structure (the cross-linguistic
differences being due to morphology alone).

Jacqueline Lecarme ("Focus in Somali") examines the
distribution of "focus markers" (particles 'baa/waa') in
Somali. She shows that this distribution cannot be
(fully) accounted for in functional terms, which is taken
as evidence that these particles are not discourse
markers at all. It is argued that the "focus markers" are
overt 'root' complementizers; the focus position is a
structural Case position (providing cofigurational
positions in a "non-configurational" language).

Jon Ortiz de Urbina ("Focus in Basque") reviews various
approaches to focalization in Basque, where focus phrases
must occur immediately to the left of the verb. It is
argued that there is a functional projection to which
both foci and wh-words move. The problem is to identify,
in a thoroughly head-final language like Basque, some
left-headed functional category which may serve as an
appropriate landing site for both operators and heads.
Ortiz de Urbina compares different proposals for such

Jamal Ouhalla ("Focus and Arabic Clefts") examines focus
constructions in Moroccan Arabic, which consist of a
focused constituent and a free relative clause linked by
a pronominal copula. Since free relative clauses can be
analyzed as noun phrases, this structure is identical to
that of equative sentences. On the other hand, free
relatives can only have a set reading; i.e. they cannot
denote an individual. Therefore, focus constructions are
best analyzed as existential statements over choice
functions: the focus phrase is the individual obtained by
applying a choice function to the free relative denoting
a set.

An important question (which the book does not answer) is
what is actually being studied. In the introduction, the
editors carefully and deliberately avoid formulating any
definition of focus; they claim, however, that the book
shows that "[t]here [...] appears to be consensus on what
the focus issues are, which surely amounts to progress in
our understanding of this grammatical phenomenon" (p.
17). Let alone the (partly incompatible) theoretical
solutions (after all, as the editors correctly observe,
these solutions are strongly theory-dependent), there
appears to be no consensus on a more basic descriptive
question: how focus constructions are identified in each
specific language? Since the formal heterogeneity of
"focus constructions" analyzed in the volume is beyond
any doubt, the grounds for such identification can only
be functional; what is, then, the function (call it
"FOCUS") that identifies a language-specific device as
something to be subsumed under the title "The Grammar of

To begin with, Lecarme claims explicitly that the
phenomenon she is studying (in Somali) does not encode
"FOCUS" (and, for that matter, no "fixed discourse
function"). This is shown by examples where "focus
particles" are attached to something that is clearly not
"FOCUS". Notably, the focus particles pass the "question-
answer" test employed as the crucial diagnostic by some
other authors. Moreover, Hyman makes virtually the same
claim about Bantu "focus-marking" (there is no perfect
match between "form" and "function"). Yet the
interpretations are entirely different: In Bantu, "FOCUS"
(Hyman calls it "semantic focus") is apparently assumed
to play a significant role in the choice of an
appropriate grammatical construction, although the
correlation is always imperfect due to the intervention
(mediation) of grammar. In Somali, the choice of a
construction is a "matter of optional selection"; it is
claimed that focus markers "in most cases do not trigger
any special pragmatic effect" (p. 284). This claim is
followed by a really intriguing statement: both A and B
(where A and B are sentences differing in "focus-
marking") are "normal, unmarked clauses, simply because
*it* is the only structure that is available" (ibid.,
emphasis mine). The question is, what is the antecedent
of "it", i.e. what is the *only* structure available (A,
B, or both)?

Interestingly, other case studies presented in the book
do not seem to be concerned about potential mismatches
between "FOCUS" and the syntactic phenomena under
discussion at all. Notably, Lecarme's paper is virtually
the only one that invokes some authentic discourse data -
to show that a function-based account would not explain
the distribution of "focus markers". As the vast
literature on information-packaging phenomena in
traditions other than the generative one shows, even a
cursory look at the actual discourse contexts of *any*
construction always reveals the absence of a "perfect"
form-function correlation (assuming, of course, that the
function is defined independently of the specific
construction). The fact that the contributors to this
book do not look at actual data and base their analyses
on sets of constructed examples would be, in itself,
unproblematic: after all, different traditions are
interested in different aspects of linguistic phenomena.
The problem is that at least some of them implicitly make
unjustified assumptions on the discourse function(s) of
these phenomena: they are believed to encode the
(undefined) function of "FOCUS" (once more, otherwise it
is unclear how formally different constructions are
identified). This may well be true - in some sense, but
certainly not in the strict sense imposed by Lecarme. In
any event, this belief must be justified by something
beyond the authors' intuitions (cf. "we *believe* that
the cleft structure supplies this sort of semantic
information too" (Clech-Darbon et al., p. 103; emphasis
mine)). Alternatively, focus constructions may be defined
(and identified) without reference to their discourse
function(s); but then again, it would be nice to have an
explicit definition, if only to be sure that it applies
to all constructions under discussion.

As it seems, the skepticism about the possibility of
scientific (linguistic) description of "meanings" leads,
at least in this case, to an undesirable result: the
overall impression is that whether or not a language-
specific construction will be identified as a "focus
construction" depends more on the theoretical stance
taken by the scholar (*within* the generative tradition)
than on the properties of the construction itself. If
Lecarme were to apply her strict criteria to other
languages, she would find no focus constructions
whatsoever. If Ambar happened to study Somali data, she
would posit a TopicFocus phrase (and probably something
else), etc. And Hyman would attest an imperfect form-
function correlation in each case (and this is probably
the only conclusion that really satisfies the criterion
of descriptive adequacy).

Biographical statement
As is probably clear from the critical remarks
above, I do not belong to the generative tradition; I
have studied information-packaging phenomena in a couple
of languages known for their "focus-prominence" (most
importantly, the Yukaghir languages of Northern Siberia),
as well as cross-linguistically. I am interested both in the
actual pragmatic function(s) of such phenomena and the cross-
linguistic structural correlates of these functions, as well
as in the methodological basis of cross-linguistic
comparability of the relevant constructions.