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Topic, Focus, and Exhaustive Interpretation

Part of the Studies in Natural Language and Linguistic Theory book series (SNLT,volume 91)


In this paper, we propose that a sentence like John \(_T\) ate broccoli \(_F\) should pragmatically be interpreted as follows: (a) Focus should be interpreted exhaustively; John ate only broccoli; (b) Topic must be interpreted exhaustively: Only John ate (only) broccoli; and (c) The speaker takes it to be possible (or even knows, if he is competent) that at least one alternative of the form x ate y not entailed by the sentence is true. It will be shown that in terms of this analysis we can also account for all the scope-inversion data of Büring (Linguist Philos 20: 175–194, 1997), without giving rise to some of the problems of the latter analysis.


  • Topic
  • Focus
  • Exhaustive interpretation
  • Dynamic semantics
  • Economic encoding
  • Questions

The ideas in Sects. 14 and 6 of this paper were presented during the 2007-Contrastiveness and Scalar Implicatures workshop of CIL 18 in Seoul. The ideas and even the writing of Sects. 25 date back to 2004. The ideas presented in Sect. 6 were developed in cooperation with Yurie Hara to improve on some ideas of Hara (2005) and discussed in a joint draft that was never published. We would like to thank Yurie Hara for her ‘intellectual’ contribution to this paper. Furthermore, we would like to thank Chungmin Lee, an anonymous reviewer, and the participants of the workshop for their comments.

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  1. 1.

    Only later we will discuss another theory that is perhaps not so popular.

  2. 2.

    This rule slightly differs from the one given explicitly by Krifka in that we assume that Alt(F) is closed under conjunction (group-forming), instead of Krifka’s assumption that \(F'\) can be any subset of Alt(F). This does not seem to make any difference, though.

  3. 3.

    In this rule, and later, we could replace \(Alt(\phi )\) by a contextually given subset of \(Alt(\phi )\) as suggested by Rooth (1992), Roberts (1996), and others. We will leave these changes to the reader.

  4. 4.

    This complaint goes back at least to Soames (1982) and has been taken up by recent defenders of the Gricean picture such as Rooij and Schulz (2004), Sauerland (2004), and Spector (2003).

  5. 5.

    As stressed by Chungmin Lee (1999, and personal communication), it is now generally assumed that a difference should be made between non-contrastive thematic topic (with no focal component) and contrastive topic with focal component. In this paper, we always refer to the latter type of topical construction.

  6. 6.

    Recall that already Reinhart (1981) proposed a referential analysis of sentential topics.

  7. 7.

    The suggestion that for the interpretation of topical accent, we need to make use of diccourse referents is not new. Vallduvi (1994, p. 7), for instance, claims that “[...] the internal structure of information states which is, in fact, crucially exploited by the different information-packaging strategies used by speakers in pursuing communicative efficiency is at least a system of file cards connected by pointers.”

  8. 8.

    In this explicit representation, ‘Exh’ is used as an operator that can be used freely in the representation of the sentence. This way of representing things here is only for convenience, however. In Rooij and Schulz (2006) a dynamic exhaustivity operator is defined that takes scope over the whole sentence (and in particular over the existential quantifier), but is interpreted just as (16) should intuitively be interpreted. Thus, our proposal is still completely compatible with a Gricean global analysis of implicatures.

  9. 9.

    This seems compatible with Féry’s first constraint on when we can replace a hat-pattern with two times focus accent.

  10. 10.

    This does not mean that as a result the topical expressions should always have wide scope. If so, it would give rise to the prediction that [Alle] \(_T\) Politiker sind [nicht] \(_F\) korrupt. receives the small-scope reading of negation, which is wrong as made clear by Büring’s (1997). We will come back to this example in the next section.

  11. 11.

    However, if the theme is totally predictable (i.e., has zero entropy), the ordering does not affect the information balance. Examples like Q: Who knows the secret? A: Peter \(_F\) knows it, which are problematic for more naive ‘old things first’-hypotheses, can now be accounted for.

  12. 12.

    The most obvious way to formally account for our extra topical inference of \(\phi \) = “[John]\(_T\) ate [broccoli]\(_F\)” is as follows: \( \exists \psi \in \{Ate(x,y): x \in T \ \& \ y \in F \ \& \ \phi \nvDash Ate(x,y)\}: \Diamond \psi \), with T and F the set of topical and focal alternatives to John and broccoli, respectively. However, there are reasons to prefer the following formulation of basically the same idea: \( \exists \psi \in \{Ate(x,y): x \in (T - \{j\}) \ \& \ y \in (F-\{b\}) \ \& \ \phi \nvDash Ate(x,y) \}: \Diamond \psi \). The main reason for preferring this alternative is that in this way we can easily explain why a sentence like “John did [not\(]_T\) eat [five\(]_F\) apples” seems to implicate that John ate at least one apple (without it being required that he ate exactly four apples). The reason is that the predicted topical inference is now that the speaker thinks it is possible that John ate at least one apple, which after strengthening gives the desired result.

  13. 13.

    Of course, the problem doesn’t show up in Büring’s (2003) newer analysis either. But the explanation in this latter paper is rather different from the one adopted in Büring (1997), while the one we proposed is very similar in spirit to this earlier proposal, it is just weaker.


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van Rooij, R., Schulz, K. (2017). Topic, Focus, and Exhaustive Interpretation. In: Lee, C., Kiefer, F., Krifka, M. (eds) Contrastiveness in Information Structure, Alternatives and Scalar Implicatures. Studies in Natural Language and Linguistic Theory, vol 91. Springer, Cham.

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