The role of focus intonation in implicature computation: a comparison with only and also

  • Nicole GotznerEmail author
Open Access


The function of focus is to activate alternatives, and these activated alternatives are used to compute the corresponding inferences of an utterance. The experimental research reported here investigates the role of focus intonation in inference computation and its interplay with the overt focus particles only and also. In particular, I compare the mechanisms underlying the computation of exhaustivity implicatures, assertions, and additive presuppositions. A memory delay experiment revealed that contrastive intonation (L+H*) makes an exhaustive interpretation equally available as overt only. A second experiment showed that in immediate processing, the implicature in bare focus conditions is delayed relative to the inferences associated with only and also. The findings thus indicate that L+H* accents do not conventionally encode an exhaustive meaning, but encourage implicature computation by (i) making relevant alternatives salient and (ii) providing a strong cue that an inference should be derived.


Focus intonation Focus particles Implicatures Exhaustivity Presuppositions 



  1. Abusch, D. 2002. Lexical alternatives as a source of pragmatic presuppositions. In Proceedings of SALT 12, ed. B. Jackson, 1–19. Ithaca, NY: CLC Publications.Google Scholar
  2. Alter, K., I. Mleinek, T. Rohe, A. Steube, and C. Umbach. 2001. Kontrastprosodie in Sprachproduktion und -perzeption. Linguistische Arbeitsberichte 77: 59–79.Google Scholar
  3. Barr, D.J., R. Levy, C. Scheepers, and H.J. Tily. 2013. Random effects structure for confirmatory hypothesis testing: Keep it maximal. Journal of Memory and Language 68 (3): 255–278.Google Scholar
  4. Bartels, C., and J. Kingston. 1994. Salient pitch cues in the perception of contrastive focus. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 95 (5): 2973–2973.Google Scholar
  5. Bates, D., and D. Sarkar. 2007. Lme4: Linear mixed-effects models using s4 classes.Google Scholar
  6. Baumann, S., M. Grice, and S. Steindamm. 2006. Prosodic marking of focus domains—Categorical or gradient. In Proceedings of Speech Prosody 2006, ed. R. Hoffman and H. Mixdorff, 301–304. Dresden: TUD Press.Google Scholar
  7. Bergen, L., and D.J. Grodner. 2012. Speaker knowledge influences the comprehension of pragmatic inferences. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition 38 (5): 1450.Google Scholar
  8. Bott, L., and I. Noveck. 2004. Some utterances are underinformative: The onset and time course of scalar inferences. Journal of Memory and Language 51 (3): 437–457.Google Scholar
  9. Bott, L., T. Bailey, and D. Grodner. 2012. Distinguishing speed from accuracy in scalar implicatures. Journal of Memory and Language 66 (1): 123–142.Google Scholar
  10. Braun, B., and L. Tagliapietra. 2010. The role of contrastive intonation contours in the retrieval of contextual alternatives. Language and Cognitive Processes 25: 1024–1043.Google Scholar
  11. Breheny, R., H.J. Ferguson, and N. Katsos. 2013. Taking the epistemic step: Toward a model of on-line access to conversational implicatures. Cognition 126 (3): 423–440.Google Scholar
  12. Byram-Washburn, M. 2013. Narrowing the Focus: Experimental studies on exhaustivity and contrast. PhD thesis, University of Southern California.Google Scholar
  13. Calhoun, S. 2009. What makes a word contrastive? Prosodic, semantic and pragmatic perspectives. In Where prosody meets pragmatics: Research at the interface (Studies in Pragmatics), vol. 8, ed. N.D.D. Barth-Weingarten and A. Wichmann, 53–78. Bingley: Emerald Group Publishing.Google Scholar
  14. Chemla, E., and L. Bott. 2014. Processing inferences at the semantics/pragmatics frontier: Disjunctions and free choice. Cognition 130 (3): 380–396.Google Scholar
