How About It?
The Role of Accent and Context in Determining Discourse
One English construction that is commonly misused by non-native
speakers is how about.
This construction is often mistakenly used, as in (1), to initiate an
inquiry, either in phatic
conversation or to show real curiosity:
An examination of a collection of over 70 naturally occurring examples
shows that native
- (1) Hi, Fred! # How about your mother?
speakers don't use how about as the first part of an
inquiry-response adjacency pair, but do
use how about followed by lexical NPs to indicate one of
the four discourse functions shown in
(2) - (5) below, which I designate as courtesy bouncing (as in 2),
suggesting (as in 3), demonstrative NP
exclaiming (as in 4), and renewing an old topic (as in 5).
Related uses include two set expressions involving pronouns as the
NPs: how about that and
how about it.
- (2) A: How did your test go this morning?
- B:Pretty good. How about yours?
(3) How about the following as candidates for the causes of
the pathologies that afflict us...
(4) How 'bout them Broncos!
(5) How about your sister, anyway? Did she ever find a job?
These are illustrated in (6) and (7).
- (6) So, how about it? Do you want to go out for pizza
tonight or not?
- (7) Well, how about that! I didn't even notice that we were
out of milk.
However, depending on the position of the main accent within the
construction, indicated here
by the underlined word, these six uses fall into two categories
distinct in their signaling of
information status (cf. Terken 1984; Prince 1992). Accenting
about serves to reactivate a
previous topic; accenting the following NP indicates the introduction
of a new topic. Thus (5)
and (6), with accentuation of about, both reactivate some
previously discussed information. In
(2), (3), (4), and (7), on the other hand, some new topic is brought
up: (2) functions to bounce
back a new (but parallel) topic to the first speaker; (3) presents a
new topic as the suggestion;
(4) exclaims about a new but identifiable definite topic; while in (7),
by exclaiming with an
accented deictic pronoun, the speaker directs attention to a new topic
identifiable by the context.
Thus, native-like use of how about includes not only
recognizing that it does not function as a
standard WH-word inquiry, but requires noting both the effect of accent
placement within the
construction as well as the possible subset of discourse functions for
which the expression can
- Prince, Ellen F. 1992. The ZPG Letter: Subject, Definiteness, and
- Discourse Description: Diverse Linguistic Analyses of a Fund-Raising
Text, edited by
- W. C. Mann and S. A. Thompson. Philadelphia: John Benjamins,
- Terken, J.M.B. 1984. The Distribution of Pitch Accents as a
Function of Discourse Structure.
- Language and Speech. 27(3), 269-289.
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