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Topic, focus and bare nominals in Spanish

Eugenia Casielles-Suarez, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This study investigates the correlations between information structure and syntactic structure with particular reference to Spanish. After a detailed consideration of notions like "topic" and "focus" and several topicalizing and focusing mechanisms (such as Clitic left-dislocation, Pronominal left-dislocation, Topicalization, Right-dislocation and Focus Preposing), two different "topical" elements are distinguished: Sentence Topic (STopic) and Background. These elements do not co-occur and each of them combines with Focus to form two different articulations: STopic-Focus and Background-Focus. The STopic-Focus articulation is pragmatically, syntactically and phonologically unmarked both in English and Spanish. It can be uttered out-of-the-blue, it involves a preverbal subject, and it is expressed through unmarked rightmost focus-related accent. However, the Background-Focus articulation, which has very specific contextual restrictions, is marked syntactically in Spanish (by the left- or right-dislocation of Background elements) and phonologically in English (by non-rightmost marked focus-related accent). From this point of view, information structure is closely correlated with syntactic structure in Spanish: STopics occupy a preverbal specifier position while Background elements occupy dislocated positions. This informational-syntactic correlation is accounted for as follows. So-called NP-movement is viewed as a topic-driven movement, which explains the contrast between topical preverbal subjects and focal postverbal subjects: only subjects with a Topic feature (an optional D feature) raise to the preverbal specifier position. The dislocated position of Background elements has to do with escaping the domain of projection of the focus feature. This explains the otherwise mysterious contrast between ungrammatical Bare Noun (BN) preverbal subjects and grammatical BN dislocated phrases (both considered to be topics up to now). BNs cannot reach the preverbal subject position, since this is a position only reached by DPs with a topic feature. However, they are allowed in adjoined, dislocated positions, since these positions can be occupied by any type and number of Background elements. Thus, some of the differences between Spanish and English arise from the fact that the topic and focus features are syntactically active in Spanish, but only phonologically active in English.

Subject Area

Linguistics|Romance literature|Language

Recommended Citation

Casielles-Suarez, Eugenia, "Topic, focus and bare nominals in Spanish" (1997). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9737510.