Erlewine, Michael Yoshitaka, 2016. “Focus and minimality.” Presented at Macquarie University.
Operators such as ‘only’ are “focus-sensitive” in that their interpretation depends on a set of alternatives which is determined in part by the placement of focus. In this talk, I investigate structural restrictions on the position of focus-sensitive operators and their foci, in Mandarin Chinese and Vietnamese. I show that in both languages, focus-sensitive sentential adverbs must be as low as possible in their phase while taking their focus associates in their scope, similar to what has been described (controversially) for German by Jacobs (1983) and Büring & Hartmann (2001). I show that this “as low as possible” requirement is a strict, syntactic constraint rather than one which is semantically sensitive. I argue that its relativization to individual phases provides a new kind of evidence for the idea of the cyclic construction of syntactic structure.