Understanding focus: Pitch, placement and coherence

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Julian J Schlöder
Alex Lascarides


This paper presents a novel account of focal stress and pitch contour in English dialogue. We argue that one should analyse and treat focus and pitch contour jointly, since (i) some pragmatic interpretations vary with contour (e.g., whether an utterance accepts or rejects; or whether it implicates a positive or negative answer); and (ii) there are utterances with identical prosodic focus that in the same context are infelicitous with one contour, but felicitous with another. We offer an account of two distinct pitch contours that predicts the correct felicity judgements and implicatures, outclassing other models in empirical coverage or formality. Prosodic focus triggers a presupposition, where what is presupposed and how the presupposition is resolved depends on prosodic contour. If resolving the presupposition entails the proffered content, then the proffered content is uninteresting and hence the utterance is in-felicitous. Otherwise, resolving the presupposition may lead to an implicature. We regiment this account in SDRT.

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