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Review of  True to Form

Reviewer: Brian Reese
Book Title: True to Form
Book Author: Christine Gunlogson
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Phonology
Issue Number: 16.1459

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Date: Fri, 6 May 2005 15:44:58 -0500
From: Brian Reese
Subject: True to Form: Rising and Falling Declaratives as Questions in

AUTHOR: Gunlogson, Christine
TITLE: True to Form
SUBTITLE: Rising and Falling Declaratives as Questions in English
SERIES: Outstanding Dissertations in Linguistics
PUBLISHER: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
YEAR: 2003

Brian Reese, Department of Linguistics, University of Texas at Austin


"True to Form" by Christine Gunlogson is an investigation of the use of
rising and falling declarative sentences as questions in English. The
central claim is that the meaning and use of these sentences is best
understood in terms of the interaction between their defining formal
characteristics: sentence type and intonational contour. The primary goal
is to provide a compositional analysis of these formal elements and, given
such a formal analysis, to explain facts about the distribution across
contexts of rising interrogatives, rising declaratives and falling
declaratives used with the force of a question. The book should be of
value to researchers interested in the semantics and pragmatics of
questions and intonation.


Chapter 1 provides an overview of the issues introduced above, while
simultaneously introducing the book's main methodological and formal
assumptions. Throughout the dissertation, Gunlogson uses a minimal pair
methodology, focusing on the use as questions of sentences like those in
(1). (A question mark indicates a final rise, while a final fall is
indicated with a period; I use Gunlogson's numbering throughout the

a. Is it raining?
b. It's raining?
c. It's raining.

There are two minimal pairs in (1): (1a-b) and (1b-c). Each of the
examples in (1) has the same propositional content, but (1a-b) differ in
sentence type (interrogative vs. declarative) and (1b-c) differ in
intonational contour (rising vs. falling). Each minimal pair, then,
isolates a distinct formal element: sentence type vs. intonational
contour. Contexts where rising and falling declaratives pattern together
to the exclusion of rising interrogatives provide insight into the
semantic contribution of rising intonation. Likewise, contexts where
rising interrogatives and rising declaratives pattern together to the
exclusion of falling declaratives provide insight into the semantic
contribution of sentence type. Gunlogson's thesis is that both of these
formal elements contribute to the distributional restrictions on uses of
declarative sentences as questions. The primary goal of the dissertation,
then, is to provide a compositional semantic analysis of sentence type and
intonation, with a secondary goal of explaining how the meaning of rising
and falling declaratives relates to their interpretation as questions.

Gunlogson is careful to explicitly state her assumptions regarding the
formal elements isolated by her minimal pair methodology, especially
phonological assumptions relating to intonational contour. Final rises and
falls are treated as elements of an intonational lexicon (Ladd 1980).
Gunlogson characterizes a final rise as a non-falling pitch contour from
the nuclear pitch accent to the end of the utterance ending at a point
higher than the nuclear accent. In the Pierrehumbert and Hirschberg (1990)
system this definition would encompass the following tunes: H* H H%, L* H
H%, L* H L% and L* L H%. A final fall is characterized by a non-rising
pitch contour from the nuclear pitch accent to the terminus ending at a
point lower than the nuclear accent.

Chapter 1 closes with a brief discussion of the previous literature.

Chapter 2 lays the empirical groundwork for Gunlogson's formal analysis.
Specifically, she presents data supporting the generalizations in (8) and

(8) Declaratives express a bias that is absent with the use of
interrogatives; they cannot be used as neutral questions.

(9) Rising declaratives, like interrogatives, fail to commit the speaker
to their content.

She bases the generalization in (8) on the observation that
interrogatives , but not rising or falling declaratives, are felicitous in
contexts that require neutrality. Polar interrogatives can be used as exam
questions, for example, as shown in (15).

(15) [as an exam question]
a. Is the empty set a member of itself?
b. #The empty set is a member of itself?
c. #The empty set is a member of itself.

Gunlogson uses a similar kind of argument to support (9), finding contexts
where rising declaratives pattern with rising interrogatives. She notes
that rising declaratives and polar interrogatives are consistent with a
wider range of speaker attitudes than falling declaratives, from routine
acceptance to skepticism. Falling declaratives on the other hand only
allow propositional attitudes consistent with commitment. Furthermore,
rising declaratives and polar interrogatives are consistent with contexts
where the knowledgeability of the addressee rather than the speaker is at

Gunlogson concludes that declaratives express commitment to the
propositional content by some discourse participant. This rules out
declaratives as questions in contexts where neutrality is called for. It
is the intonational component of a locution that determines which
participant is committed. A rising declarative commits the addressee,
while a falling declarative commits the speaker. Hence a falling
declarative only allows speaker attitudes consistent with commitment.

