Focus particles such as only, even, and also relate the current utterance to other alternatives in the discourse. While particles with these three, well-studied functions are common in language of the world, their precise semantics can vary, and languages also have particles which express different meanings, or meanings which cross-cut these common categories. My own work has studied unique focus particles in Burmese and Tibetan.

My student Keely New and I have investigated the Burmese focus particle hma, which expresses exhaustivity in some contexts but a scalar, even-like meaning in other contexts. We propose that hma is uniformly a not-at-issue scalar exhaustive, and derive these two uses through a scope ambiguity with respect to negation. We also analyze the relationship between hma and the sentence-final mood marker dar as an instance of pragmatic focus concord, best explained through the interaction of these particles’ independent semantics, rather than the result of morphosyntactic agreement.

In recent work, I have studied the Tibetan particle’ang.’ang has three uses: (a) as a counterexpectational discourse particle (like English ‘but’ or ‘however’), (b) as a scalar concessive particle, and (c) to form free choice items with wh-words. Morphologically,’ang is transparently the combination of a copular verb, conditional ending, and scalar particle (e.g. ‘even’). I develop a compositional semantics for three functions from these ingredients, and also advocate for the extension of this approach to Japanese demo which has a similar distribution and (historical) morphological makeup.

I am also interested in the cross-linguistic syntax and semantics of clefts and, more generally, grammatical markers which make reference to the Question Under Discussion (QUD). This interest stems from my investigation of the Mandarin Chinese focus marker shì, which I argue expresses cleft semantics without a "cleaving" syntax which separates the focused pivot from its background, as an English it-cleft does. I show that shì requires the material in its scope to be congruent to an accepted QUD, supporting the view that cleft semantics is QUD-dependent (Velleman et al 2012), unlike other exclusives such as only. I also investigate the syntax and semantics of "cleft questions," such as the English Who is it that came last night?, which seem to be an instance of backwards focus association as investigated in my dissertation.

Return to all projects