Skip to main content

Focus marking asymmetries in Colloquial and Standard French: A stochastic optimality-theoretic account


This article investigates the grammatical realization of the notion of focus in Colloquial French and Standard French. Based on two production experiments, the article reveals three findings: (i) focus marking is not as categorical as previously acknowledged, (ii) focus marking asymmetry for subjects vs. non-subjects is only supported in CoF and (iii) there is no strict relationship between focus realization and interpretation in either variety. I develop a stochastic optimality-theory analysis, which explains the canonical-cleft sentence alternation in terms of prosody and expands on past literature by accounting for the variation observed both within and across language variety.

Corresponding author
Address for correspondence: Department of French and Italian, University of Iowa, 111 Phillips Hall, Iowa City, Iowa 52245 United States e-mail:
Hide All
Aissen, J. (1999). Markedness and subject choice in Optimality Theory. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory, 17: 673711.
Bates, D., Maechler, M. and Bolker, B. (2012). lme4: Linear mixed-effects models using S4 classes. Retrieved from (R package version 0.999999-0)
Belletti, A. (2005). Answering with a cleft. The role of the null subject parameter andthe vp periphery. In: Brugè, L., Giusti, G., Munaro, N., Schweikert, W. and Turano, G. (eds.), Proceedings of the Thirtieth ‘Incontro di Grammatica Generativa’. Cafoscarina, pp. 6382.
Belletti, A. (2009). Structures and Strategies. New York: Routledge.
Belletti, A. (2012). Revisiting the CP of Clefts. In: Zimmermann, E. and Grewendorf, G. (eds.), Discourse and Grammar. From Sentence Types to Lexical Categories (Studies in Generative Grammar 112). Berlin: De Gruyter. pp. 91114.
Blanche-Benveniste, C. (1997). Approches de la langue parlée en français: L’essentiel français. Paris: Ophrys.
Blyth, C.S. (1999). Toward a pedagogical discourse grammar: Techniques for teaching word order constructions. In: Lee, J. and Valdman, A. (eds.), Form and Meaning: Multiple Perspectives. AAUSC Issues in Language Program Direction. Boston: Heinle, pp. 183229.
Boersma, P. and Hayes, B. (2001). Empirical tests of the Gradual Learning Algorithm. Linguistic Inquiry, 32: 4586.
Büring, D. (2009). Towards a typology of focus realization. In: Zimmermann, M. and Féry, C. (eds.), Information Structure: Theoretical, Typological and Experimental perspectives. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 177205.
Büring, D. and Gutiérrez-Bravo, R. (2001). Focus-related word order variation without the NSR: A prosody based cross-linguistic analysis. In: McCloskey, J. (ed.), SASC 3: Syntax and Semantics at Santa Cruz. Linguistics Research Center, University of California, Santa Cruz.
Calude, A. (2009). Cleft Constructions in Spoken English. VDM Verlag.
Chafe, W.L. (1976). Givenness, contrastiveness, definiteness, subjects, topics and point of view. In: Li, C. (ed.), Subject and Topic. New York: Academic Press, pp. 2555.
Chomsky, N. (1982). Some Concepts and Consequences of the Theory of Government and Binding. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Clech-Darbon, A., Rebuschi, G. and Rialland, A. (1999). Are there cleft sentences in French? In: Rebuschi, G. and Tuller, L. (eds.), The Grammar of Focus. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, pp. 83118.
Coveney, A. (2002). Variability in Spoken French: A Sociolinguistic Study of Interrogation and Negation. Bristol: Elm Bank.
Coveney, A. (2011). A language divided against itself? Diglossia, code-switching and variation in French. In: Martineau, F. et Nadasdi, T. (eds), Le français en contact. Québec: Presses de l’Université Laval, pp. 5185.
de Cat, C. (2007). French Dislocation: Interpretation, Syntax and Acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Delais-Roussarie, E. (2005). Phonologie et Grammaire: étude et modélisation des interfaces prosodiques. Université de Toulouse 2. Habilitation thesis.
Di Cristo, A. (1998). Intonation in French. In: Hirst, D.J. and Di Cristo, A. (eds), Intonation Systems: A Survey of Twenty Languages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 195218.
