Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-78dcdb465f-2ktwh Total loading time: 0.39 Render date: 2021-04-19T04:22:01.137Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "shouldUseShareProductTool": true, "shouldUseHypothesis": true, "isUnsiloEnabled": true, "metricsAbstractViews": false, "figures": false, "newCiteModal": false, "newCitedByModal": true }

The contrastive topic requirement on specificational subjects

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  19 May 2020

Daniel Milway
University of Toronto
E-mail address:


This paper offers a discourse-pragmatic account of the constraint on indefinite DPs as subjects of specificational copular clauses (a doctor is Mary). Building on Mikkelsen's (2004) proposal that specificational subjects are topics, I argue that they must be contrastive topics which properly contain F-marked constituents. I show that this can account for the absolute ban on simple indefinite subjects, and allow for more complex indefinites to be subjects. Finally, I discuss the syntactic analysis that would be predicted given my pragmatic analysis, and the puzzles that arise from it.



Cet article offre une analyse de type discours-pragmatique de la contrainte sur les DP indéfinis qui sont sujets de clauses copulaires spécificationelles (un médecin est Marie). En partant de l'argument de Mikkelsen (2004), qui avance que les sujets des clauses spécificationnelles seraient topiques, je propose qu'on les analyse en tant que topiques contrastifs qui incluent un constituant F marqué. Je démontre que cette analyse explique l'interdiction absolue sur des sujets indéfinis simples, tout en permettant des sujets indéfinis plus complexes. Pour clore, je discute de l'analyse syntaxique prédite par mon analyse pragmatique, et des énigmes qu'elle soulève.

Copyright © Canadian Linguistic Association/Association canadienne de linguistique 2020

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below.


Special thanks to Michela Ippolito for her excellent supervision and helpful comments, questions and encouragement, and to the rest of my committee, Guillaume Thomas and Diane Massam, for their comments on various drafts of this paper. Thanks also to members of the UofT Syntax Project and the SEMPRAG group, the audience and organizers of BLS42, and anyone I asked for judgements.


