Focus (linguistics)

Focus (linguistics)

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Focus is most commonly understood in linguistics
Linguistics is the scientific study of human language. Linguistics can be broadly broken into three categories or subfields of study: language form, language meaning, and language in context....

 to refer to that part of a sentence which expresses the centre of attention or assertion of the utterance, that part of its meaning which is not presupposed in discourse. Related terms for the same, or highly similar concepts, are Comment and Rheme.

Generative approaches

In generative linguistics, focus determines which part of the sentence contributes new or “textually and situationally non-derivable information”.
Standard generative approaches to grammar argue that phonology
Phonology is, broadly speaking, the subdiscipline of linguistics concerned with the sounds of language. That is, it is the systematic use of sound to encode meaning in any spoken human language, or the field of linguistics studying this use...

 and semantics
Semantics is the study of meaning. It focuses on the relation between signifiers, such as words, phrases, signs and symbols, and what they stand for, their denotata....

 cannot exchange information directly (See Fig. 1). Therefore, syntactic mechanisms including features and transformations
Transformational grammar
In linguistics, a transformational grammar or transformational-generative grammar is a generative grammar, especially of a natural language, that has been developed in the Chomskyan tradition of phrase structure grammars...

 include prosodic information regarding focus that is passed to the semantics and phonology.

Focus may be highlighted either prosodically or syntactically or both, depending on the language. In syntax this can be done assigning focus markers, as shown in (1), or by preposing as shown in (2):

(1) I saw [JOHN] f.

(2) [JOHN] f, I saw.

In (1), focus is marked syntactically with the subscripted ‘f’ which is realized phonologically by a nuclear pitch accent
Pitch accent
Pitch accent is a linguistic term of convenience for a variety of restricted tone systems that use variations in pitch to give prominence to a syllable or mora within a word. The placement of this tone or the way it is realized can give different meanings to otherwise similar words...

. Clefting induces an obligatory intonation break. Therefore in (2), focus is marked via word order and a nuclear pitch accent.

Focus also relates to phonology and has ramifications for how and where suprasegmental
Prosody (linguistics)
In linguistics, prosody is the rhythm, stress, and intonation of speech. Prosody may reflect various features of the speaker or the utterance: the emotional state of the speaker; the form of the utterance ; the presence of irony or sarcasm; emphasis, contrast, and focus; or other elements of...

 information such as rhythm
Rhythm may be generally defined as a "movement marked by the regulated succession of strong and weak elements, or of opposite or different conditions." This general meaning of regular recurrence or pattern in time may be applied to a wide variety of cyclical natural phenomena having a periodicity or...

, stress
Stress (linguistics)
In linguistics, stress is the relative emphasis that may be given to certain syllables in a word, or to certain words in a phrase or sentence. The term is also used for similar patterns of phonetic prominence inside syllables. The word accent is sometimes also used with this sense.The stress placed...

, and intonation
Intonation (linguistics)
In linguistics, intonation is variation of pitch while speaking which is not used to distinguish words. It contrasts with tone, in which pitch variation does distinguish words. Intonation, rhythm, and stress are the three main elements of linguistic prosody...

 is encoded in the grammar, and in particular intonational tunes which mark focus. Speakers can use pitch accents on syllables to indicate what word(s) are in focus. New words are often accented while given words are not. The accented word(s) forms the focus domain. However, not all of the words in a focus domain need be accented. (See for rules on accent placement and focus-marking). The focus domain can be either broad, as shown in (3), or narrow, as shown in (4) and (5):

(3) Did you see a grey dog or a cat? I saw [a grey DOG] f.

(4) Did you see a grey dog or a grey cat? I saw a grey [DOG] f.

(5) Did you see a grey dog or a black dog? I saw a [GREY] f dog.

The question/answer paradigm shown in (3)–(5) has been utilized by a variety of theorists to illustrate the range of contexts a sentence containing focus can be used felicitously. Specifically, the question/answer paradigm has been used as a diagnostic for what counts as new information. For example, the focus pattern in (3) would be infelicitous if the question was ‘Did you see a grey dog or a black dog?’.

In (3) and (4), the pitch accent is marked in bold. In (3), the pitch accent is placed on dog but the entire noun phrase a grey dog is under focus. In (4), the pitch accent is also placed on dog but only the noun dog is under focus. In (5), pitch accent is placed on grey and only the adjective grey is under focus.