  15. Chemla, E., and R. Singh. 2014. Remarks on the experimental turn in the study of scalar implicature, part I. Language and Linguistics Compass 8 (9): 373–386.Google Scholar
  16. Chevallier, C., I. Noveck, T. Nazir, L. Bott, V. Lanzetti, and D. Sperber. 2008. Making disjunctions exclusive. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology 61 (11): 1741–1760.Google Scholar
  17. Chierchia, G. 2004. Scalar implicatures, polarity phenomena, and the syntax/pragmatics interface. Structures and Beyond 3: 39–103.Google Scholar
  18. Chierchia, G. 2006. Broaden your views: Implicatures of domain widening and the logicality of language. Linguistic Inquiry 37 (4): 535–590.Google Scholar
  19. Chierchia, G. 2013. Logic in grammar: Polarity, free choice, and intervention, vol. 2. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  20. De Neys, W., and W. Schaeken. 2007. When people are more logical under cognitive load: Dual task impact on scalar implicature. Experimental Psychology 54 (2): 128–133.Google Scholar
  21. Degen, J. 2015. Investigating the distribution of some (but not all) implicatures using corpora and web-based methods. Semantics and Pragmatics 8 (11): 1–55.Google Scholar
  22. Degen, J., and M. Tanenhaus. 2015. Processing scalar implicature: A constraint-based approach. Cognitive Science 39 (4): 667–710.Google Scholar
  23. Degen, J., and M. Tanenhaus. 2016. Availability of alternatives and the processing of scalar implicatures: A visual world eye tracking study. Cognitive Science 40 (1): 172–201.Google Scholar
  24. Dieussaert, K., S. Verkerk, E. Gillard, and W. Schaeken. 2011. Some effort for some: Further evidence that scalar implicatures are effortful. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology 64 (12): 2352–2367.Google Scholar
  25. Domaneschi, F., E. Carrea, C. Penco, and A. Greco. 2014. The cognitive load of presupposition triggers: Mandatory and optional repairs in presupposition failure. Language, Cognition and Neuroscience 29 (1): 136–146.Google Scholar
  26. Fox, D., and R. Katzir. 2011. On the characterization of alternatives. Natural Language Semantics 19 (1): 87–107.Google Scholar
  27. Fraundorf, S., D. Watson, and A. Benjamin. 2010. Recognition memory reveals just how contrastive contrastive accenting really is. Journal of Memory and Language 63: 367–386.Google Scholar
  28. Fretheim, T. 1992. The effect of intonation on a type of scalar implicature. Journal of Pragmatics 18 (1): 1–30.Google Scholar
  29. Gotzner, N. 2017. Alternative sets in language processing: How focus alternatives are represented in the mind. Palgrave Studies in Pragmatics, Language and Cognition. London: Palgrave Macmillan.Google Scholar
  30. Gotzner, N., and K. Spalek. 2014. Exhaustive inferences and additive presuppositions: The interplay of focus operators and contrastive intonation. In Proceedings of the Formal and Experimental Pragmatics Workshop (ESSLII 2014), ed. J. Degen, M. Franke, and N. Goodman, 7–13. Tübingen University.Google Scholar
  31. Gotzner, N., and K. Spalek. 2016. The role of contrastive and non-contrastive associates in the interpretation of focus particles. Discourse Processes 54 (8): 638–654. Scholar
  32. Gotzner, N., and K. Spalek. 2017. The connection between focus and implicatures: Investigating alternative activation under working memory load. In Linguistic and Psycholinguistic Approaches on Implicatures and Presuppositions, ed. S. Pistoia-Reda, and F. Domaneschi, 175–198. London: Palgrave Macmillan.Google Scholar
  33. Gotzner, N., K. Spalek, and I. Wartenburger. 2013. How pitch accents and focus particles affect the recognition of contextual alternatives. In Proceedings of the 35th Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society, ed. M. Knauff, M. Pauen, N. Sebanz, and I. Wachsmuth, 2434–2440. Austin, TX: Cognitive Science Society.Google Scholar
