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Information Structure and Sentence Structure

Information Structure and Sentence Structure

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Information Structure and Sentence Structure

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  1. Information Structure and Sentence Structure ENG 1520 Richard Xiao Lancaster University

  2. Outline • Information structure (IS): Theoretical backgrounds • Information-flow principle and principles of end-focus and weight • Manifestations of IS in sentence structures ENG 1520

  3. What is information structure (IS)? • Broadly speaking, information structure encodes which part of a sentence is more informative in relation to a particular context ENG 1520

  4. “Information packaging” • Information structure can be said to “package” linguistic information with the aim of optimizing the information transfer in discourse • It is primarily concerned with howa message is sent rather than what the message is about, just as the packaging of toothpaste can affect its sales but not much of its contents ENG 1520

  5. Form vs. meaning • However, while information structure is more about FORM (how information is transferred) than MEANING (information itself), it plays an essential role in several aspects of meaning • Essential for • the construction and coherence of a discourse • the choice of anaphoric elements • Also necessary for the interpretation of sentences with focus-sensitive particles (e.g. only, also, too), or adverbs of quantification (e.g. always, sometimes) ENG 1520

  6. Different focuses of only • Some examples showing different focuses of only • The focus in each example is marked in blue, which would receive a pitch accent in speech • John only introduced Bill to Sue. • John only introduced Bill to Sue. • John only introduced Bill to Sue. • John only introduced Bill to Sue. ENG 1520

  7. Linguistic means for IS • There are a range of linguistic means that can encode information structure, e.g. • Intonation and prosody in speech • Syntactic structures • Word order ENG 1520

  8. Place of IS in grammar • Information structure is “a component of GRAMMAR, more specifically of SENTENCE GRAMMAR”, i.e. it is “a determining factor in the formal structuring of sentences” (Lambrecht 1994:3) ENG 1520

  9. Information structure: A dichotomy ENG 1520

  10. Givenness and aboutness: relationship Q: What did John drink? ENG 1520

  11. Information structure of a sentence • Typically consists of two parts • one less informative part that relates the sentence to the preceding discourse (given, old, presupposed information) • one more informative part that moves the discourse forward • by adding new information • or by modifying the old information given or presupposed in preceding discourse ENG 1520

  12. Information-flow principle • Related to the normal ordering of information in English discourse, i.e. moving from given to new information • A question and two possible relies • Q: When will we come back? • - A) We’ll come backnext week. • - B) Next weekwe’ll come back. • In the two replies, the given information is marked in blue and new information is underlined • Which reply will you choose? Why? • A) is better than B) • The given-new order of information can contribute to the cohesion of a text, because the given information at the beginning links the sentence to the previous discourse while the new information is usually taken up in the continuing discourse • The given-new order also helps the addressee to understand ENG 1520

  13. Principles of end-focus and end-weight • End-focus principle • A clause normally has at least one point of focus, which typically falls upon the end of the clause • End-weight principle • Since new information often needs to be presented more fully than the given information (e.g. by using a longer, more complex, “heavier” structure), the end-weight principle often works hand in hand with the end-focus principle ENG 1520

  14. End-focus and end-weight principles • A pair of examples • A) It may take them a little while, butit is importantthat you contact them to make a housing application and let them know of your needs. • B) It may take them a little while, butthat you contact them to make a housing application and let them know of your needsis important. • Which sentence is more difficult to process? Why? • Sentence B) is more difficult • It is structurally unbalanced, and readers have to keep a lot in memory before they reach the end of the sentence ENG 1520

  15. Initial position: a second point of focus • The end-weight principle states that the end of a clause is the most important point of focus • In addition to final position, the beginning of a clause is another point of focus • Brilliant that was! • (=That was absolutely brilliant!) • To this list it would be very desirable to add the status of women and the distribution of income, housing and consumer durables. • The primary focus falls upon the underlined part in final position • “To this list" in initial position becomes a second focus, which also provides a cohesive link ENG 1520

