The Syntax of Feature-Checking, Focus Structure, and Sentential Stress

James Lavine, Princeton University

The present paper concerns itself with the problem of reconciling the requirements of a feature-driven system of movement (such as minimalism) with the surface word order patterns that instantiate focus structure. The goal is to contribute to a solution of the "optionality paradox" described in Bailyn (1998). This type of study is related to the larger theoretical goal in current syntax of eliminating optionality from the computational system.

The leading idea of this paper is that strong features in the minimalist sense (in the case of Slavic, we refer only to the EPP-feature) do not apply universally, but instead are violable constraints: their satisfaction depends crucially on their ranking in a given grammar relative to other violable constraints in an optimality-theoretic (OT) sense (see Grimshaw 1997 and Grimshaw & Samek-Lodovici 1998). In the framework presented here, the strong EPP-feature itself exhibits no optionality: its effects are simply masked by those of higher-ranking constraints. In derivations where higher-ranking constraints do not conflict with the EPP, this approach predicts that EPP-effects will be visible, which is precisely the case.

This study examines the interaction of the following constraints: (i) the EPP, a phrase-structure constraint that requires the specifier of the highest projection to be filled; (ii) STAY, an economy constraint that penalizes movement; (iii) ALIGN-FOCUS, a focus-structure constraint that requires focused material to occur on the rightmost edge of the clause; and (iv) FULL-INTERPRETATION, a so-called "faithfulness constraint" that penalizes derivations that contain material not indicated in the predicate's argument structure, i.e., expletives. A version of the Nuclear Stress Rule is adopted whereby default sentential stress is assigned to the stressed syllable of the clause's rightmost constituent. It follows, crucially, that the focused constituent will always contain the most prosodically prominent element in the sentence if ALIGN-FOCUS is satisfied (this paper is concerned only with non-emphatic, neutral intonation). Otherwise, a non-focused constituent will bear main sentential stress, which is not a licit focus structure in Slavic.

In the question-answer paradigm in (1), the discourse selects the subject as the focus (sentential stress is marked by ALL CAPS, the focused constituent is bracketed):

(1) Kto igraet? (a) #[Deti] IGRAJUT. (b) Igrajut [DETI]. (c) *expl. igrajut [DETI].

It follows from (a-b) that the position of the focused subject is correctly derived if ALIGN-FOCUS dominates the EPP (ALIGN-FOCUS >> EPP) as in the optimal structure in (b). The fact that the EPP-preserving expletive in (c) results in a suboptimal derivation indicates that FULL-INT dominates the EPP, that is, the suboptimal derivation in (c) minimally differs from the optimal derivation in (b) by the fatal FULL-INT violation in the former versus the licit EPP violation in the latter (ALIGN-FOCUS >> FULL-INT >> EPP). The relative ranking of the EPP and STAY is addresed in (2):

(2) Chto sluchilos'? (a) [Lodku:Acc oprokinulo VOLNOJ:Inst]. (b) ?[Oprokinulo lodku:Acc VOLNOJ:Inst].

In both (2a-b) ALIGN-FOCUS is satisfied in situ. (2a) satisfies the EPP by movement of an internal argument to the preverbal position. Note that this is an optionally wide-focus structure: the entire sentence optionally represents new information. Therefore, movement of lodku to the preverbal position appears to be an EPP-effect, rather than a case of topicalization. The optimal structure in (2a) indicates that the EPP dominates STAY (thus, for Russian: ALIGN-FOCUS >> FULL-INT >> EPP >> STAY). The structure in (2b) is reported as awkward by Kovtunova (AG, 1980); the source of its degraded status is related to its V-initial "narrative" interpretation. Note that (2b) would be fully optimal if the EPP violation were necessary to satisfy a higher-ranked constraint.

Particular attention is devoted in this study to the resolution of the focus-conflicts in structures such as (1a), where non-focused igrajut inappropriately bears sentential stress. Following proposals made in Reinhart (1995) and Zubizarreta (1998), it is argued that the well-formed focus structure in (1b) is derived from underlying (1a) by "prosodically-motivated movement", whereby non-focused material raises above the focused constituent, allowing the focused phrase to receive default sentential stress in the usual way, by virtue of its rightmost position. This approach is motivated on the basis of Germanic and Romance data, in addition to data from other Slavic languages. This leftward-movement-only analysis for establishing focus structure differs crucially from recent proposals in Slavic that allow both leftward and rightward movement for this purpose (see, e.g., Sekerina 1997, and Bailyn 1998). The main result, which I alluded to earlier, is that word order variation (and the apparent optionality in the checking of strong features) is shown to follow in a principled way from the ranking of universal (though, by necessity, violable) constraints.


Bailyn, John (1998) "The Status of Optionality in Analyses of Slavic Syntax". Paper presented at FASL 7, Seattle, WA.

Grimshaw, Jane (1997) "Projections, Heads and Optimality". LI 28(3): 373-422.

Grimshaw, Jane and Vieri Samek-Lodovici (1998) "Optimal Subjects and Subject Universals". Pilar Barbosa et al., eds. Is the Best Good Enough? Optimality and Competition in Syntax. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press and MITWPL. 193-219.

Kovtunova, I. I. (1980) "Porjadok slov". N. Ju. Shvedova, ed. Russkaja grammatika (= Academy Grammar) vol. 2. Moskva: Nauka.

Reinhart, Tanya (1995) Interface Strategies. OTS, Universiteit Utrecht.

Sekerina, Irina (1997) The Syntax and Processing of Scrambling Constructions in Russian. Ph.D. dissertation, CUNY.

Zubizarreta, Maria (1998) Prosody, Focus, and Word Order. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.