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While the way we structure the information inside our sentences has more to do with packaging than content, exactly how we go about doing this can still end up interacting with semantics in a meaningful way. For instance, focusing the different parts of a sentence can actually change whether we judge that sentence to be true or false. Take the sentence in (1).

     (1)    Harold always gets the information from the Machine

If the world is such that Harold only ever gets information from the Machine (and nowhere else), and that sometimes other people (besides Harold) get the information, (2a) can end up being true, while (2b) winds up false (with capital letters marking prominent stress).

     (2a)    Harold always gets the information from THE MACHINE

     (2b)    HAROLD always gets the information from the Machine

The first sentence seems to work because we take it to mean that the information doesn’t ever come from anywhere else. The second seems like a bad fit in this context, because it feels like it means it’s only ever Harold that gets the information.

This sensitivity to where prominence falls in a sentence becomes even more obvious when we consider a class of words that can actually lock onto focused phrases like a heat-seeking missile. Take the words “only” and “also.” You’ll notice in (3) that while focus alone suggests Carter’s name is being offered up in addition to some others, when “only” makes it’s way into the sentence, there’s more going on.

     (3a)    CARTER helps sometimes

     (3b)    Only CARTER helps sometimes

In particular, that “only” introduces a kind of exhaustivity into the sentence, where it now seems clear that Carter sometimes helps, and nobody else ever does. Like, out of all the people that could help, she’s the only one. And when we shift the focus around, “only” follows suit.

     (4a)    Carter helps SOMETIMES

     (4b)    Carter only helps SOMETIMES

Now, “only” intensifies the meaning that’s already there, and it’s clear that Carter doesn’t help any more or less frequently than “sometimes.” And when we replace that “only” with an “also,” we get similar kinds of effects.

     (5a)    CARTER also helps sometimes

     (5b)    Carter also HELPS sometimes.

Even without moving around, that “also” lasers in on the focused phrase and shifts its meaning around; the first implies that there are others who help out from time to time, and the second suggests Carter does more than just help.

Because of the effects of these so-called focus-sensitive particles, which allow a sentence’s information structure to interact with its meaning, semanticists have proposed that on top of the ordinary semantic values that words and phrases can carry, focused material also has a special focus semantic value. So, while a proper name like “Carter” just refers to an individual, the focused version “CARTER” refers to a set of individuals.

Basically, when a word or phrase is focussed, it takes on an additional, alternative meaning. The sentence in (3a) above still means that Carter helps out sometimes. But on top this, there’s this set of alternative people that gets created, just kind of hanging off of the sentence’s more ordinary meaning.

     (6)    CARTER = {Zoe, Leon, Logan, . . . }

And when a word like “also” comes along, it’s able to grab onto this set and process it in a way that fits with its own meaning; in the case of “also,” this means taking in the set of alternatives and plugging each member into the sentence, so that it’s not only true that Carter helps, but also Zoe, Leon, Logan, and others. A word like “only,” on the other hand, takes the same set and excludes every member from fitting into the sentence.

So, structuring the information inside our sentences seems to be a little bit like putting an expensive label on a cheap bottle of wine; it doesn’t really affect its contents, but somehow it still manages to change the flavour!


So how about it? What do you all think? Let us know below, and we’ll be happy to talk with you about the ways that we structure our language to convey our points most effectively. There’s a lot of interesting stuff to say, and we want to hear what interests you!

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