  16. Information-flow principle vs. end-focus/weight principles • Normally agree with each other • When the two are in conflict, the information-flow principle can overrule the end-weight principle • e.g. That similar relationships occur with these two species under field conditions in Saskatchewan was suggested by Pickford (1960, 1966a). • The that-clause is placed in initial position to serve the information-flow principle by giving old information, even though this is a heavy structure ENG 1520

  17. Manifestations of IS • Passive • Existential there • Adverbial clause • Clefting • Extraposition • Dislocation • Fronting • Inversion ENG 1520

  18. 1) Passives • One important discourse function of passives is to accommodate information structure by • Presenting information from given to new • Maintaining the end-focus and end-weight • Keeping the topic continuous in discourse • Most commonly, the subject contains given information while the agent presents new information, which means that in most passive sentences, the subject has a higher level of givenness than the agent phrase • About 90% of the agent phrases bring in new information (Biber et al 1999) ENG 1520

  19. >>Passives • A two-sentence mini discourse • Almost all entrants to teaching in maintained and special schools in England and Wales complete a recognised course of initial teacher training. • A) Such courses are offered by university departments of education as well as by many polytechnics and colleges. • B) University departments of education as well as many polytechnics and colleges offer such courses. • Which option will you choose? Why? • Option A) is better • In accord with information-flow principle • In accord with end-focus/weight principles • Anaphoric use of such in initial position links the sentence more closely to the preceding discourse ENG 1520

  20. >>Passives • In addition to maintaining information flow, passives can also help to keep the topic continuous so that the discourse is coherent • A) The town is a major centre for the timber industry and <the town> is surrounded by large industrial and shipping complexes in the river Dvina, <the town> stretching away to the White Sea about thirty kilometers to the north. • Topic of 3 clauses is continuous (the town) • B) The town is a major centre for the timber industry and large industrial and shipping complexes in the river Dvina surrounded it, <the town> stretching away to the White Sea about thirty kilometers to the north. • Topic is discontinuous (the town – large industrial and shipping complexes – the town) ENG 1520

  21. 2) Existential there • There BE/EXIST + notional subject • Conveying more information than the mere existence of something, e.g. by indicating when or where it exists • As the obligatory elements of an existential sentence conveys little information, it usually has an adverbial or a post-modifier for the notional subject • There were four witnesses to the ceremony at the city’s Hotel Crillon. ENG 1520

  22. >>Existential there • The notional subject of an existential clause is usually an indefinite noun phrase introducing a new topic which is taken up in the continuing discourse • There are some apparent contradictions. For instance, the republics are encouraged to seek membership of the United Nations, although the union is to remain responsible for foreign relations. • New topic “some apparent contradictions” is introduced by existential there • One example of such contradictions (the republics vs. the union) is given in the continuing discourse ENG 1520

  23. >>Existential there • Existential constructions can help to avoid unbalanced sentence structure • A) There aremany people who believe sincerely that you can train children for life without resorting to punishment. • B) Many people who believe sincerely that you can train children for life without resorting to punishmentexist. • Which option do you prefer? Why? • A) is better than B) • Sentence balance, end-focus ENG 1520

  24. 3) Adverbial clauses • The placement of adverbial clauses can help to maintain information flow • If an adverbial clause contains given information, it is usually placed in initial position to help with cohesion – in this case, the main clause presents new information • And if that crisis goes on for years, it’s hard for them to recollect what they were like before. • “that crisis” in the conditional clause provides a cohesive link • New information is in end focus • In order to answer this question it is necessary to begin to read the charts as a way of structuring meaning… • “this question” in the adverbial of purpose provides a cohesive link • New information is in end focus ENG 1520

  25. >>Adverbial clauses • Conversely, when the main clause gives old information, the adverbial clause may appear in final position to present new information • We had them at the hospital <Given>, although I didn’t use them that often <New>. ENG 1520

  26. 4) Clefting • A cleft sentence breaks information in a sentence into two parts in order to provide an extra focus to one piece of information • Two types of clefting • it-cleft • wh-cleft ENG 1520