Chapter 3 presents a formal, compositional analysis of these intuitions
that builds on Stalnaker's (1978) notion of common ground. Whereas a
classic "Stalnakerian" common ground is a set of propositions representing
the mutual beliefs of the participants in a discourse, Gunlogson's common
ground is a tuple of sets of propositions representing the public beliefs
or discourse commitments of each participant. A classic common ground is
recoverable by collecting those propositions common to each set in the
tuple. Crucial to Gunlogson's analysis is the notion of "public belief."
In a context where A has argued for "p" and B for "not p", neither "p"
nor "not p" will be in the common ground, but "A believes that p" will be
(among other propositions). So Gunlogson's common ground records the
beliefs that each discourse participant has publicly committed themselves
to, be it through linguistic or extra-linguistic means.
Stalnaker's "context set", the set of possible worlds consistent with the
mutual beliefs of the discourse participants, is mirrored in Gunlogson
by "commitment sets", the set of worlds consistent with a participant's
public beliefs. There is a commitment set associated with each discourse

A number of auxiliary notions are defined which describe the status of a
proposition p with respect to a context C, e.g., commitment, joint
commitment, resolved, controversial. Most important are formal definitions
of bias and neutrality. A context C is said to be biased toward a
proposition p iff p is a commitment of at least one discourse participant
and not-p isn't a commitment of any discourse participant. In other words,
it is possible for p to become a joint commitment of the discourse
participants without revising the context. C is neutral with respect to p
iff no discourse participant is committed to either p or not-p.

With this extended notion of context in hand, Gunlogson proceeds to
provide a semantics for sentence type and intonation in terms of their
context change potential (CCP) (Heim 1982). A declarative sentence, for
example, updates the commitment set of one of the discourse participants
with the descriptive content of the declarative. Whether it is the
speaker's or addressee's commitment set is determined by the intonational
component: a final fall commits the speaker, whereas a final rise commits
the addressee. A rising declarative, then, updates the addressee's
commitment set with the descriptive content of the declarative.
Interrogatives, on the other hand, do not result in an update of the
targeted commitment set. If L is an utterance of a rising interrogative in
a context C, C + L = C. So with respect to any context C, no declarative
sentence is ever neutral and no interrogative is biasing. This result is
consistent with the descriptive generalization in (8): declaratives always
express commitment on the part of some discourse participant. The
generalization in (9) is also covered, since a final rise always targets
the commitment set of the addressee, not the speaker.

Chapter 3 closes with the definition of a number of auxiliary notions such
as entailment, uninformativeness and vacuousness. Entailment is defined,
as usual, in terms of inclusion. A locution L based on a sentence S is
uninformative with respect to an individual commitment set iff S is
entailed by that commitment set (and assuming that L's presuppositions are
satisfied in the context). A locution is vacuous iff its descriptive
content p is a joint commitment in the context C.

Chapter 4 provides a definition of the pragmatic category "polar question"
in distributional terms. A locution L, Gunlogson claims, is interpretable
as a polar question in a context C iff L is uninformative with respect to
the context set of the addressee. Interrogatives are uninformative by
definition, so any utterance of a polar interrogative qualifies as a polar
question. Declaratives, on the other hand, express commitment either on
the part of the speaker or the addressee and so count as polar questions
only if the descriptive content p of the declarative is entailed by the
addressee's commitment set, i.e., if the addressee is already publicly
committed to p. Gunlogson refers to this constraint as the Contextual Bias
Condition. She provides evidence that uninformativeness with respect to
the addressee's public beliefs is critical, rather than what it might be
reasonable for the speaker to assume about the beliefs of the addressee.

Section 4.2 addresses declarative questions in more detail. Gunlogson
introduces uses of rising declaratives as questions that do not satisfy
the uninformativeness condition. For example, she introduces data where
the descriptive content p of the declarative is not a logical consequence
of the addressee's public beliefs. In such cases she suggests the
possibility of accommodating (Lewis 1979) the rising declarative as a
question. She mentions a number of factors that may affect the addressee's
ability to accommodate a declarative question, for example the relative
knowledge of the discourse participants.

Section 4.3 notes the affinity between polar interrogatives and rising
declaratives given the formal apparatus from Chapter 3 and the Contextual
Bias Constraint, accounting for the naturalness of rising declaratives as
questions. She then offers a revision of the definition of polar
questions that is needed in order to capture the narrower distribution of
falling declaratives as questions compared to rising declaratives. Falling
declaratives as questions commit the speaker to the descriptive content p
of the locution and so differ from interrogatives and rising declaratives
in contexts where the Contextual Bias Condition is met. She suggests that
in uses of falling declaratives as questions, it is understood that the
speaker's commitment is contingent on the addressee's commitment.

Gunlogson notes that rising declaratives as questions are more marked than
polar interrogatives and that falling declaratives as questions are more
marked than rising declaratives, where markedness is understood in terms
of distribution across contexts. This follows from the update semantics
given Chapter 3 and the final, revised definition of polar question in
Chapter 4. The chapter closes with a discussion of the discourse
functions consistent with locutions satisfying the Contextual Bias

Chapter 5 summarizes the empirical observations and formal analysis
presented in the preceding chapters.


"True to Form" is an important contribution to the literature on the
meaning and pragmatic effects of specific intonational contours. Gunlogson
takes a difficult set of data and presents it in a way that allows clear
empirical generalizations to emerge. This is due, no doubt, to the
explicitness with which Gunlogson conducts her investigation, especially
as regards the minimal pair methodology. The clarity of the discussion is
helped by the fact that Gunlogson circumscribes the empirical domain of
the investigation rather narrowly. This simplifies the discussion greatly,
but consequently it is not clear how her analysis extends to other types
of data, e.g., negative polar interrogatives as in (15d), which have a
biasing effect despite their interrogative syntax (Ladd 1981, Buring and
Gunlogson 2000, Romero and Han 2004).

(15) [as an exam question]
a. Is the empty set a member of itself?
b. #The empty set is a member of itself?
c. #The empty set is a member of itself.
d. #Isn't the empty set a member of itself?

Gunlogson acknowledges this narrow empirical focus and recognizes the
existence of such examples.

A more substantial criticism relates to the requirement that the addressee
be publicly committed to the descriptive content of a a rising declarative
used as a question. (Safarova 2005 raises similar concerns.) The
Contextual Bias Condition predicts that only affirmative answers to the
question should be possible since the proposition corresponding to the
positive answer must be a public belief of the addressee. Although this
seems right for "echoic" uses of rising declaratives, it runs into
problems with respect to the so-called "inferential" questions discussed
in Chapter 4. A negative answer seems equally likely in these cases.
(120') is a modified version of the dialogue in Gunlogson's (120).

A: Mark and Helena are leaving for Japan this week.
B: Oh... You talked to Helena?
A: No. I saw her sister at the supermarket.

Gunlogson accounts for this kind of example by accommodating a conditional
of the form q --> p in the addressee's commitment set where p is the
descriptive content of the rising declarative and q is a public belief of
the addressee on which the inference is based. The addressee, then, is
effectively committed to p. Yet, a negative answer is felicitous in this
context. These facts weaken the argument for Gunlogson's definition of a
polar question, in particular the Contextual Bias Condition, which follows
from her compositional semantic story.

Overall, however, "True to Form" is an important step in research on the
relationship between intonation, meaning and illocutionary force and
should serve as a model for its clarity and formal explicitness. In
addition, it provides a formally precise and clearly articulated extension
of the classic notion of common ground that should be useful to
researchers working on a variety of topics in formal semantics and
pragmatics, especially those interested in intonational meaning and


Buring, Daniel and Christine Gunlogson. 2000. Aren't positive and negative
polar questions the same? Manuscript.

Heim, Irene. 1982. The semantics of definite and indefinite noun phrases.
Ph.D. dissertation, University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Ladd, D. Robert. 1980. The structure of intonational meaning: evidence
from English. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Ladd, D. Robert. 1981. A first look at the semantics and pragmatics of
negative questions and tag questions. Chicago Linguistic Society 17, pp.

Lewis, David. 1979. Scorekeeping in a language game. Journal of
Philosophical Logic 8: 339-359.

Pierrehumbert, Janet and Julia Hirschberg. 1990. The meaning of
intonational contours in the interpretation of discourse. In Philip R.
Cohen, Jerry L. Morgan, and Martha E. Pollack, eds., Intentions in
communication. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 271-311.

Romero, Maribel and Chung-hye Han. 2004. On negative yes/no questions.
Linguistics and Philosophy 27: 609-658.

Safarova, Marie. 2005. The semantics of rising intonation in
interrogatives and declaratives. In Emar Maier, Corien Bary and Janneke
Huitink, eds., Proceedings of SuB9., pp. 355-369.

Stalnaker, Robert. 1978. Assertion. In Peter Cole, ed., Pragmatics: Syntax
and Semantics, Volume 9. New York: Academic Press.


Brian Reese is a PhD candidate in the Department of Linguistics at the
University of Texas at Austin working under the supervision of Professor
Nicholas Asher. His main research interests include formal semantics and
pragmatics and computational linguistics. He is currently preparing a
dissertation on bias in questions, addressing, in particular, the
semantics and pragmatics of questions containing negative polarity items,
negative polar questions and the role of intonation in promoting bias.

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