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Focus interpretation of zhi ‘only’ associated arguments in Mandarin triadic constructions

Shu-Ing Shyu1

1National Sun Yat-sen University

Correspondence address: Department of Foreign Languages and Literature, 70 Lien-Hai Road, National Sun Yat-sen University, Kaohsiung, Taiwan, 804. E-mail:

Citation Information: Linguistics. Volume 48, Issue 3, Pages 671–716, ISSN (Online) 1613-396X, ISSN (Print) 0024-3949, DOI: 10.1515/ling.2010.021, June 2010

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Although contrastive stress in English facilitates context disambiguation, this paper shows that Taiwan Mandarin adult speakers were insensitive to contrastive stress in resolving ambiguity in zhi ‘only’ associated arguments in triadic constructions. The first experiment, which contained sixteen true/false responses to sentences containing zhi associated arguments inferred from corresponding narrated stories, was conducted to test the judgments of one hundred college students. The results showed that the direct object (DO) focus tended to be interpreted as the most prominent in both the dative and double object constructions, contra to the results attested in the dative construction by English-speaking adults in Gualmini et al. (Children’s insensitivity to contrastive stress in sentences with ONLY: University of Pennsylvania, 2003) and Dutch children in Szendrői (Acquisition evidence for an interface theory of focus: 457–468, LOT, 2003), and the prediction of the VP default focus by Reinhart's (Interface strategies: Optimal and costly computations, MIT Press, 2006) focus interface strategy. The second experiment with a multiple-choice questionnaire of the same sixteen contexts as in the first experiment was designed for a different group of fifty-one participants to identify which element (indirect object (IO), DO or VP focus) was interpreted most prominently. The results again showed the correction rates of the DO focus were higher than those of the IO, and those of the default VP focus was the lowest, contra to Reinhart's prediction. The conspicuous nature of the DO focus in triadic constructions in both experiments is accounted for by its syntactic basicness to the predicate and its preferred thematic prominence over the IO. The DO focus surfaces in Mandarin in which stress is not lexically distinctive; hence prosody is not served as the primary cue for disambiguation.

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