Historically, generative proposals made focus a feature bound to a single word within a sentence. Chomsky
Noam Chomsky
Avram Noam Chomsky is an American linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, and activist. He is an Institute Professor and Professor in the Department of Linguistics & Philosophy at MIT, where he has worked for over 50 years. Chomsky has been described as the "father of modern linguistics" and...

 and Halle
Morris Halle
Morris Halle , is a Latvian-American Jewish linguist and an Institute Professor and professor emeritus of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology...

 formulated a Nuclear Stress Rule that proposed there to be a relation between the main stress of a sentence and a single constituent. Since this constituent is prominent sententially in a way that can contrast with lexical stress, this was originally referred to as "nuclear" stress. The purpose of this rule was to capture the intuition that within each sentence, there is one word in particular that is accented more prominently due to its importance - this is said to form the nucleus of that sentence.
Focus was later suggested to be a structural position at the beginning of the sentence (or on the left periphery) in Romance languages
Romance languages
The Romance languages are a branch of the Indo-European language family, more precisely of the Italic languages subfamily, comprising all the languages that descend from Vulgar Latin, the language of ancient Rome...

 such as Italian, as the lexical head of a Focus Phrase (or FP, following the X-bar theory
X-bar theory
X-bar theory is a component of linguistic theory which attempts to identify syntactic features presumably common to all those human languages that fit in a presupposed framework...

 of phrase structure
Phrase structure grammar
The term phrase structure grammar was originally introduced by Noam Chomsky as the term for grammars as defined by phrase structure rules, i.e. rewrite rules of the type studied previously by Emil Post and Axel Thue...

). Jackendoff
Ray Jackendoff
Ray Jackendoff is an American linguist. He is professor of philosophy, Seth Merrin Chair in the Humanities and, with Daniel Dennett, Co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University...

, Selkirk, Rooth, Krifka, Schwarzschild argue that focus consists of a feature that is assigned to a node in the syntactic representation of a sentence.
Because focus is now widely seen as corresponding between heavy stress, or nuclear pitch accent, this feature is often associated with the phonologically prominent element(s) of a sentence.

Sound structure (phonological
Phonology is, broadly speaking, the subdiscipline of linguistics concerned with the sounds of language. That is, it is the systematic use of sound to encode meaning in any spoken human language, or the field of linguistics studying this use...

 and phonetic
Phonetics is a branch of linguistics that comprises the study of the sounds of human speech, or—in the case of sign languages—the equivalent aspects of sign. It is concerned with the physical properties of speech sounds or signs : their physiological production, acoustic properties, auditory...

) studies of focus are not as numerous, as relational language phenomena tend to be of greater interest to syntacticians and semanticists. But this may be changing: a recent study found that not only do focused words and phrases have a higher range of pitch compared to words in the same sentence but that words following the focus in both American English
American English
American English is a set of dialects of the English language used mostly in the United States. Approximately two-thirds of the world's native speakers of English live in the United States....

 and Mandarin Chinese were lower than normal in pitch and words before a focus are unaffected. The precise usages of focus in natural language are still uncertain. A continuum of possibilities could possibly be defined between precisely enunciated
In phonetics, enunciation is the act of speaking. Good enunciation is the act of speaking clearly and concisely. The opposite of good enunciation is mumbling or slurring. See also pronunciation which is a component of enunciation. Pronunciation is to pronounce sounds of words correctly....

 and staccato
Staccato is a form of musical articulation. In modern notation it signifies a note of shortened duration and separated from the note that may follow by silence...

 styles of speech based on variations in pragmatics
Pragmatics is a subfield of linguistics which studies the ways in which context contributes to meaning. Pragmatics encompasses speech act theory, conversational implicature, talk in interaction and other approaches to language behavior in philosophy, sociology, and linguistics. It studies how the...

 or timing
Timing (linguistics)
Isochrony is the postulated rhythmic division of time into equal portions by a language. Isochrony is one of the three aspects of prosody, the others being intonation and stress.Three alternative ways in which a language can divide time are postulated:...


Currently, there are two central themes in research on focus in generative linguistics. First, given what words or expressions are prominent, what is the meaning of some sentence? Rooth, Jacobs, Krifka, and von Stechow claim that there are lexical items and construction specific-rules that refer directly to the notion of focus. Dryer, Kadmon, Marti, Roberts, Schwarzschild, Vallduvi, and Williams argue for accounts in which general principles of discourse explain focus sensitivity. Second, given the meaning and syntax of some sentence, what words or expressions are prominent?

