Syntactic constraints on discourse structure: the case of it-clefts

Judy Delin, Jon Oberlander

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

In this paper, we present an account of the interpretation of it-cleft constructions that attempts to draw together the apparently diverse factors of aspect, information structure, syntax, and presupposition. We begin with the observation (due to Prince 1978) that some clefts have the effect of "backgrounding" the information they convey, and that, in addition, clefts appear to indicate that this information is in some sense "known fact." We also add the observation that in some contexts clefts can induce temporal reversals in the interpretation of the narrative order of events and note that clefts appear to limit the range of coherence relations that can be inferred between their content and that of the preceding discourse. We argue that these effects arise out of the way cleft content is incorporated into the existing discourse context; further, we suggest that the integration of cleft content is further influenced by the individual semantic, pragmatic, and informational profile of the cleft concerned. Our account draws on the notion of clefts as state-making devices: that is, they introduce an eventuality description with stative aspect, due to the presence of copular be as main verb. We look at the implications this has for discourse processing, showing how the interpretation of the cleft's stative main verb as temporally overlapping an established reference time has effects on the integration of cleft content into the discourse model. While this aspectual profile is common to all clefts, integration is further influenced by whether the cleft's resupposition contains material already known to the hearer (topic) or new (comment). While we cannot provide a complete model of discourse and temporal relations, we hope to show that the specific discourse relations taken to hold between incoming and existing information depend on a subtle interaction between a range of factors that influence the integration process.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)465-500
JournalLinguistics: An Interdisciplinary Journal of the Language Sciences
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 1995


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