Constraints on subject-focus mapping in French and English

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Grammars reflect universal constraints on the mappings between the information structure of propositions and the formal structure of sentences. These constraints restrict the possible linkings between pragmatic relations (topic vs. focus), pragmatic properties (given vs. new), semantic roles (agent vs. patient), grammatical relations (subject vs. object), and syntactic positions (preverbal vs. postverbal, etc). While these mapping constraints are universal, their grammatical manifestation is subject to typological variation. For example, although spoken English has been shown to strongly prefer pronominal over lexical subjects, hence to avoid focal subjects, it nevertheless freely permits subject-focus mapping in certain sentence-focus and argument-focus constructions. In spoken French, in contrast, subject-focus mapping is unacceptable if not ungrammatical in most environments. Spoken French shows a near one-to-one mapping between focus structure and phrase structure: Topic expressions occur overwhelmingly in preverbal position and in pronominal form, while focus expressions occur postverbally. To avoid violating this near one-to-one mapping constraint, spoken French makes abundant use of grammatical realignment constructions, especially clefts. Some of these constructions do not exist in English, or have a much more restricted distribution in that language.


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