Focus: A Case Study on the semantics–pragmatics Boundary [chapter]

Michael Glanzberg
2005 Semantics versus Pragmatics  
Focus is the term linguists use to describe a kind of prominence in a sentence, usually marked by stress on a particular word or phrase. For instance, Greek is focused in: (1) He spoke GREEK. Philosophers coming to language from the tradition of logical semantics have sometimes been inclined to discount this sort of phenomenon. It makes no difference to the truth conditions of this particular sentence, and may appear merely to be an aspect of the vocal realization of the sentence-of interest to
more » ... ence-of interest to phonologists, and perhaps to socio-linguists, but not of much importance to fundamental philosophical questions about semantics and pragmatics. This appearance is deceptive. In fact, as we will see below, focus is a locus of interaction between semantics and pragmatics. Understanding this innocent-looking phenomenon is important to understanding how semantics and pragmatics relate to one-another. Much of the recent philosophical debate over the semantics/pragmatics distinction has focused the question of how much underlying syntactic structure is responsible for determining what is said by an utterance, and how much what is said is determined by autonomous pragmatic processes such as 'free enrichment'. The debate has centered on a family of examples like: (2) a. I have had breakfast. * This paper grew out of a study of Elena Herburger's book What Counts. Its main ideas were presented as comments on that book at a semantics workshop at . Thanks to the participants there, and especially Elena Herburger, for valuable discussion. Thanks also to Ernie Lepore and two anonymous referees for comments on earlier drafts. Forthcoming in Z. Szabo (ed.), Semantics vs. Pragmatics, Oxford University Press. b. Ralph drinks. These present cases in which what we intuitively see as the truth conditions of an utterance is determined by more than we see in the surface linguistic structure of the sentences, raising the question of whether the truth conditions are fixed by richer underlying syntactic structure, or by purely pragmatic processes. 1 One reason for studying focus is that it provides a very different set of examples. More so than the examples in (2), I believe, focus provides examples of how semantics and pragmatics interact. Understanding this interaction is a good way to come to understand the two sides of the semantics/pragmatics boundary. Indeed, it turns out that focus provides us with some very hard cases of semantic/pragmatics interaction. Studying hard cases cannot resolve all issues, and in this case, it will not resolve the debate over the nature of semantics and pragmatics. But hard cases do serve to set some parameters for theorizing. In this way, looking at focus will lead to several morals for the debate. Three seem to me to be especially important. First, the appearance that something is pragmatic can be deceptive. We will see good reason to take focus to be a semantic phenomenon, realized in logical form. But second, the fact that something is realized in a linguistic structure like logical form does not preclude its semantics triggering extremely complex pragmatic processes. For instance, a demonstrative, overtly present in the surface form of a sentence, triggers a pragmatic process of reference fixing. In the case of focus, I shall argue, a far more complex kind of pragmatic process is triggered: one of regulating the flow of information in a discourse. 2 As the reference-fixing process determines the value of a demonstrative, so the discourse-regulating process fixes the semantic contribution of focus. The semantic contribution of focus is thus heavily contextdependent. Finally, third, the kind of context-dependence involved is different than the model of the demonstrative might lead us to expect. Though I take focus to be realized in logical form, its semantic contribution is not well-characterized as simply the value of a parameter in
doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199251520.003.0004 fatcat:kd6lm4yduzdankq32qriyeplqu