How About It?
The Role of Accent and Context in Determining Discourse Function

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:

(1) Hi, Fred! # How about your mother?
An examination of a collection of over 70 naturally occurring examples shows that native
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).

(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?
Related uses include two set expressions involving pronouns as the NPs: how about that and how about it.
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
be used.

References

Prince, Ellen F. 1992. The ZPG Letter: Subject, Definiteness, and Information-Status. In
Discourse Description: Diverse Linguistic Analyses of a Fund-Raising Text, edited by
W. C. Mann and S. A. Thompson. Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 295-325.

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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