Prominence and meaning

Focus directly affects the semantics, or meaning, of a sentence. Different ways of pronouncing the sentence affects the meaning, or, what the speaker intends to convey. Focus distinguishes one interpretation of a sentence from other interpretations of the same sentence that do not differ in word order, but may differ in the way in which the words are taken to relate to each other. To see the effects of focus on meaning, consider the following examples:

(6) John only introduced Bill to SUE.

In (6), accent is placed on Sue. There are two readings of (6) - broad focus shown in (7) and narrow focus shown in (8):

(7) John only [introduced Bill to SUE] f.

(8) John only introduced Bill to [SUE] f.

The meaning of (7) can be summarized as the only thing John did is introducing Bill to Sue. The meaning of (8) can be summarized as the only person to whom John introduced Bill is Sue.

In both (7) and (8), focus is associated with the focus sensitive expression only. This is known as association with focus. The class of focus sensitive expressions in which focus can be associated with includes exclusives (only, just) non-scalar additives (merely, too) scalar additives (also, even), particularlizers (in particular, for example), intensifiers, quantificational adverbs, quantificational determiners, sentential connectives, emotives, counterfactuals, superlatives, negation and generics. It is claimed that focus operators must c-command
In syntax, c-command is a relationship between nodes in parse trees. Originally defined by Tanya Reinhart ,it corresponds to the idea of "siblings and all their descendants" in family trees.-Definition and Example:...

 their focus.

Alternative semantics

Beginning with Rooth, the effects of focus on semantics can be said to be the introduction of a set of alternatives that contrasts with the ordinary semantic meaning of a sentence. Consider the following example:

(9) Mary only likes [SUE] f.

The ordinary semantic meaning of (9) is the binary relation
Binary relation
In mathematics, a binary relation on a set A is a collection of ordered pairs of elements of A. In other words, it is a subset of the Cartesian product A2 = . More generally, a binary relation between two sets A and B is a subset of...


(9) is true if and only if Mary stands in the like relation to Sue. The set of alternatives that is a resultant of Sue being focused is the set:
, where E is the domain of entities
Type theory
In mathematics, logic and computer science, type theory is any of several formal systems that can serve as alternatives to naive set theory, or the study of such formalisms in general...

 or individuals.

The relevant alternatives for example (9) might be the set:

In (9), the set of alternatives is said to contrast with the ordinary semantic meaning of because the speaker indicates that the ordinary semantic meaning is true while every alternative is false. For example in (9), Mary likes Sue is true while Mary likes Bill and Mary likes Lisa are both false. Generally, the meaning of (9) can be summarized as Mary likes Sue and no one else.

Structured meanings

Following Jacobs and Williams, Krifka argues differently. Krifka claims focus partitions the semantics into a background part and focus part, represented by the pair:

The logical form
Logical form
In logic, the logical form of a sentence or set of sentences is the form obtained by abstracting from the subject matter of its content terms or by regarding the content terms as mere placeholders or blanks on a form...

 of which represented in lambda calculus
Lambda calculus
In mathematical logic and computer science, lambda calculus, also written as λ-calculus, is a formal system for function definition, function application and recursion. The portion of lambda calculus relevant to computation is now called the untyped lambda calculus...


This pair is referred to as a structured meaning. Structured meanings allow for a compositional semantic approach to sentences that involve single or multiple foci. This approach follows Frege's
Gottlob Frege
Friedrich Ludwig Gottlob Frege was a German mathematician, logician and philosopher. He is considered to be one of the founders of modern logic, and made major contributions to the foundations of mathematics. He is generally considered to be the father of analytic philosophy, for his writings on...

 (1897) Principle of Compositionality: the meaning of a complex expression is determined by the meanings of its parts, and the way in which those parts are combined into structured meanings. Krifka’s structured meaning theory represents focus in a transparent and compositional fashion it encompasses sentences with more than one focus as well as sentences with a single focus. Krifka claims the advantages of structured meanings are twofold: 1) We can access the meaning of an item in focus directly, and 2) Rooth's alternative semantics can be derived from a structured meaning approach but not vice versa. To see Krifka’s approach illustrated, consider the following examples of single focus shown in (10) and multiple foci shown in (11):

(10) John introduced Bill to [SUE] f.

(11) John only introduced [BILL] f to [SUE] f.

