Associations between focus constructions and levels of exhaustivity: An experimental investigation of Chinese

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How various types of focus differ with respect to exhaustivity has been a topic of enduring interest in language studies. However, most of the theoretical work explicating such associations has done so cross-linguistically, and little research has been done on how people process and respond to them during language comprehension. This study therefore investigates the associations between the concept of exhaustivity and three focus types in Chinese (wh, cleft, and only foci) using a trichotomous-response design in two experiments: a forced-choice judgment and a self-paced reading experiment, both with adult native speakers. Its results show that, whether engaged in conscious decision-making or an implicit comprehension process, the participants distinguished only-focus and cleft-focus from wh-focus clearly, and also that there are specific differences between only-focus and cleft-focus in conscious decision-making. This implies that, in terms of the relationship between exhaustivity and the focus types under investigation, cleft-focus and only-focus behave very similarly during language comprehension despite the existence of some fine distinctions between them. In other words, the potential linguistic levels that exhaustivity encodes in Chinese cleft-focus render it more similar to only-focus than to wh-focus. These results are broadly in line with the semantic account that distinguishes cleft from only-focus, i.e., that cleft encodes exhaustivity in not-at-issue presupposition and only-focus encodes exhaustivity in at-issue assertion, while both express semantically encoded exhaustivity, triggering robust language-processing patterns that differ from patterns of wh-focus in Chinese.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0223502
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - 9 Oct 2019

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)
  • General


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