  27. >>It-clefts • Nearly all syntactic roles other than the predicate can be brought into focus in it-cleft sentences to achieve cohesion and contrast • The new freedoms go furthest in NHS Trusts and it is there<primary focus> that we are seeing some of the greatest progress<end focus>. • "there" provides a backward link to NHS Trusts, and also gives the sentence a primary focus in addition to the end focus • [Canonical word order] …and we are seeing some of the greatest progress there. (less powerful) • Sir, I always thought it was bodies that required the seats, not souls <contrast>. • The focused element “bodies” forms a contrast with “souls” • [Canonical word order] …bodies, not souls, required the seats. (less powerful) ENG 1520

  28. >>Wh-clefts • In wh-clefts, the focused elements can be a noun phrase, a nominal clause, or an infinitive clause • What she needed was a solid core of self (noun phrase as focused element) • What he urges is that they should have a better knowledge of the past (nominal clause as focused element) • What you must do is tell Irina to keep him in the clinic till I can come. (infinitive phrase as focused element) • In sentences like these, the part marked up in blue is the primary focus, while the underlined wh-clause forms a second focus ENG 1520

  29. >>Two special wh-clefts • Inverted wh-clefts and demonstrative wh-clefts • In both cases, the focused elements usually provide reference to the preceding discourse • Peace and quiet is what we want. • “peace and quite” was discussed in earlier text • This is what will determine the outcome of the election. • Focused demonstrative pronoun this points backwards to the early text • New information in the wh-clause forms the end focus ENG 1520

  30. 5) Extraposition • Extraposition means moving subject or object clauses outside their normal positions • When this happens, the dummy it is used in subject position of the main clause, anticipating the extraposed clause as the logical subject • Extraposition can help with sentence balance to serve the end-focus principle • Four types of extraposition • Extraposed that-clause • Extraposed wh-clause • Extraposed infinitive clause • Extraposed gerund clause ENG 1520

  31. >>Extraposed that-clause • The dummy it functions as the subject while the that-clause is moved to the clause final position • It is obvious that some Conservative Members are living in a dream world. (“it BE adj. that”) • Canonical: That some Conservative Members are living in a dream world is obvious. • It seems unlikely that this provisional arrangement will last. (“it SEEM/APPEAR adj. that”) • Canonical: That this provisional arrangement will last seems unlikely. • It appears that he is afraid of me. (“it SEEM or APPEAR that”) • Canonical: That he is afraid of me appears (to be the case). • Canonical versions sound less natural, because they go against the principle of end-weight ENG 1520

  32. >>Extraposed wh-clause • The dummy it functions as the subject while the wh-clause is moved to the clause final position • It is not clear how reliable the measurements of heat flux from sonic devices are in cloud. • Canonical: How reliable the measurements of heat flux from sonic devices are in cloud is not clear. • For the same reason as for extraposed that-clauses, the canonical version sounds less natural ENG 1520

  33. >>Extraposedinfinitive clause • The dummy it functions as the subject while the infinitive clause is moved to the clause final position • It is essential to read the entire book and then go back to this area. • Canonical: To read the entire book and then go back to this area is essential. • James found it difficult to accept her explanation. (object) • Canonical: ?James found to accept her explanation difficult. • These canonical versions clearly sound less natural than their extraposed counterparts • When the infinitive clause functions as an object, the canonical version is even less acceptable ENG 1520

  34. >>Extraposed gerund clause • The dummy it functions as the subject while the gerund clause is moved to the clause final position • It’s very difficult getting supplies into Sarajevo. • Canonical: Getting supplies into Sarajevo is very difficult. • They found it fun skiing. (object) • Canonical: They found skiing fun. • While a lengthy gerund clause can still destroy the balance in canonical word order, a short gerund clause in canonical form sounds as good as the extraposed version ENG 1520

  35. 6) Dislocation • A construction with a pronoun in the main clause and a definite noun phrase before or after the main clause, which is used to mark the topic or for clarification • Typically found in conversation or fictional dialogue ENG 1520