Generally, the meaning of (10) can be summarized as John introduced Bill to Sue and no one else, and the meaning of (11) can be summarized as the only pair of persons such that John introduced the first to the second is Bill and Sue.

Specifically, the structured meaning of (10) is:
where introd is the denotation of introduce, j John, b Bill and s Sue.

The background part of the structured meaning is; introd (j, b, x); and the focus part is s.

Through a (modified) form of functional application (or beta reduction
Lambda calculus
In mathematical logic and computer science, lambda calculus, also written as λ-calculus, is a formal system for function definition, function application and recursion. The portion of lambda calculus relevant to computation is now called the untyped lambda calculus...

), the focus part of (10) and (11) is projected up through the syntax to the sentential level. Importantly, each intermediate level has distinct meaning.

Focus marking

It has been claimed that new information in the discourse is accented while given information is not. Generally, the properties of new and given are referred to as a word's discourse status. Definitions of new and given vary. Halliday defines given as “anaphorically
Anaphora (linguistics)
In linguistics, anaphora is an instance of an expression referring to another. Usually, an anaphoric expression is represented by a pro-form or some other kind of deictic--for instance, a pronoun referring to its antecedent...

” recoverable, while new is defined to be “textually and situationally non-derivable information”. To illustrate this point, consider the following discourse in (12) and (13):

(12) Why don’t you have some French TOAST?

(13) I’ve forgotten how to MAKE French toast.

In (13) we note that the verb make is not given by the sentence in (12). It is discourse new. Therefore, it is available for accentuation. However, toast in (13) is given in (12). Therefore, it is not available for accentuation. As previously mentioned, pitch accenting can relate to focus. Accented words are often said to be in focus or F-marked often represented by F-markers. The relationship between accent placement is mediated through the discourse status of particular syntactic nodes. The percolation of F-markings in a syntactic tree is sensitive to argument structure and head-phrase relations.

Selkirk and accent placement

Selkirk develops an explicit account of how F-marking propagates up syntactic trees
Parse tree
A concrete syntax tree or parse tree or parsing treeis an ordered, rooted tree that represents the syntactic structure of a string according to some formal grammar. In a parse tree, the interior nodes are labeled by non-terminals of the grammar, while the leaf nodes are labeled by terminals of the...

. Accenting indicates F-marking. F-marking projects up a given syntactic tree such that both lexical items, i.e. terminal nodes
Terminal and nonterminal symbols
In computer science, terminal and nonterminal symbols are the lexical elements used in specifying the production rules that constitute a formal grammar...

 and phrasal levels, i.e. nonterminal nodes
Terminal and nonterminal symbols
In computer science, terminal and nonterminal symbols are the lexical elements used in specifying the production rules that constitute a formal grammar...

, can be F-marked. Specifically, a set of rules determines how and where F-marking occurs in the syntax. These rules are shown in (1) and (2):

(14) Basic Rule: An accented word is f-marked.

(15) Focus Projection:
a. F-marking the head of a phrase licenses F-marking of the phrase.

b. F-marking of the internal argument of a head licenses the F-marking of the head.

c. F-marking of the antecedent of a trace left by NP or wh-movement licenses F-marking of the trace.

To see how (14) and (15) apply, consider the following example:
Judy may refer to:* Judy, Kentucky, village in Montgomery County* Judy , mascot on a Royal Navy vessel during World War II* Judy array, a complex data structure in computer science...

f [adopted f a parrot f] f] foc

Because there is no rule in (14) or (15) that licenses F-marking to the direct object from any other node, the direct object parrot must be accented as indicated in bold. Rule (15b) allows F-marking to project from the direct object to the head verb adopted. Rule (15a) allows F-marking to project from the head verb to the VP adopted a parrot. Selkirk assumes the subject Judy is accented if F-marked as indicated in bold.

Schwarzschild and accent placement

Schwarzschild points out weaknesses in Selkirk’s ability to predict accent placement based on facts about the discourse. Selkirk’s theory says nothing about how accentuation arises in sentences with entirely old information. She does not fully articulate the notion of discourse status and its relation to accent marking. Schwarzschild differs from Selkirk in that he develops a more robust model of discourse status. Discourse status is determined via the entailments of the context. This is achieved through the definition in (16):

(16) Definition of given: An utterance of U counts as given iff it has a salient antecedent A and
a. if U is type e
Type theory
In mathematics, logic and computer science, type theory is any of several formal systems that can serve as alternatives to naive set theory, or the study of such formalisms in general...

, then A and U corefer;

b. otherwise: modulo -type-shifting, A entails the existential F-closure of U.

The operation in (16b) can apply to any constituent. -type-shifting “is a way of transforming syntactic constituents into full proposition
In logic and philosophy, the term proposition refers to either the "content" or "meaning" of a meaningful declarative sentence or the pattern of symbols, marks, or sounds that make up a meaningful declarative sentence...

s so that it is possible to check whether they are entailed
In logic, entailment is a relation between a set of sentences and a sentence. Let Γ be a set of one or more sentences; let S1 be the conjunction of the elements of Γ, and let S2 be a sentence: then, Γ entails S2 if and only if S1 and not-S2 are logically inconsistent...

 by the context”. For example, the result of -type-shifting the VP in (5) is (6):

(17) [hums a happy tune]

(18) x[x hums a happy tune]

Note that (18) is a full proposition. The existential F-closure in (16b) refers to the operation of replacing the highest F-marked node with an existentially closed variable. The operation is shown in (19) and (20):

(19) x[x hums [a happy f tune f] f]

(20) Yx[x hums Y]

Given the discourse context in (21a) it is possible to determine the discourse status of any syntactic node in (21b):

a. Sean [hummed a happy tune] VP

b. Angie [hummed [Chopin’s Funeral March] f] VP

If the VP in (21a) is the salient antecedent for the VP in (21b), then the VP in (21b) counts as given. -type-shifed VP in (21a) is shown in (22). The existential F-closure of the VP in (21b) is shown in (23):

(22) x[x hums a happy tune]

(23) Yx[x hums Y]

(22) entails (23). Therefore, the VP of (21b) counts as given. Schwarzschild assumes an optimality theoretic
Optimality theory
Optimality theory is a linguistic model proposing that the observed forms of language arise from the interaction between conflicting constraints. OT models grammars as systems that provide mappings from inputs to outputs; typically, the inputs are conceived of as underlying representations, and...

 grammar. Accent placement is determined by a set of violable, hierarchically ranked constraints as shown in (24):

a. GIVENness: A constituent that is not F-marked is given.

b. Foc: A Foc-marked phrase contains an accent

c. AvoidF: Do not F-mark

d. HeadArg: A head is less prominent than its internal argument.

The ranking Schwarzschild proposes is seen in (25):

(25) GIVENness, Foc >> AvoidF >> HeadArg

As seen, GIVENness relates F-marking to discourse status. Foc relates F-marking to accent placement. Foc simply requires that a constituent(s) of an F-marked phrase contain an accent. AvoidF states that less F-marking is preferable to more F-marking. HeadArg encodes the head-argument asymmetry into the grammar directly.

Recent empirical work German et al. suggests that both Selkirk’s and Schwarzschild’s theory of accentuation and F-marking makes incorrect predictions. Consider the following context:

(26) Are the children playing their game?

(27) Paul took down their tent that they play their game in.

It has been noted that prepositions are intrinsically weak and do not readily take accent. However, both Selkirk and Schwarzschild predict that in the narrow focus context, an accent will occur at most on the preposition in (27) as shown in (28):

(28) Paul took down their tent that they [play their game [in f t
Trace (linguistics)
In transformational grammar, a trace is an empty category that occupies a position in the syntactic structure. In some theories of syntax, traces are used in the account of constructions such as wh-movement and passive....

 f] foc].

However, the production experiment reported in German et al. showed that subjects are more likely to accent verbs or nouns as opposed to prepositions in the narrow focused context, thus ruling out accent patterns shown in (28). German et al. argue for a stochastic constraint-based grammar similar to Anttila and Boersma that more fluidly accounts for how speakers accent words in discourse.


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  • Neeleman, Ad
    Ad Neeleman
    Adriaan Dirk Neeleman is a Dutch linguist based in the UK. He is Professor of Linguistics at University College London....

     and Tanya Reinhart
    Tanya Reinhart
    Tanya Reinhart was an Israeli linguist who wrote frequently on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She contributed columns to the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot and longer articles to the CounterPunch, Znet, and Israeli Indymedia websites....

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    Lingua: An International Review of General Linguistics is a peer-reviewed academic journal of general linguistics that was established in 1949 and is published by Elsevier. Its current editor-in-chief is Johan Rooryck ....

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