Topic-Marking Particle –TO and Scalar Implicature

Eun-ji Song, Seoul National University

In modern colloquial Russian, the particle –to has been characterized as a marker of contrastive topic with familiar, though inactivated, informational status and often compared with such particles as že, ved’ in terms of discourse or pragmatic functions (Bonnot 1987, Bitextin 1994, McCoy 2001). My study focuses on distinctive semantic, pragmatic functions of the enclitic particle –to, vis-ŕ-vis the other comparable particles, which have rarely been identified, articulated or thoroughly investigated. The study will show that this particle can mark a topic on the predicate or event level in tautological construction, as shown in the following examples (Paillard & Plungjan 1993).


1) Šagnut'-to on šagnul, no ostanovilsja v izumlenii v dverjax i daže vzdrognul.

‘Take a step he did, but he stopped in amazement in the doorway and even flinched.’

             2) Izučat'-to izučali, da i ničego tak i ne ponjali. .

        ‘Learn he did, but understood nothing.’


In example (1), there is a scalar hierarchy between two actions or events: {šagnut’ ‘to take a step’ < idti ‘to proceed’ (ne ostanovit'sja ‘not to stop’)} and the preceding clause assert the first action, which is of the lower value. Yet, the following clause negates the second, which is of the higher value. In example (2), there is a hierarchy: {izučat’ ‘to learn’ < ponjat' ‘to understand’}, and again the action of the lower value is affirmed, whereas the higher value is negated. Ranking of the values can be objective, but it may also depend on the discourse context and the speaker’s subjective judgments. In this tautological construction, the two clauses are conjoined by an adversative conjunction with the meaning of ‘denial of expectation’ (Blakemore 1989), often realized by the coordinating conjunctions, such as no, da, a.

The concept of ‘contrastiveness’ has been often defined only on the paradigmatic level: thematic(topical) contrast introduces a set M={…, a,…} and if property P holds of a, then other properties Q hold of the other members of M (Vallduví & Vilkuna 1998). Scalar contrastive meaning, in contrast, operates on the syntagmatic level. Two properties form a scale {P < Q}, and while the lower value P is valid (as might be presupposed by the addressee), the higher value Q is not. Verbal tautology P-to P construction apparently contradicts Grice’s maxim of quantity, but this evokes the conversational implicature of negating an action or event of higher value than P in the given discourse context (Grice 1975).

Further, I shall argue the particle –to, unlike other comparable particles or conjunctions marking a topic, is employed to separate ‘reference’ from ‘role’ in detachment constructions (topicalization or right-dislocation) (Lambrecht 1994). Backgrounding distinct grammatical roles to focus on references, the particle -to in Russian may be construed as a lexical exponent of neutralization, whose grammatical correlate can be the sentence-initial thematic nominative case (‘imenitel'nyj temy') (Lapteva 1976, Chvany 1997).


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Blakemore, Diane. “Denial and Contrast: A Relevance Theoretic Analysis of but.” Linguistics and Philosophy 12, 15-38. 

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Chvany, Catherine V. 1997. Deconstructing Agents and Subjects. Selected Essays of Catherine V. Chvany, ed. by Olga T. Yokoyama & Emily Klenin, Columbus, Ohio: Slavica.  

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Lapteva, O. A. Russkij razgovornyj sintaksis. Moskva: Nauka. 1976.

McCoy, Svetlana G.. 2001. Colloquial Russian particles –TO, ŽE, and VED’as Set-Generating Markers: A Unifying Analysis. Unpublished Ph. D Thesis, Boston University.

Paillard, Denis. & V. A. Plungjan. 1993. Ob odnom tipe konstrukcii s povtorom glagola v russkom jazyke. Russian Linguistics 17, 263-277.

Vallduví, Enric. & Vilkuna, Maria. 1998. On Rheme and Kontrast. Syntax and Semantics 29: The Limits of Syntax, New York: Academic Press, 1998.