Focus binding I: focus & pronouns

Note: I just finished a paper on pronouns (available here), but for those who’d rather read 40+ dense pages, I will serialize it here.  Please comment at will below or on facebook!

If I were to ask you

Who does John like?

and you knew that John was enamored of Bill, you might answer

John likes BILL. 

with an accent on Bill and none on John. It sounds pretty odd to answer this question with the accent shifted to John instead of Bill:

??? JOHN likes Bill. 

Linguists who study focus theory call old, reused material like John GIVEN and new information like Bill FOCUSED. Next, imagine that you answered with a pronoun in the position where John had been:

He likes BILL.

It still sounds best to accent Bill and it’s pretty odd again to accent he.  One more thing, though: the pronoun he pretty much has to refer to John; otherwise, you wouldn’t really be answering the question.  So, it seems as though the pronoun must refer to the person whose name is unaccented/GIVEN in the same position.

This pattern repeats in other constructions where focus determines accents:




Sherlock’s INTELLECT EXCEEDS his PATIENCE  [=Sherlock’s patience]

Here again, the pronoun his prefers to refer to the person whose name is unaccented in the same position (Sherlock) and not the person whose name would be accented (Watson).

Preview of Part II

If focus constrains the interpretation of pronouns, are such cases more like bound pronouns or more like free pronouns? How could we even tell? (Hint: I don’t call it “focus binding” for nothing!)

3 thoughts on “Focus binding I: focus & pronouns

  1. Pingback: Focus binding IIa: sloppy identity | Semantic Disposition

  2. Pingback: Focus Binding IIb: Sloppy Identity Unbound | Semantic Disposition

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