When subjects frame the clause: Discontinuous noun phrases as an iconic strategy for marking thetic constructions

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This paper builds on observations from several research areas which hitherto have been pursued relatively independently of one another, to argue that discontinuous nominal expressions are one of the attested strategies for marking a subtype of sentence focus constructions known as thetic constructions. This analysis can be applied to the type of discontinuity termed extraposition from subject NP/DP in languages with otherwise strongly configurational nominal expressions such as English. For these constructions, however, it cannot be ruled out that weight/length is an alternative or additional motivation. Evidence from several Australian languages, where discontinuous subjects usually just involve a semantic head and a modifier, can be used to show that this strategy is attested even where weight is not a plausible factor. Like other construction types that are associated with theticity cross-linguistically, discontinuous nominal expressions are saliently distinct from topic-comment (“categorical”) constructions and thus obey the principle of detopicalisation identified by Lambrecht (2000). The findings support the hypothesis that the principle of iconicity of distance, which ensures contiguity of the subconstituents of a phrase under most circumstances, will only be overriden if there is another principle which motivates this violation. Such motivations (discussed in previous literature) include highlighting a contrastive modifier and the distribution of weight; it will be argued that detopicalisation can be added to this list since discontinuity prevents the assignment of topic status to the subject expression. Moreover, a construction where a discontinuous subject frames the entire clause is itself iconically motivated by the principle of informational integration which results in the unitary, non-bipartite nature of the construction generally associated with theticity.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)865–898
Number of pages33
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 25 May 2022


  • iconicity
  • information structure
  • noun phrase discontinuity
  • theticity


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