Béjar, Susana and Kahnemuyipour, Arsalan. 2013. Agreement in copular clauses embedded in modal contexts. In Proceedings of the 2013 annual conference of the Canadian Linguistic Association, ed. Luo, Shan. Victoria, BC: CLA. <>.Google Scholar
Birner, B. J. 1994. Information status and word order: An analysis of English inversion. Language 20(2): 233259.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Birner, B. J. 1996. The discourse function of inversion in English. New York: Garland.Google Scholar
Boersma, Paul and Weenink, David. 2019. Praat: doing phonetics by computer. <>..>Google Scholar
Büring, Daniel. 2003. On d-trees, beans, and b-accents. Linguistics and philosophy 26(5): 511545.Google Scholar
Büring, Daniel. 2016. (Contrastive) topic. In The handbook of information structure, ed. Féry, Caroline and Ishihara, Shinichiro. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
Constant, Noah. 2014. Contrastive topic: Meanings and realizations. Doctoral dissertation, University of Massachusetts Amherst.Google Scholar
Delacruz, Enrique B. 1976. Factives and proposition level constructions in Montague grammar. In Montague grammar, ed. Partee, Barbara, 177199. New York: Academic Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Diesing, Molly. 1992. Indefinites. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
Halliday, Michael A.K. 1967. Notes on transitivity and theme in English: Part 2. Journal of linguistics 3(2): 199244.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hamblin, Charles L. 1973. Questions in Montague English. Foundations of language 10(1): 4153.Google Scholar
Heggie, Lorie. 1988. The syntax of copular constructions. Doctoral dissertation, University of Southern California, Los Angeles.Google Scholar
Heim, Irene. 1982. The semantics of definite and indefinite noun phrases. Doctoral dissertation, University of Massachusetts.Google Scholar
Heim, Irene, Lasnik, Howard, and May, Robert. 1991. Reciprocity and plurality. Linguistic Inquiry 22(1): 63101.Google Scholar
Heycock, Caroline. 1994. The internal structure of small clauses. In Proceedings of NELS 25, ed. Beckman, Jill, 223238. Amherst.Google Scholar
Heycock, Caroline. 2010. Variability and variation in agreement in copular clauses: Evidence from Faroese. Talk presented at CGSW 25. Tromsø, Norway.Google Scholar
Heycock, Caroline. 2012. Specification, equation, and agreement in copular sentences. The Canadian Journal of Linguistics/La revue canadienne de linguistique 57(2): 209240.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Heycock, Caroline and Kroch, Anthony. 1999. Pseudocleft connectedness: Implications for the lf interface level. Linguistics Inquiry 30(3): 365397.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Higgins, Francis Roger. 1973. The pseudo-cleft construction in English. Doctoral dissertation, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.Google Scholar
de Hoop, Helen. 1992. Case configuration and Noun Phrase interpretation. Doctoral dissertation, University of Groningen.Google Scholar
Jackendoff, Ray. 1972. Semantic interpretation in generative grammar. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
Kayne, Richard S. 2015. English one and ones as complex determiners. <>..>Google Scholar
Lenerz, Jürgen. 1977. Zur Abfolge nominaler Satzglieder im Deutschen. Tübingen: Gunter Narr.Google Scholar
Mikkelsen, Line. 2004. Specifying who: On the structure, meaning, and use of specificational copular clauses. Doctoral dissertation, University of California Santa Cruz.Google Scholar
Mikkelsen, Line. 2005. Copular clauses: Specification, predication and equation. Philadelphia: John Benjamins.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Mikkelsen, Line. 2008. Specification under discussion. In Annual meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society, vol. 34, 473482.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Milsark, Gary L. 1974. Existential sentences in english. Doctoral dissertation, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.Google Scholar
Moro, Andrea. 1997. The raising of predicates: Predicative noun phrases and the theory of clause structure. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Partee, Barbara. 1987. Noun phrase interpretation and type-shifting principles. In Studies in discourse representation theory and the theory of generalized quantifiers, ed. Groenendijk, Jeroen, Jongh, Dick de, and Stokhof, Martin, 115143. Dordrecht: Foris.Google Scholar
Pierrehumbert, Janet and Hirschberg, Julia. 1990. The meaning of intonational contours in the interpretation of discourse. In Intentions in communication, ed. Cohen, Philip R., Morgan, Jerry, and Pollack, Martha E., 271311. Cambridge: MIT Press.Google Scholar
Reinhart, Tanya. 1981. Pragmatics and linguistics: An analysis of sentence topics. Philosophica 27(1): 5394.Google Scholar
Rizzi, Luigi. 1997. The fine structure of the left periphery. In Elements of grammar, ed. Haegeman, Liliane, 281337. Dordrecht: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Roberts, Craige. 2012. Information structure in discourse: Towards an integrated formal theory of pragmatics. Semantics and Pragmatics 5(6): 169.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Romero, Maribel. 2005. Concealed questions and specificational subjects. Linguistics and Philosophy 28(6): 687737.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Rooth, Mats. 1992. A theory of focus interpretation. Natural language semantics 1(1): 75116.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Selkirk, Elisabeth. 1996. Sentence prosody: Intonation, stress, and phrasing. In The handbook of phonological theory, ed. Goldsmith, J.A.. Cambridge, Mass: Wiley-Blackwell.Google Scholar
Williams, Edwin. 1997. The asymmetry of predication. In Texas linguistic forum 38 - the syntax and semantics of predication, ed. Blight, Ralph C. and Moosally, Michelle J., 323333. Austin: Department of Linguistics, The University of Texas at Austin.Google Scholar

Full text views

Full text views reflects PDF downloads, PDFs sent to Google Drive, Dropbox and Kindle and HTML full text views.

Total number of HTML views: 28
Total number of PDF views: 154 *
View data table for this chart

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between 19th May 2020 - 19th April 2021. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Send article to Kindle

To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

The contrastive topic requirement on specificational subjects
Available formats

Send article to Dropbox

To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

The contrastive topic requirement on specificational subjects
Available formats

Send article to Google Drive

To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

The contrastive topic requirement on specificational subjects
Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Your details

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *