The Semantics and Pragmatics of Preposing
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The Semantics and Pragmatics of Preposing

Gregory L. Ward

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The Semantics and Pragmatics of Preposing

Gregory L. Ward

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First published in 1988, this book examines the aspects of pragmatic competence involving the class of preposing constructions in English. By limiting the scope of investigation to particular grammatical categories, the author argues previous studies have failed to capture significant pragmatic generalisations. The author asserts what distinguishes one preposing type from another are the semantic and pragmatic properties of the referent of that constituent. After a review of the past literature on preposing, the book goes on to present a pragmatic theory in which two discourse functions of preposing are proposed. It then provides a functional taxonomy of the various preposing types which the theory is designed to account for. One type of preposing, Topicalization, and two of its subtypes, Proposition Affirmation and Ironic Preposing, are discussed in detail in the subsequent chapters before the book concludes with a summary along with directions for future research.

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Chapter I

The extrasentential or discourse competence which provides speakers of a language with knowledge about language use, that is, knowledge of the appropriateness of some grammatically well-formed sentence in a particular context, has come to be called pragmatic competence. Given the existence of such competence, it remains for us not only to describe it, but also, on a more theoretical level, to situate it with respect to other types of knowledge. A number of possibilities suggest themselves, ranging from the view that pragmatic competence is not linguistic, and derives from other human cognitive or social abilities, to the view that pragmatic competence is as linguistic as, say, semantic competence, and must therefore be explicitly incorporated into our theory of language. Such views assume a unitary pragmatic competence; however, as research in pragmatics develops, it will become increasingly possible to identify and classify the various types of extra-semantic contributions to utterance interpretation.
One such contribution involves the particular syntactic form a speaker uses to convey a particular proposition. Propositions which are cognitively synonymous (cf. Chomsky 1965), i.e. have the same truth conditions, are used under very different circumstances. One need only consider the sentences in 1 to see that the propositional content of an utterance is independent of the syntactic form which that utterance may take.1
  • (1)
  • a. John finished Chapter III.
  • b. Chapter III was finished by John.
  • c. It was Chapter III that John finished.
  • d. What John did was finish Chapter III.
  • e. Chapter III John finished.
  • f. And finish Chapter III John did!
Thus, the same proposition, 'John finished Chapter III', can be conveyed in at least these six distinct ways.2 It is one of the premises of this thesis that a speaker's choice of one syntactic form over another is not random. Indeed, the central premise of studies on the functions of syntax is that speakers exploit their structural options to specific pragmatic ends. It is the purpose of such studies to examine the non-random alternation between the various syntactic forms which are truth-conditionally equivalent.
The ability of a speaker to choose a context-appropriate form, given the existence of other truth-conditionally equivalent forms, presupposes a knowledge of how these forms differ. It is difficult to imagine what kind of knowledge this is, if not linguistic, especially in the absence of any alternative cognitive system to which it can be ascribed. However, before a theoretical label is selected, we must first describe the knowledge in question.
This thesis examines that aspect of pragmatic competence involving the class of preposing constructions in English. For the purposes of this research, I am defining preposing in syntactic terms, as those sentences in which a phrasal constituent is moved leftward to sentence-initial position. Note that, with this definition, preposing is not restricted to any particular grammatical category, as illustrated by the following examples of a preposed NP, PP, VP, and AP in 2 through 5, respectively:
  • (2) NP
    Colonel Bykov had delivered to Chambers in Washington six Bokhara rugs which he directed Chambers to present as gifts from him and the Soviet Government to the members of the ring who had been most co-operative. One of these rugs Chambers delivered to Dexter White. Another he gave to Hiss -- but not as a routine "payment on rent."
    [Nixon, R. Six Crises. 1962:58]
  • (3) PP
    To back up Wattenberg's contention that American women are getting what they wanted -- with or without the ERA, there are statistics offered, statistics about how many married women are now in the labor force, statistics about the number of women in "good" jobs. "With better jobs and more education," he writes, "women are also moving forward on the dollar front." For that last bold assertion there are no statistics.
    [Philadelphia Inquirer, p. 15-A, 6/1/83]
  • (4) VP
    At the end of the term I took my first schools; it was necessary to pass, if I was to stay at Oxford, and pass I did[ ... ]
    [Waugh, E. Brideshead Revisited. 1945:45]
  • (5) AP
    "In the early days, our productions were cheap and cheerful," says producer John Weaver of London-based Keefco. "We'd go into a seven-light studio, shoot the band in one afternoon and edit as we went along. The client would walk out with a tape that day." Today's tapes may still be cheerful, but cheap they are not
    [Newsweek, 4/18/83, p. 98, article "Rock video"]
This syntactic definition of preposing includes, but is not limited to, the following constructions as they have been referred to in the literature: Topicalization, FocusMovement, Topicalization of Focus, Topicalization of Topic, VP Fronting, Epitomization, Y(iddish)-Movement, Modified Predicate Nominal Preposing, Exclamatives, and Echo Questions.
Previous studies of preposing have taken a construction-by-construction approach and have sought to discover the function(s) of each syntactically defined construction more or less independently of the others. Many studies have attempted to find a one-to-one correspondence between syntactic form and pragmatic function, or at least have assumed that such a correspondence is possible. It will be demonstrated below that, in the case of preposing, such assumptions are unwarranted. By limiting the scope of investigation to particular grammatical categories, these previous studies have failed to capture significant pragmatic generalizations: no function of preposing is restricted to any single grammatical category, although not all grammatical categories are involved in all preposing functions. I will argue that what distinguishes one preposing type from another are, inter alia, the semantic and pragmatic properties of the referent (or denotation) of that constituent. Previous attempts to analyze the function of preposing in terms of 'topic', 'contrast', and 'emphasis' will be shown to be inadequate.
A major goal of this research will be to show that preposing, as defined above, constitutes a natural pragmatic class as well. An analysis of naturally occurring data reveals that preposing performs two simultaneous discourse functions:
  • Preposing marks the referent or denotation of the preposed constituent as a BACKWARD LOOKING CENTER (Joshi and Weinstein 1981; Grosz, Joshi, and Weinstein 1983);
  • Preposing marks an OPEN PROPOSITION as salient in the discourse (Prince 1981).3
A BACKWARD LOOKING CENTER is a discourse entity which is related to the set of previously evoked discourse entities, i.e. the already existing set of FORWARD LOOKING CENTERS, via a salient SCALAR relation, where a SCALE is defined as any partially ordered set (Hirschberg 1985). It will be shown how discourse entities can be ranked as values on such scales.
In addition, each preposing consists of two parts: an OPEN PROPOSITION and a FOCUS. This distinction corresponds most closely to the 'focus-presupposition' distinction of Jackendoff 1972 and Rochemont 1978, inter alia. An open proposition is a sentence which contains one or more variables, and it represents what is assumed by the speaker to be salient in the discourse at the time of the preposing. The variable of the open proposition is instantiated with the focus of the utterance. The focus constitutes the 'new information' of the utterance, and is also representable as a value on some scale. Prosodically, the focus is realized with an accented syllable. Preposing can be classified into two major types: FOCUS PREPOSING and TOPICALIZATION. The preposed constituent of FOCUS PREPOSING contains the focus of the utterance, and thus it bears the single accented syllable of the utterance. TOPICALIZATION, on the other hand, involves a preposed constituent other than the focus and therefore bears multiple accented syllables: one on the preposed constituent and one on the (non-preposed) focus. It will be shown how both types of preposing serve to mark the relevant open proposition as salient in the discourse at the time of the preposing.
A brief illustration of each type is provided. Consider first the case in which the backward looking center also constitutes the focus, as in 6:
  • (6) The Contras worked with a new strategy -- revolutionary they called it -- based on a recognition that the war was a struggle for the nation's soul and couldn't be won with arms alone.
    [ABC World News Tonight]
The preposed constituent in this example, revolutionary, contained the accented syllable while the rest of the sentence, they called it was destressed. This identifies revolutionary as the focus of this utterance.
To identify the open proposition, the preposed constituent containing the focus is first returned to its canonical argument position. The focus is then replaced with a variable which is typed as a value on the relevant scale, as represented informally in 7a. In 6, the relevant scale is defined by the relation set/subset. (A gloss of the open proposition is provided in 7b.) The focus, provided in 7c, instantiates the variable of the open proposition and represents a value on a scale defined by an entity/attribute metric.
  • (7)
  • a. OP = They called it X, where X is on the scale [names].
  • b. They called it something.
  • c. FOCUS = revolutionary
The open proposition and scale of 7 a are salient in light of the reporter's mentioning the Contras' new strategy, which one could reasonably assume had some name.
The second possibility arises when the focus is not contained in the preposed constituent bu...

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