  34. Gotzner, N., I. Wartenburger, and K. Spalek. 2016. The impact of focus particles on the recognition and rejection of contrastive alternatives. Language and Cognition 8: 59–95.Google Scholar
  35. Grice, M., and S. Baumann. 2002. Deutsche Intonation und GToBI. Linguistische Berichte 191: 267–298.Google Scholar
  36. Grice, M., S. Baumann, and R. Benzmüller. 2005. German intonation in autosegmental-metrical phonology. In Prosodic typology: The phonology of intonation and phrasing, ed. S.-A. Jun, 55–83. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  37. Grice, M., S. Ritter, H. Niemann, and T.B. Roettger. 2017. Integrating the discreteness and continuity of intonational categories. Journal of Phonetics 64: 90–107.Google Scholar
  38. Grice, P. 1975. Logic and conversation. Syntax and Semantics 3: 41–58.Google Scholar
  39. Grodner, D., N. Klein, K. Carbary, and M. Tanenhaus. 2010. Some, and possibly all, scalar inferences are not delayed: Evidence for immediate pragmatic enrichment. Cognition 116 (1): 42–55.Google Scholar
  40. Groenendijk, J.A.G., and M.J.B. Stokhof. 1984. Studies on the semantics of questions and the pragmatics of answers. PhD thesis, University of Amsterdam.Google Scholar
  41. Horn, L.R. 1976. On the semantic properties of logical operators in English. Bloomington: Indiana University Linguistics Club.Google Scholar
  42. Huang, Y., and J. Snedeker. 2009. Online interpretation of scalar quantifiers: Insight into the semantics–pragmatics interface. Cognitive Psychology 58 (3): 376–415.Google Scholar
  43. Husband, E.M., and F. Ferreira. 2016. The role of selection in the comprehension of focus alternatives. Language, Cognition and Neuroscience 31: 217–235.Google Scholar
  44. Ito, K., and S.R. Speer. 2008. Anticipatory effects of intonation: Eye movements during instructed visual search. Journal of Memory and Language 58 (2): 541–573.Google Scholar
  45. Ito, K., S. Speer, and M. Beckman. 2004. Informational status and pitch accent distribution in spontaneous dialogues in English. In Proceedings of Speech Prosody 2004, ed. B. Bel and I. Marlien, 279–282. SProSIG, Aix.Google Scholar
  46. Katz, J., and E. Selkirk. 2011. Contrastive focus vs. discourse-new: Evidence from phonetic prominence in English. Language 87 (4): 771–816.Google Scholar
  47. Kim, C. 2012. Generating alternatives: Interpreting focus in discourse. PhD thesis, University of Rochester.Google Scholar
  48. Krahmer, E., and M. Swerts. 2001. On the alleged existence of contrastive accents. Speech Communication 34: 391–405.Google Scholar
  49. Kripke, S. 2009. Presupposition and anaphora: Remarks on the formulation of the projection problem. Linguistic Inquiry 40 (3): 367–386.Google Scholar
  50. Kügler, F., and A. Gollrad. 2015. Production and perception of contrast: The case of the rise-fall contour in German. Frontiers in Psychology 4: 403. Scholar
  51. Kuznetsova, A., P.B. Brockhoff, and R.H.B. Christensen. 2015. Package ‘lmertest’. R package version 2(0).Google Scholar
  52. Lee, C. 2008. Contrastive (predicate) topic, intonation, and scalar meanings. Topic and Focus: Cross-linguistic perspectives in meaning and intonation, ed. C. Lee et al., 151–175. Berlin: Springer.Google Scholar
  53. Marty, P.E. 2013. Scalar implicatures: Working memory and a comparison with only. Frontiers in Psychology 4: 403.Google Scholar
  54. Onea, E., and D. Beaver. 2011. Hungarian focus is not exhausted. In Proceedings of SALT 19, ed. S.I.E. Cormany and D. Lutz, 342–359. Washington, D.C.: LSA.Google Scholar
  55. Pierrehumbert, J. 1980. The phonology and phonetics of English intonation. PhD thesis, MIT.Google Scholar
