Review of Information Structure
Date: Thu, 2 Jun 2005 13:55:21 +0100
From: Maarika Traat
Subject: Information Structure: Theoretical and Empirical Aspects
EDITOR: Steube, Anita
TITLE: Information Structure
SUBTITLE: Theoretical and Empirical Aspects
SERIES: Language, Context & Cognition 1
PUBLISHER: Mouton de Gruyter
Maarika Traat, School of Informatics, The University of Edinburgh
[Note: The symbols ~, A, and E are used for logical negation, universal
quantification and existential quantification respectively. -- Eds.]
The book is a collection of fourteen papers. The papers report on the
state of the art work on different aspects of information structure. The
papers vary greatly as far as the significance of their contribution and
clarity of presentation are concerned. The first eight papers are
theoretical in nature, while the last six report on empirical data from
production and perception experiments. The majority of the papers
analyse information structural phenomena in German, but some other
languages also receive coverage: Hungarian, Czech, Polish, Russian,
Vedic. Both word-order related phenomena and prosodic phenomena
are examined. The majority of the papers were contributed by the
members of the Research Group "Linguistic Foundations of Cognitive
Science: Linguistic and Conceptual Knowledge" at the University of
Leipzig, but papers were also invited from researchers in the field
elsewhere (Prague, Potsdam, Budapest).
In the following section we are going to give a brief summary of each
of the fourteen papers in the order they appeared in the book. Finally,
we are going to present a short evaluation of the book as a whole.
"Degrees of Contrast and the Topic-Focus Articulation" by Eva
Hajičová and Petr Sgall studies the phenomenon of contrast and
degrees of its intensity as determined by the type of contrast.
However, it is left unspecified what the authors mean precisely
by 'intensity': whether we are speaking about some prosodic metrics or
somebody's perception. It is more likely to be the latter, since the
authors use the words 'contrast is felt even stronger', but it still
remains unclear whether the decisions are based on the authors'
personal intuitions or on the results of some perception study.
The study is set in the Praguian Functional Generative Description
(FGD) framework, which includes a description of the topic-focus
articulation (TFA). The first part of the paper deals with TFA. The
authors define it as a relation of 'aboutness' where focus holds about
its topic. The authors also include a section about annotating Prague
Dependency Treebank with TFA. However, no further clarification is
given how this goal is achieved with the rather vague definition of TFA.
The rest of the paper discusses contrast in TFA. The means of
expressing contrast in Czech include strong pronominal forms and
rising stress; the latter, however, is also exploited towards other ends
(e.g. 'open continuation'). Focus has been viewed as a choice from a
set of alternatives (Rooth 1985), and as such always be contrastive.
German linguists often distinguish between contrastive and non-
contrastive focus, though. The authors of the present paper propose
that there are two degrees of contrast present in the focus in German,
signalled by the structure of the language. In Czech the contrast in
focus does not vary in its intensity. This is not the case with contrast in
topic, or more precisely on context bound (CB) items, however. The
authors suggest that the intensity of contrast on a CB item depends on
how narrow the focus is, whether the set of alternatives is explicitly
mentioned or implicit, and the range of the set of alternatives.
In "Information Structure and Modular Grammar", Anita Steube, Kai
Alter and Andreas Späth present a model of grammar set in the
generative framework, that consists of Lexicon, Semantic Form, S-
Structure, and Phonological Form, in which information structure is
realised at each level of grammar. They view information structure as
a pragmatic phenomenon, which is part of the cognitive model. The
pre-structuring of information takes place before entering into the
grammar model. The lexicon serves as the interface between the
conceptual system and the grammar. When the concepts are mapped
onto lexical items their representations are enriched with information
The authors mostly discuss information structure in terms of
background and focus, although they also define topic and comment.
The default organisation of information in German is that background
elements precede focus elements. The focus domain starts to the right
of the attitudinal adverbials. However, focus domain and focus of a
sentence are not identical: constituents base-generated in the focus
domain can move out of the domain. There are two kinds of
movement: information structure motivated and purely syntactically
motivated movement. If the syntactically motivated movement takes
focus constituents out of the focus domain, they need to be explicitly
marked by the focus feature [+F] in the S-Structure, which later gets
realised in prosody. Similarly, the background elements remaining in
the focus domain need to be marked by [-F]. When the S-Structure is
mapped on Phonological Form the constituents marked with [-F] are
de-accented, and the ones with [+F] are accented. In what follows the
authors use their model to analyse German categoric and correction
sentences, and sentences with the Bridge Contour.
The paper discusses important aspects of German information
structure. However, it would have profited immensely by having an
introduction which would provide the reader with guidance through the
paper, and a conclusion summarising the points the authors
themselves consider most important. Without these important
components the paper feels unfocussed.
"Negative Descriptions of Events: Semantic and Conceptual Aspects of
Sentence Negation and its Relevance for Information Structure" by
Andreas Späth and Martin Trautwein discusses the relation between
the scope of negation and the information structure of a sentence. In
the surface form of a sentence, negation has the striking role of
dividing the individual information units of the sentence and marking
their function. Only the part on the right of the negation (i.e. focus) is
subject to truth-conditional evaluation, the part of the sentence that
precedes the negation is presupposed. Hence a determiner phrase's
(DP) position before the negation in the sentence makes it
presuppositional. This helps to explain why Slavic languages do not
need a definite article, which is generally viewed as the source of
presupposition, to mark their DPs as specific.
The authors argue that due to the negation's fixed position before the
focus of the sentence, external negation as used in Propositional
Logic is not appropriate for describing the truth conditions of natural
languages. Moreover we can only speak of the truth of an event in a
specific spatio-temporal domain. The authors examine three
approaches to logically representing negative events: negative event
quantification (~Ee[e INST p]), negative instantiation (Ee[~(e INST p)])
and negative propositional condition (Ee[e INST ~p]). Even though the
latter performs best of the above three as an approximation to reality,
it is still not adequate since it does not take into account the semantic
and syntactic constraints on sentence structure. In the section
following this discussion the authors show how syntax determines the
way the semantics of negative sentences is composed.
Beáta Gyuris' "Two Types of Contrastive Topics?" starts with a
hypothesis that there are two kinds of contrastive topic DPs in
Hungarian: the ones that are only licensed by the very same DP in the
previous discourse and the ones that can also be licensed by other
DPs. The author presents a number of Hungarian question-answer
pairs that seem to reflect this tendency. Moreover, this tendency
seems to be related to the monotonicity of the DPs: the DPs with
monotone increasing determiners seem to be able to be used in a
much wider range of contexts than the ones with monotone
decreasing and non-monotonic determiners.
At first the author analyses the data in the framework proposed by
Büring (1997). It turns out that his mechanism cannot account for all
the Hungarian examples of syntactically possible, but uninterpretable
sentences with contrastive topic DPs. In what follows, the author
resorts to Kadmon's (2001) theory on discourse congruence to explain
why certain sentences with contrastive topic DPs cannot be used as
answers to certain questions. Kadmon proposed a restriction that the
topic value of the answer declarative sentence with a contrastive topic
corresponds to the focus value of the last question under discussion
(QUD). Gyuris supplements Kadmon's restriction with two more
restrictions: i) in order for a declarative sentence with a contrastive
topic to be accepted as an appropriate answer to a question, this overt
question and the last QUD have to be sub-questions of the
same 'superquestion', and ii) in case the overt question and the last
QUD are not identical, the answer declarative must not entail a
complete answer to the overt question. The paper rejects the initial
hypothesis about the twofold division of DPs in Hungarian, and
proposes that the the data presented can be accounted for by the
above three restrictions.
In "Information Structure -- Two-dimensionally Explicated" the author,
Ingolf Max, presents a two-dimensional representation for sentence
semantics. The first meaning dimension represents the proper
ordinary meaning of the sentence, which is given by the matrix of the
sentence semantic form (SF) in first order logic. The second meaning
dimension relates to the information structure of the sentence: it
represents the logical form of the background of the sentence,
according to background/focus partitioning. In the case of categorical
sentences, the second dimension is a sub-conjunction of the
conjunction in the proper SF of the sentence on the first dimension. In
thetic sentences any tautology can serve as the background.
Max introduces a new kind of presupposition-preserving negation (~^)
in the form of a special reduction operator that works on both
dimensions. Using this negation and the relations of 'necessitation'
and 'entailment' the author can define important semantic notions
of 'presupposition' and 'assertion'.
Using his two-dimensional representation, Max models various
linguistic phenomena: categorical sentences, thetic sentences,
generalization, hat contour and correction sentences. In his approach
the scope inversion accompanying the hat contour can be modelled in
a straightforward manner: inverting the direct order of AE and ~^ is all
that is needed.
In "Topic Constraints in the German Middlefield" Brigitta Haftka takes a
close look at the word order in the middlefield of German categorical
sentences. This is the position for contextually known information.
