Tuesday 13 March 2012


Kensuke Nanjo made an interesting suggestion about English tonicity.
I've been wondering if it's safe to say the word "else" always takes the nucleus in such sentences as "What else did you say?", "Who else did you see?", "Is anyone else coming?", "Nobody else has finished it", because the word "else" indicates that the rest of the sentences conveys old information.

It’s certainly the case that else in this meaning usually bears the nuclear tone.

•  ˈWhat ˈelse did you say?
•  ˈWho ˈelse did you see?
•  Is ˈanyone ˈelse coming?

•  There’s ˈsomething ˈelse I’d like to talk about, | as ˈwell.
•  If I ˈcan’t ˈtrust ˈyou, | who ˈelse can I trust?

(the latter two examples from LDOCE).

We need the qualification “in this meaning” (i.e. ‘not already mentioned’), because there are other senses of else (‘if not’, ‘otherwise’) in which it is usually accented, but does not necessarily bear the nuclear accent:
•  ˈHurry ˈup, | or ˈelse we’ll ˈmiss the ˈtrain.
•  They’ll ˈeither reˈduce the ˈprice | or ˈelse inˈclude ˈfree inˈsurance.

Another LDOCE example is interesting.
•  I’d like you to come, and anyone else who’s free.
If we devise a context for this example, there are two possibilities. In both, we can assume that come is given.
(i) In one of them, “you” are free. So free is a given, therefore unaccented.
•  I’d like ˈyou to come,| and ˈanyone ˈelse who’s free.
(ii) In the other, “you” are not free. (“I’m designating your attendance as being part of your duties. Other people, if not required elsewhere, should also attend.”) In this case free is NOT given, and the appropriate accentuation pattern would be
•  I’d like ˈyou to come,| and ˈanyone ˈelse who’s ˈfree.
The difference in meanings is conveyed by whether or not else bears the nucleus.

In my reply to Kensuke I said
I don't think you can make this generalization. There can be contrastive focus on some other item in sentences containing "else".
• OˈK, | you've ˈtold me who ˈelse was inˈvited, | but ˈwho (ˈ)else ˈactually ˈcame?

Like other tonicity rules, this proposed rule can be overridden by the demands of narrow/contrastive focus.


  1. Hmm, interesting! For me there's something to do with factual vs counterfactual. These two patterns both feel natural to me:

    What 'else did he say?
    What else could he have 'said?

    where the fact that he said something feels more 'given' in the first than in the second.

    In the pair:

    What else could I 'do?
    What 'else could I do?

    The second, with the nucleus on else, feels more hectoring or defensive; I wonder if that reflects a narrower focus than the first?

  2. Very, very interesting. And at the same time so difficult to master for a Spanish speaker...

    As always, I have printed out this post -and Martin's comment (for private study, needless to say).

    Thank you.

  3. If all else /fails...
    Call it idiomatic.

  4. In America I more often hear:
    -I’d like you to come, and anyone else who’s not busy (instead of who's free.)
    I think Americans have a harder time with the act of making requests of others. But also, I hear the possibility of a contextual twist: It's now an invitation; however, the subtle nuance of 'not busy' implies to the listener that I'm making a formal request of 'you.' Because 'not busy' is an implied but polite demand, I'm expecting you to consider the potential consequences if 'you'-the listener -don't attend since now you have the one chance to decline verbally. Thanks


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