Focus strategies in english sentences and their representation in books for school age german learners of english

Term Paper, 2002

21 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. The Term Focus and its Function in English Grammar

3. Possible Constructions to Assign Focus in English Sentences
3.1 Fronting
3.1.1 Emphatic Topic, Contrastive Topic, ‘Given’ or Semi-Given Topic Emphatic Topic Contrastive Topic ‘Given’ / Semi-Given Topic
3.1.2 Inversion Subject-verb Inversion Subject-operator Inversion
3.2 Other Constructions to Assign Focus
3.2.1 Cleft Sentences (wh-type and it-type)
3.2.2 Postponement
3.2.3 The Passive
3.3 Additional Focus Constructions

4. The Representation of Focus Strategies in School-Books for German Learners of English
4.1 The General Lack of Focus Strategies in School-Books
4.2 Books Suitable for Introducing Focus Strategies to Students

5. Conclusion

6. Works Cited


1. Introduction

The aim of the following work is mainly to present focus strategies in English sentences. The topic has been of great interest to me since such focus constructions are an important grammatical means of re-arranging the information within a sentence according to one’s intention. Being familiar with a wide variety of focus strategies is one possibility of improving one’s style, both in written and spoken English.

Several university level grammar books provide a great number of different means to assign focus within a sentence. In the following course of this paper I’m first going to explain and discuss the term focus as well as its function in English grammar and then show the possible ways of organizing a message. Due to the above mentioned variety of focus strategies not all of them can be itemized here. I decided on presenting those focus constructions which, in my opinion, seem most relevant for the purposes of a foreign language student. The prescribed extent of this work makes a detailed description of each construction, as it can be found in scholarly grammar book, impossible. Therefore, only the most important attributes and particularities of each strategy are named. In most cases examples are added for visualization and a better understanding. In their publications linguists present different ways of classifying focus strategies which makes a clear division of the constructions relatively difficult. Furthermore different notions of which grammatical structure can be considered a focus strategy are existing. Under the respective headline these problems will be discussed in greater detail.

Dealing with these focus strategies and the purpose they serve raised the question if these constructions can be found in school-books for German learner’s of English as well. As a future English teacher I’m especially interested in that and therefore decided to examine several books available. The results of this examination, reasons for a necessary integration of focus strategies into a classroom context and suitable literature are mentioned in the final part of this work. Since focus strategies aren’t (yet) generally represented in school books this part is rather short in comparison to the one dealing with the focus constructions itself.

2. The Term Focus and its Function in English Grammar

In English grammar the term focus is used to refer to the highlighting of parts of a sentence for communicative purposes. One part of the sentence is moved to a place where it has the greatest communicative impact.[1] GRAUSTEIN et al. (1980) note that such an re-ordering of a sentence structure depends on the speaker’s or writer’s perspective of communication.[2] In the most usual sense, focus is what is emphasized in either an utterance or in writing. In speech, meaning can mainly be expressed by varying the pitch, loudness and other features[3], whereas in written language the only way to achieve focus is to re-arrange the order of constituents within the sentence.

A sentence usually contains two different kinds of information – new and given. The term new information refers to the unknown part of a message. It is information the speaker assumes the hearer to be unfamiliar with. As given information we consider contents which have been mentioned already and are therefore taken for granted. This sort of information has usually been supplied by the context, the situation[4] or simply by a preceding clause. Although, it needs to be taken in consideration, what has as well been mentioned in the above paragraph, is the fact that the speaker only assumes that the receiver of the message shares the same knowledge. When the speaker’s presented notion of given and new information differs from the hearer’s, the production of an ambiguous message or even a total misunderstanding may occur. According to GRAUSTEIN (1980), given information is equated with the term “theme” and new information with “rheme”[5]; in comparison LEECH / SVARTVIK (1991) use the terms “topic” and “focus”. Other linguists, as GREENBAUM / QUIRK (1990), prefer in their terminology the distinction “theme” and “focus”. However, the structure of a sentence depends on the emphasis one wants to give to different parts of the message. Normally, a sentence begins with given information, whereas new information is kept to the end of it. In other words, the theme is the initial part of a structure and the new information, which is the focus of the message, is normally occurring at the end of the information unit.[6] This structure is due to the principles of end-focus and end-weight. In English sentences end-focus implies that “[…] the new or most important idea in a piece of information should be placed towards the end, where in speech the tone unit normally falls.”[7] Not only does this principle apply to single pieces of information, but also to a whole sentence containing several pieces of information. Especially in writing, where intonation cannot be relied on for emphasis, a sentence structure in which the most important idea is saved-up to the end is considered to be most effective. The principle of end-focus is closely linked with that of end-weight, that is to say, with the tendency to place the more complex part at the end of a sentence. With reference to LEECH / SVARTVIK (1991) “The ‘weight’ of an element can be defined in terms of length (eg number of syllables) or in terms of grammatical complexity (number of modifiers, etc).”[8] The above mentioned linguists point out that without the application of these principles a sentence may sound unbalanced and awkward. Nevertheless, these constructions only need to be looked at as guiding principles and not invariable rules. English grammar provides various ways to arrange a message for the right order and emphasis. A great variety of focus strategies can be found in university grammar books. The strategies can roughly be divided into rules involving fronting, that is the movement of an element to the front of a sentence, in backing or postponement, where an element is moved to the end, and in other constructions including clefting, pseudo-cleft and passive.[9] As will be shown in a later paragraph a definite division of these constructions is impossible. All the books I have worked with presented different classifications. However, this rough division is represented in each scholarly grammar book although the number of more detailed focus strategies may vary. Among linguists seem to exist different notions of how many focus constructions can be distinguished. Irrespective of this fact, I would like to present those ways of assigning focus mentioned above in the following part of this paper.

3. Possible Constructions to Assign Focus in English Sentences

3.1 Fronting

The term fronting is described by GREENBAUM / QUIRK (1998) as follows: “Fronting is the term we apply to the achievement of marked theme by moving into initial position an item which is otherwise unusual there. The reason for fronting may be to echo thematically what has been contextually given […].” In this case the item, instead of the subject, becomes the theme and carries extra prominence.[10] Fronting often serves the purpose of so re-arranging a clause structure that end-focus falls on the most important part of the message.[11]

3.1.1 Emphatic Topic, Contrastive Topic, ‘Given’ or Semi-Given Topic

LEECH / SVARTVIK (1991) point out that the above mentioned shift gives the certain element psychological prominence, and has three different effects:

a) emphatic topic[12]
b) contrastive topic
c) ‘given’ or semi-given topic[13] Emphatic Topic

Mainly in (informal) conversation it is relatively common to front one element, especially a complement, and to give it nuclear stress, which gives the sentence double emphasis. The item that is placed in initial position may be the one contextually most demanded.[14] In this specific structure the most important thought in the speaker’s head appears to be placed in initial position and the rest is added.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

The ordering in [1] and [2] has changed from the normal SVC to CSV, in [3] from SVOC to CSVO and in [4] from SVO to OSVA.[15]


[1] Gabriele STEIN / Randolph QUIRK (1990), p. 200

[2] Gottfried GRAUSTEIN et al. (1980), p. 233

[3] David CRYSTAL (1990), p. 198

[4] Gottfried GRAUSTEIN et al. (1980), p. 233

[5] Gottfried GRAUSTEIN et al. (1980), p. 233

[6] Sidney GREENBAUM / Randolph QUIRK (1990), p. 397-98

[7] Geoffrey LEECH / Jan SVARTVIK (1991), p. 175

[8] Geoffrey LEECH / Jan SVARTVIK (1991), p. 175

[9] William RUTHERFORD (1998), p. 101

[10] David CRYSTAL (1990), p. 200

[11] Sydney GREENBAUM / Randolph QUIRK (1998), p. 408

[12] The term “topic” here equates GREENBAUM/QUIRK’S “theme”.

[13] Geoffrey LEECH/Jan SVARTVIK’S „A Communicative Grammar of English“ from 1991 uses the term ‘given’ whereas in the 1994 edition ‘semi-given’ can be found. See: 1991, p. 177 / 1994, p. 201

[14] Sidney GREENBAUM/Randolph QUIRK (1998), p. 408

[15] Geoffrey LEECH / Jan SVARTVIK (1991), p. 176

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Focus strategies in english sentences and their representation in books for school age german learners of english
University of Potsdam  (Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
The Structures of English
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Focus, Structures, English
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Anja Dinter (Author), 2002, Focus strategies in english sentences and their representation in books for school age german learners of english , Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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