  56. Pierrehumbert, J., and J. Hirschberg. 1990. The meaning of intonational contours in the interpretation of discourse. In Intentions in Communication, ed. P. Cohen, J. Morgan, and M. Pollack, 271–311. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  57. Rochemont, M. 1986. Focus in generative grammar. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing.Google Scholar
  58. Rooth, M. 1985. Association with focus. PhD thesis, MIT.Google Scholar
  59. Rooth, M. 1992. A theory of focus interpretation. Journal of Semantics 1: 1–42.Google Scholar
  60. Sauerland, U. 2004. Scalar implicatures in complex sentences. Linguistics and Philosophy 27 (3): 367–391.Google Scholar
  61. Sauerland, U. 2012. The computation of scalar implicatures: Pragmatic, lexical or grammatical? Language and Linguistics Compass 6 (1): 36–49.Google Scholar
  62. Schulz, K., and R. van Rooij. 2006. Pragmatic meaning and non-monotonic reasoning: The case of exhaustive interpretation. Linguistics and Philosophy 29 (2): 205–250.Google Scholar
  63. Schwarz, F. 1015. Presuppositions vs. asserted content in online processing. In Experimental perspectives on presuppositions, ed. F. Schwarz, 89–108. Berlin: Springer.Google Scholar
  64. Schwarz, F., C. Clifton, and L. Frazier. 2008. Strengthening or: Effects of focus and downward entailing contexts on scalar implicatures. In Semantics and Processing (UMOP 37), ed. J. Anderssen et al. Amherst, MA: GLSA.Google Scholar
  65. Selkirk, E. 2002. Contrastive focus vs. presentational focus: Prosodic evidence from right node raising in English. In Proceedings of Speech Prosody 2002, ed. B. Bel and I. Marlin, 643–646. Aix: Université de Provence.Google Scholar
  66. Silverman, K.E., M.E. Beckman, J.F. Pitrelli, M. Ostendorf, C.W. Wightman, P. Price, J. Pierrehumbert, and J. Hirschberg. 1992. ToBI: A standard for labeling English prosody. ICSLP 2: 867–870. Edmonton: University of AlbertaGoogle Scholar
  67. Singh, R., E. Fedorenko, and E. Gibson. 2015. Accommodating presuppositions is inappropriate only in implausible contexts. Cognitive Science 40(3), 607–634.
  68. Sudhoff, S. 2010. Focus particles and contrast in German. Lingua 120 (6): 1458–1475.Google Scholar
  69. Tomlinson, J., T. Bailey, and L. Bott. 2013. Possibly all of that and then some: Scalar implicatures are understood in two steps. Journal of Memory and Language 69 (1): 18–35.Google Scholar
  70. Tomlinson, J., N. Gotzner, and L. Bott. 2017. Intonation and pragmatic enrichment: How intonation constrains ad-hoc scalar inferences. Language and Speech 60 (2): 200–224.Google Scholar
  71. van Kuppevelt, J. 1996. Inferring from topics. Linguistics and Philosophy 19 (4): 393–443.Google Scholar
  72. van Rooij, R., and K. Schulz. 2004. Exhaustive interpretation of complex sentences. Journal of Logic, Language and Information 13 (4): 491–519.Google Scholar
  73. van Tiel, B., and W. Schaeken. 2017. Processing conversational implicatures: Alternatives and counterfactual reasoning. Cognitive Science 41 (5): 1119–1154.Google Scholar
  74. Wagner, M., and D.G. Watson. 2010. Experimental and theoretical advances in prosody: A review. Language and Cognitive Processes 25 (7–9): 905–945.Google Scholar
  75. Ward, G., and J. Hirschberg. 1985. Implicating uncertainty: The pragmatics of fall-rise intonation. Language 64 (4): 747–776.Google Scholar
  76. Watson, D., C. Gunlogson, and M. Tanenhaus. 2008. Interpreting pitch accents in on-line comprehension: H* vs. L+H*. Cognitive Science 32: 1232–1244.Google Scholar
  77. Zondervan, A. 2010. Scalar implicatures or focus: An experimental approach. Amsterdam: LOTGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2019

Open AccessThis article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made.

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Leibniz-Zentrum Allgemeine Sprachwissenschaft (ZAS)BerlinGermany

Personalised recommendations