  36. >>Two types of dislocation • Left-dislocation (preface): marking the topic • One of the guys I work with, he said he bought over $100 in Powerball tickets. • He -> “one of the guys I work with” [topic] • Underlined part: focus • Right-dislocation (noun phrase tag): for clarification, sometimes also for the end-focus effect of the noun phrase • Has it got double doors, that shop? • Noun phrase tag clarifies what the pronoun it refers to; it also brings the noun phrase “that shop” into focus ENG 1520

  37. 7) Fronting • Placing in initial position a clause element which normally follows the verb • Used for achieving focus and cohesion as it takes advantage of both final and initial points of focus • The fronted element usually refers to given information, or forms a contrast ENG 1520

  38. >>Examples of fronting • What they can do, we can do. • Fronted object provides two points of focus and a contrast • Such at least was his observation. • Fronted element “such” provides a cohesive link and an end-focus • Far more serious were the severe head injuries. • Fronted predicative relates the sentence to preceding text through a comparison; it also activates two points of focus • Enclosed is a photograph of my late father Bert Wakefield on site just after the war. • Fronted non-finite construction achieves sentence balance by presenting the structurally heavy new information in final position • [Brave though he is in facing adult audiences], the result is a bit of a cringe. • Underlined part moved before the subordinator though is clearly intensified; in addition, the end-focus falls upon new information ENG 1520

  39. 8) Inversion • Refers to a reversal of the normal word order so that the verb precedes the subject • Helping with cohesion, information flow, intensification and placement of focus ENG 1520

  40. >>Examples of inversion • Next to it<Old> stood the engine which ran it, and the engineer <New>. • Full (subject-verb) inversion • Underlined part in initial position provides old information • Referential it in initial position increases cohesion • Long subject appears at the end of the sentence • Better than canonical with long subject: “The engine which ran it, and the engineer stood next to it.” • On no occasiondid the number of protesters reach more than a few hundred. • Partial (subject-operator) inversion • Force of the negative element is intensified by its initial focus • More powerful than canonical: “The number of protesters did not reach more than a few hundred on any occasion.” ENG 1520

  41. Summary • The information structure of a sentence has two parts – one for given information and one for new information, and old information is normally presented before new information • The end and beginning of a clause are usually points of focus, but the structurally complex and informationally “heavier” part is normally placed in final position • Information structure is manifested in a great variety of sentence structures in English ENG 1520

  42. IS analysis exercise:Identify given and new information • The micrometer • A micrometer is an instrument which is used for measuring small distances precisely. • It can measure with a precision of 0.01 mm. • A micrometer consists of a steel frame in the shape of a semi-circle. • Attached to one end of this semi-circular frame is a small anvil. • The other end of the frame extends outwards. • A piece of metal in the shape of a cylinder fits on this extension. • The cylindrical part is called the barrel or sleeve. • Inside the barrel is a screw-thread. ENG 1520

  43. IS analysis exercise:Sample analysis ENG 1520

  44. Further readings • Alonso, I. (2003) Improving text flow in ESL learner Compositions. The Internet TESL Journal 9/2. URL: • Biber, D., Conrad, S. and Leech, G. (2002) Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English. London: Longman. • Biber, D., Johansson, S., Leech, G., Conrad, S. and Finegan, E. (1999) Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English. London: Longman. • Birner, B. and Ward, G. (1998) Information Status and Noncanonical Word Order in English. Amsterdam: Benjamins. • Jennifer A., Losongc, A., Wasow, T. and Ginstrom, R. (2000) Heaviness vs. Newness: The Effects of Structural Complexity and Discourse Status on Constituent Ordering. Language 76/1: 28-55. • Lambrecht, K. (1994) Information Structure and Sentence Form. London: CUP • Nwogu, K. (1995) Structuring scientific discourse. English Teaching Forum. 33/4: 22-27. URL: • Quirk, R., Greenbaum, S., Leech, G. and Svartvik, J. (1985) A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. London: Longman. ENG 1520

  45. Thank you! If you have any question, please feel free to ask or email me This PPT is available for download at Exercises to follow… ENG 1520