Haftka distinguishes two kinds of topics: 'proper topic'/'aboutness
topic'/'theme' on the one hand and 'anaphoric topics' on the
other. 'Proper topic' is what the rest of the sentence is predicated
about. Anaphoric topics are known background elements that are
stored in the narrow short-term memory of the speaker. Proper topic is
moved to the top of the sentence, while anaphoric topics fill the so-
called Wackernagel position, which follows the proper topic and
precedes the sentence adverbial position.
The study shows that the order of anaphoric topics in Wackernagel
position is highly grammaticalised. Haftka formulates seven constraints
that model how the word order is determined in the topicality
middlefield. The main body of the paper is followed by an appendix
where the author presents an optimality theoretic ranking scheme for
the above constraints.
"Contrastive Word Stress in Vedic Endo- and Exocentric compounds"
by Rosemarie Lühr is an extensive study of stress patterns in different
classes of Vedic compounds. The basic stressing rules previously
proposed for Vedic compounds leave a lot of counter-examples
unexplained. Lühr shows that stress shifts in Vedic compounds are
brought along by the need to mark contrast i) between 'substantive'
and 'adjective' parts of speech ii) compound internally between the
parts of speech of a constituent of the compound and the compound
as a whole. The author uses optimality theoretic approach to explain
the stress shifts.
The paper would have benefited immensely if instead of overwhelming
the reader with a multitude of examples, the author would have used
more of the space for explanatory purposes. Several central notions
lack a clear definition, e.g. 'bahuvrihis', which refers to a type of Vedic
In "Towards a Scalar Notion of Information Structural Markedness"
Thomas Weskott proposes to view information structural (IS)
markedness in the light of contextual requirement. The more
requirements a given IS-variant of a sentence has to the context it is
being uttered in, the more marked it is. The author makes three
assumptions that serve to make decisions about information structural
complexity of sentences: i) the basic word order in German sentences
is SVO, ii) the default phrasal stress falls on the most deeply
embedded constituent, and iii) the complexity of an IS-variant depends
on the two dimensions of information structural bracketing: Topic-
Comment-Structure (TCS) and Focus-Background-Structure (FBS).
The last assumption implies that the bigger the overlap is between
topic and background on the one hand, and between comment and
focus on the other hand, the less complex the information structure of
the given sentence is. Violation of any of the three assumptions adds
to the complexity of the IS of the given sentence.
Thetic sentences are the least complex sentences from the IS point of
view, since they place no restrictions to their context, and can be
uttered 'out-of-the-blue'. Categorical sentences have varying degrees
of complexity depending on how many of the above assumptions they
1a) [Der Kellner]T/B [beleidigte den GAST]C/F.
1b) [Den GAST]T/F [beleidigte der Kellner]C/B.
(T(opic), C(omment), B(ackground), F(ocus))
According to Weskott's theory the above two sentences represent the
two opposite ends of the spectrum of information structural
markedness: while the first sentence (1a) follows all the assumptions,
the second one (1b) violates all three of them. Hence, the information
structure of the second sentence is maximally complex. Weskott shows
that his approach about the scale of IS markedness and its relation to
the utterance context fits in nicely with empirical data about sentence
"Prosody in Dialogues and Single Sentences: How Prosody Can
Influence Speech Perception" by Claudia Hruska and Kai Alter studies
the role of intonational focus. They describe three different perception
experiments. The audio data used represented three different focus
conditions: neutral focus (2a), broad focus (2b), and narrow focus
(2c). Neutral focus requires no preceding context, and is purely
syntactically determined, while both broad and narrow focus need to
be embedded in context. This context was provided by preceding the
sentence containing the given focus type by an appropriate question.
2a) [Peter vershpricht Anna zu arbeiten](IPh) und das Büro zu putzen.
Q: Was verspricht Peter Anna zu tun?
A: Peter vershpricht Anna zu (ARBEITEN und das BÜRO zu putzen)
Q: Wem verspricht Peter zu arbeiten und das Büro zu putzen?
A: Peter vershpricht (ANNA)(F) zu arbeiten und das Büro zu putzen.
The first perception experiment explored the role of intonational focus
in dialogues, which in the present case consisted of question-answer
(QA) pairs. In addition to appropriate QA pairs, other pairs were
constructed where the focus in the answer did not match the question.
In the second and third perception experiment the subjects were
presented with single sentences that were either neutrally focussed or
contained a broad or a narrow focus.
Besides the judgment of the subjects about the appropriatenesss of
the sentences, electroencephalogram (EEG) was continuously
recorded, and event-related brain potentials were measured. In the
dialogues' experiment the subjects were very good at differentiating
between the matching and non-matching question-answer pairs
(98%) . The ERP data showed that inappropriate intonation impairs
comprehension. De-accentuation of new information causes bigger
problems than having superfluous accents in the sentence. The ERP
recordings showed that listeners concentrate their attention at the
sentence positions where new information is expected. In the single
sentence experiments neutral focus was preferred. The acceptance
rate for sentences with narrow focus was especially low (8%).
"On the Independence of Information Structural Processing from
Prosody" by Ulrike Toepel and Kai Alter continues in the same vein as
the previous paper in the book. This time the perceptual studies are
about whether the subjects are able to distinguish between a narrow
new focus accent and a contrastive focus accent in German
sentences. The authors carry out two perception experiments. They
use the same data in both experiments: 44 three sentence dialogues
where the third sentence is the critical one. Besides the appropriate
focus accent in appropriate context they create two inappropriate
conditions, changing the focus of the third sentence so that a
contrastive accent appears in a new focus context and a new focus
accent appears in a contrastive context. The only difference between
the experiments was that in the first experiment the subjects were
asked a content question based on each dialogue, while in the second
experiment they had to explicitly pay attention to the prosody of the
dialogues and assess its appropriateness. During the experiments the
electroencephalogram (EEG) was continuously recorded.
Based on ERP (event-related brain potential) data, the authors
conclude that subjects are sensitive to the subtle differences that the
new and the contrastive focus accent exhibit. Similarly to the previous
paper, the authors found that over-specification of prosodic
information (a contrastive focus accent in a new focus context) can be
dealt with without bigger problems, while prosodic under-specification
(a new focus accent in a contrastive focus context) causes processing
"The Prosodic Pattern of Contrastive Accent in Russian" by Grit
Mehlhorn describes the results from a production experiment and
three perception experiments that aimed at establishing whether
contrastive focus accent represented a different category from the
new focus accent in Russian.
In the production experiment the subjects had to read experimental
sentences set in appropriate context. The collected data revealed that
contrastive focus accents were characterised by a higher pitch than
the new focus accents. The length of the syllable carrying the main
accent was considerably increased in the case of the contrastive focus
accent. In contrast to sentences with a new focus accent, the ones
with a contrastive accent have strongly centred contours.
In the three perception experiments the subjects were asked to
determine the position of the accent, characterise the prominence of
the accent on a five-grade scale, and to characterise the pattern of the
perceived accent in terms of rises and falls. The results showed that
the subjects found it easier to correctly determine the location of
contrastive focus accents (98.8%) than new focus accents (54.6%).
The average grade of prominence the subjects assigned to contrastive
accents (4.42) was considerably higher than that assigned to new
focus accents (2.24). Even though there was not perfect agreement
among the subjects about the exact pattern of neither new focus nor
contrastive accents in Russian, they systematically assigned a
different pattern to contrastive accents as opposed to new focus
accents. The author concludes that the experimental data proves that
contrastive and new focus accents represent different categories in
In "Focus Structure and the Processing of Word Order Variations in
German", the authors, Britta Stolterfoht and Markus Bader study the
focus structural effects in processing German sentences with
scrambled word order. The basic assumption is that in order for focus
to project (i.e. produce wide focus reading) the constituent carrying
the nuclear accent has to be in its base position and in the sister
position of the verbal head (Haider & Rosengren 2002). If the nuclear
accent falls on a moved constituent, only narrow focus reading is
The preferred word order in German is subject before object (SO).
However, it is possible to scramble the object before the subject (OS).
Sometimes the syntactic function of the DPs can be locally or globally
ambiguous. The sentences in Examples 3a and 3b are ambiguous in
respect to their word order until the reader reads the finite verb. Then
the number information (singular or plural) of the verb disambiguates
the syntactic functions of the preceding DPs.
3a) Maria hat behauptet, dass [die Tante die Nichten begrüßt hat](F).
3b) Maria hat behauptet, dass die Tante(i) [die Nichten](F) t(i) begrüßt
According to the above assumption, at this point the reader, besides
performing a syntactic re-analysis, should also perform a focus
structural revision. The authors test this hypothesis in two reading
experiments. They measure the event-related brain potentials (ERPs)
of the subjects. The experimental data supports the hypothesis, since
in the case of scrambled sentences, an additional negative ERP effect
was observed. The authors interpret this as the result of focus
"Intonational Patterns in Contrast and Concession" by Carla Umbach,
Ina Mleinek, Christine Lehmann, Thomas Weskott, Kai Alter, Anita
Steube describes an experiment that was conducted to verify Lang's
(2001) hypothesis that in German the contrastive and the concessive
readings of but/aber-sentences are reflected in their distinct prosody.
The experiment was a speech production task where the subjects had
to read but/aber-sentences in their respective contrastive and
concessive contexts. The phonological analysis of results did not
reveal any systematic difference in the F0-contours of the two
readings. A further statistical analysis was performed to uncover any
hidden tendencies, but it also failed to reveal a systematic difference
between the two readings.
The authors admit that there is a big inter- and intra-subject variation
in the data, that does not allow them to provide a proof to Lang's
hypothesis. However, at the same time they avoid disproving the
hypothesis, saying that other uncontrolled factors may have been
present during the experiment. They also pronounce the possibility
that the distinction in intonational patterns proposed by Lang could still
emerge in the case of a larger sample size of subjects.
In "Prosody in Contrast. Prosodic Distinction of Contrast and
Correction Readings of Polish Adversative Coordinate Structures"
Dorothee Fehrmann examines the prosody of Polish adversative
coordinate structures, where the first conjunct contains a negative
marker (see Example 4).
Piotr nie ma samochodu, ale motocykl.
Peter S-Neg has car Conj motorbike
Depending on the context the sentence appears in, such coordinate
structures can be interpreted as contrast or correction. Fehrmann
investigates the question of whether these two readings are
distinguished by their prosody in Polish. In order to do that she
conducted a production experiment, where subjects had to read
lexically and syntactically identical adversative coordinate
constructions embedded in context to give them either a contrast or
The resulting intonation contours exhibited a lot of variability, and
therefore Fehrmann concludes that it is not obligatory in Polish to
differentiate between contrast or correction readings of adversative
structures by prosodic means. However, she does identify a frequent
intonation contour, that she calls 'the default-IC', with which correction
constructions are correlated more often than contrast constructions.
The default-IC is a single intonational phrase that covers the whole
coordinate construction. In the case of contrast it is more likely that
there is a sentence internal intonational boundary between the two
conjuncts. The author concludes that rather than being determined by
the conceptual interpretation type, the intonational patterns of
adversative coordinate constructions depend on the particular
information structure of the conjuncts.
The book is a diverse body of papers, all of which study some aspect
of information structure. The papers vary greatly as far as the
significance of their contribution and clarity of presentation are
concerned. As a downside, they exhibit the same vagueness of
definition so characteristic of the field of information structure, while
basing the theory mostly on syntactically simple and short examples.
Some of the papers suffer from structural deficits, such as the lack of
introduction and conclusion. In other papers central terminology is
used without providing a clear definition.
There are also some minor editorial issues, which nevertheless can
cause confusion. Besides some typos, in the first paper there are
some formatting problems where example text gets mixed up with the
text of the main body of the paper (page 10), and on pages 154 and
155 seven lines of text are printed twice.
All in all, several interesting ideas concerning information structure are
put forward in the collection. The book does a great service to the
heterogeneous field of information structure already merely by
bringing together between the same covers a body of papers from a
number of researchers in the field. This is hopefully a step forward
towards a more unified treatment of information structure over different
languages and schools of thought.
Büring, D. (1997): The Meaning of Topic and Focus. The 59th Street
Bridge Accent. London, New York: Routlege.
Haider, H. and I. Rosengren (2002): Scrambling -- Non-triggered
Chain Formation in OV-languages. MS. Salzburg University and Lund
Kadmon, N. (2001): Formal Pragmatics. Malden, MA, Oxford:
Lang, E. (2001): Kontrastiv vs. implikativ: Interpretationseffekte
intonatorischer Distinktionen bei Koordination. In: A. Steube and C.
Umbach (eds), 113-138.
Rooth, M. (1985): Association with focus. PhD dissertation. University
of Massachusetts, Amherst.
| ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Maarika Traat is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, UK.
She is working under the supervision of Mark Steedman and Johan
Bos. Her doctoral study focuses on developing a semantic
representation with information structure compatible with first order
logic, and embedding this semantics in a categorial grammar
formalism. Her other current research interests are the syntax and
semantics of English cleft constructions, and calculating