LINGUIST List 12.1356

Thu May 17 2001

Review: Herburger, What Counts: Focus & Quantification

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  • 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 <>
    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.


    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.


    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.