Information structure and argument structure
It has been proposed that information structure interacts with argument structure in crosslinguistically observable systematic ways such that core argument positions differ in the ease with which they accept lexical noun phrases and/or noun-phrases with discourse-new referents. Specifically, Du Bois (1987) proposes that S (the logical subject of intransitive clauses) and O (the logical object of transitive clauses) readily accept such noun phrases while A (the logical subject of transitive clauses) does not. He further argues that this fact provides a direct motivation of ergative alignment systems in terms of information processing constraints.
Attempts to replicate this finding in non-ergative languages such as English have yielded mixed results. Kumagai (2001, cit. Du Bois 2003) finds that English follows the ergative pattern observed by Du Bois, while Kärkkainen (1996) and Sakita (2005) find that O, but neither S nor A readily accept new and/or lexical referents and that the discourse structure of English thus follows a nominative pattern.
In my paper, I argue that these mixed results are found because regularities in the relationship between information structure and argument structure in English are more accurately captured at the level of construction-specific roles. I show that the information-structural properties of argument structure constructions largely follow from their semantics (much like those of possessive constructions, cf. Stefanowitsch 2003), and that a more direct relationship between the information status of noun phrases and the constructional slots in which they occur is only found in constructions that are specifically dedicated to information structuring (Stefanowitsch and Gries 2002).
These results suggest that information processing constraints have no direct influence on the core grammatical system of language, the signaling of argument structure.
Du Bois, J. 1987. The discourse basis of ergativity. Language 63: 805-855.
Du Bois, J. 2003. Discourse and grammar. In Tomasello, M. (ed.), The New Psychology of Language, Volume 2, 47-87. Mawah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Kärkkäinen, E. (1996). Preferred Argument Structure and subject role in American English conversational discourse. Journal of Pragmatic 25: 675-701.
Kumagai, Y. (2001). Preferred Argument Structure and discourse ergativity in English. Mulberry 50: 77-90.
Sakita, T. (2005). Discourse Basis of Grammatical Patterns: Preferred Argument Structure in Narrative. Presented at the 9th International Pragmatics Conference, Riva del Garda, 10-15 July 2005.
Stefanowitsch, Anatol. (2003). Constructional semantics as a limit to grammatical alternation: The two genitives of English. In Günter Rohdenburg and Britta Mondorf (eds), Determinants of Grammatical Variation in English, 413-441. Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter.
Stefanowitsch, A. and S.T. Gries (2002). A construction grammar approach to linear precedence principles. Presented at the 2. International Conference on Construction Grammar, Helsinki, September 2002.