The interpretation of sentences with the focus particle only, as in She only gave a guitar to the pirate is sensitive to the position of contrastive stress (Rooth, 1992): (1a) is ambiguous between a wide VP-focus reading and an indirect object focus reading and for (1b) only the direct object focus reading is available.
) a. Ze heeft alleen een gitaar aan de PIRAAT gegeven.
b. Ze heeft alleen een GITAAR aan de piraat gegeven.
“She has given only a GUITAR to the pirate.”
the only thing she did was give a guitar to the pirate; she did not do anything else
The research question is: how well can children integrate two linguistically different pieces of information (focus and stress)? A second theoretical question is if they integrate them, when do they do that? Do they integrate contextual-pragmatic information while they are processing the sentence, or do they wait till the end of sentence? Children (8 to 10) and adults were asked to judge these sentences with the pictures in the appendix. They were also asked to justify their judgment and repeat the test sentence. The results show ceiling performance for the adults, but young children only consider the (narrow) focus of the direct object (guitar) regardless of the intonational pattern of the test sentence. However, they did not disregard stress completely, because their “repetitions” mostly matched their own judgments, even when these judgments were off target. We also had an online measure: eye-tracking revealed that the effect of focus was visible almost right after the focused word and well before the end of the sentence. This shows that pragmatics (or context information) is processed incrementally during the sentence.