Dohen, M., Loevenbruck, H. and Hill, H. (2006). Visual correlates of prosodic contrastive focus in French. In: Proceedings of Speech Prosody. pp. 221–4.
Drubig, H.B. 2003. Toward a typology of focus and focus constructions. Linguistics, 44: 150.
Etienne, C. and Sax, K. (2009). Stylistic variation in French: Bridging the gap between research and textbooks. Modern Language Journal, 93: 584606.
Feldhausen, I. and del Mar Vanrell, M. (2014). Prosody, focus and word order in Catalan and Spanish: An Optimality Theoretic approach. In: Proceedings of the 10th International Seminar on Speech Production (ISSP), 5–8 May 2014, Cologne.
Féry, C. (2001). Focus and phrasing in French. In: Féry, C. and Sternefeld, W. (eds), Audiatur Vox Sapientiae. A Festschrift for Arnim von Stechow. Berlin: Akademie Verlag, pp. 153181.
Féry, C. (2013). Focus as alignment. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory, 31: 683734.
Féry, C. and Samek-Lodovici, V. (2006). Focus projection and prosodic prominence in nested foci. Language, 8: 131–50.
Gabriel, C. (2010). On focus, prosody and word order in Argentinian Spanish: A minimalist OT account. ReVEL, 4: 183222.
Grice, H.P. (1975). Logic and conversation. In: Cole, P. and Morgan, J. (eds.), Syntax and Semantics, Vol. 3: Speech Acts. New York: Academic Press.
Grimshaw, J. (1997). Projection, heads, and optimality. Linguistic Inquiry, 28: 373422.
Hamlaoui, F. (2007). French cleft sentences and the syntax-phonology interface. In: Radisic, M. (ed.), Actes du Congrès Annuel de l’Association Canadienne de Linguistique 2007. Canadian Linguistic Association.
Hamlaoui, F. (2009). La focalisation à l’interface de la syntaxe et de la phonologie: le cas du français dans une perspective typologique. PhD. thesis, University Paris 3 Sorbonne Nouvelle.
Hamlaoui, F. (2010). La structure de l’information et la prosodie dans les questions partielles : une analyse contrastive du français démotique et du français classique tardif. Manuscript.
Heck, F., Müller, G., Fischer, S., Vikner, S., Schmid, T. and Vogel, R. (2002). On the nature of the input in optimality theory. The Linguistic Review, 19: 345376.
Hornsby, D. (1998). The dynamic model and inherent variability: the case of northern France. Journal of Applied Linguistics, 6: 1936.
Jun, S.-A. and Fougeron, C. (2000). A phonological model of French intonation. In: Botinis, A. (ed.), Intonation: Analysis, Modeling and Technology. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, pp. 209–42.
Kager, R. (1999). Optimality Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Katz, S. (1997). The syntactic and pragmatic properties of the c’est-cleft construction. Ph.D. thesis, University of Texas at Austin.
Katz, S. and Blyth, C. (2007). Teaching French Grammar in Context: Theory and Practice. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Katz, J. and Selkirk, E. (2011). Contrastive focus vs. discourse-new: evidence from prosodic prominence in English. Language, 87: 771816.
Keenan, E. (1976). Toward a universal definition of subject. In: Li, C. (ed.), Subject and Topic. New York: Academic Press, pp. 303–33.
Kiss, K.E. (1998). Identificational focus versus information focus. Language, 74: 245–73.
Klein, W. (2012). The information structure of French. In: Krifka, M. and Musan, R. (eds.), The Expression of Information Structure. Berlin: De Gruyter, pp. 95126.
Koehn, P. (2005). Europarl: A Parallel Corpus for Statistical Machine Translation. Conference Proceedings: the Tenth Machine Translation Summit: 79–86. AAMT.
Krifka, M. (2008). Basic notions of information structure. Acta Linguistica Hungarica, 55: 243–76.
Labov, W. (1969). Contraction, deletion and inherent variability of the English copula. Language, 45: 715–62.
Labov, W. (1972). Sociolinguistic Patterns. Trad. fr. Sociolinguistique. Paris: Minuit.
Lambrecht, K. (1987). On the status of SVO sentences in French discourse. In: Tomlin, R. (ed.), Coherence and Grounding in Discourse. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, pp. 217–62.
Lambrecht, K. (1994). Information Structure and Sentence Form: Topic, Focus, and the Mental Representations of Discourse Referents. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lambrecht, K. (2001). A framework for the analysis of cleft constructions. Linguistics, 39: 463516.
Legendre, G., Smolensky, P. and Wilson, C. (1998). When is less more? Faithfulness and minimal links in wh-chains. In: Barbosa, P., Fox, D., Hagstrom, P., McGinnis, M., and Pesetsky, D. (eds.), Is the Best Good Enough? Optimality and Competition in Syntax. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 249–89.
Marandin, J.-M. (2004). Pour une approche dialogique du contexte et de la structure informationnelle. On-line access:
Massot, B. (2008). Français et diglossie. Décrire la situation linguistique française contemporaine comme une diglossie: arguments morphosyntaxiques. PhD thesis, University Paris-8.
Myers, L.L. (2007). Wh-interrogatives in spoken French: A corpus-based analysis of their form and function. PhD dissertation, University of Texas at Austin.
Prince, A. and Smolensky, P. (1993). Optimality Theory: Constraint Interaction in Generative Grammar. Rutgers Center for Cognitive Science Technical Report.
Quillard, V. (2001). La diversité des formes interrogatives: Comment l’interpréter? Langage et Société, 95: 5772.
Reichle, R.V. (2014). Cleft type and focus structure processing in French. Language, Cognition and Neuroscience, 29: 107–24.
Roland, D., Dick, F. and Elman, J.L. (2007). Frequency of basic English grammatical structures: A corpus analysis. Journal of Memory and Language, 57: 348379.
Rooth, M. (1992). A theory of focus interpretation. Natural Language Semantics, 1: 75116.
Rossi, M. (1999). L’intonation, le système du francais: description et modélisation. Paris: Ophrys.
Rowlett, P. (2013). Do French speakers really have two grammars? Journal of French Language Studies, 23: 3757.
Samek-Lodovici, V. (2005). Prosody-Syntax Interaction in the expression of focus. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory, 23: 687755.
Selkirk, E. (1984). Phonology and Syntax. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Skopeteas, S. and Fanselow, G. (2010). Focus types and argument asymmetries: A cross-linguistic study in language production. In: Breul, C. (ed.), Contrastive Information Structure. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins, pp. 169–98.
Szendroői, K. (2003). A stress-based approach to the syntax of Hungarian focus. The Linguistic Review, 20: 3778.
Truckenbrodt, H. (1995). Phonological Phrases: their relation to syntax, focus and prominence. PhD dissertation, MIT.
Vallduví, E. (1992). The Informational Component. New York: Garland.
Vander Klok, J., Wagner, M. and Goad, H. (manuscript). The Prosodic Marking of Focus in English, Québec French, and European French. Mc Gill University.
Vion, M. and Colas, A. (1995). Contrastive marking in French dialogue: Why and how? Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 24: 313–31.
Zerbian, S. (2007). Subject/object-asymmetry in Northern Sotho. In: Schwabe, P. and Winkler, S. (eds.), Information Structure and the Architecture of Grammar: A Typological Perspective. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, pp. 323–45.
Zimmermann, M. (2006). Focus in Western Chadic: A unified OT-account. In: Davis, C. et al. (eds.), Proceedings of NELS 36. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.
Zimmermann, M. (2011). The grammatical expression of focus in West Chadic: Variation and uniformity in and across languages. Linguistics, 49: 1163–213.
Zribi-Hertz, A. (2011). Pour un modèle diglossique de description du français: quelques implications théoriques, didactiques et méthodologiques. Journal of French Language Studies, 21: 126.
Zribi-Hertz, A. (2013). De la notion de grammaire standard dans une optique diglossique du français. Journal of French Language Studies, 23: 5985.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Journal of French Language Studies
  • ISSN: 0959-2695
  • EISSN: 1474-0079
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-french-language-studies
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed