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  • Ellen F. Prince
  • Gregory Ward, Betty J. Birner, Laurence R. Horn, Barbara Abbott, Pauline Jacobson, and Jerrold M. Sadock

Ellen F. Prince, president of the Linguistic Society of America in 2008 and a major figure in the fields of discourse, pragmatics, and information structure, died peacefully in her home in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on October 24, 2010, of lung cancer. She was sixty-six. At the time of her death, Ellen was Professor Emeritus (she would have eschewed the title ‘Emerita’) of Linguistics, with a secondary appointment in the Department of Computer and Information Science, at the University of Pennsylvania, where she had been a faculty member from 1974 until her retirement in 2005.

Ellen was born Ellen Deanna Friedman on February 29, 1944, in the Flatbush1 neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, the only child of Irving and Jeannette (née Rothkopf) Friedman. As a leap day baby, she enjoyed only sixteen birthdays in her sixty-six years, the last being on February 29, 2008, on which date friends gathered to celebrate her ‘Sweet Sixteen’. Growing up in Brooklyn, she attended Walt Whitman Junior High School for only two years, having skipped eighth grade, and Erasmus Hall High School for four years. In 1960, she enrolled in Brooklyn College, where she received a B.A. in French in 1964. Always interested in language, she completed an M.A. thesis in 1967 also at Brooklyn College, translating and commenting on an Anglo-Norman manuscript under the supervision of Wallace Lipton, while at the same time studying linguistics at New York University in 1966–67. In the fall of 1967 she enrolled in the Linguistics Ph.D. program at the University of Pennsylvania, where her husband Gerald Prince (whom she met in a French poetry class at Brooklyn College and married on June 25, 1967) had been hired as an Instructor of French and where he is currently Professor of Romance Languages.

At Penn, she studied under Zellig Harris, the founder of its linguistics department and inventor of transformational grammar. In 1974, she completed her dissertation, which provided a formal analysis of tense and aspect within a Harrisian framework, and was hired at Penn as an Assistant Professor of Linguistics. She soon found herself growing disenchanted with the limitations of sentence-level syntax; at the same time, she was becoming increasingly fascinated with larger units of analysis, specifically the use of language in context and the pragmatic principles that govern the distribution of sentences in discourse.

Ellen was inspired by the work of Susumu Kuno, who impressed upon her ‘the fact that the form of an utterance may well have something to do with the communicative intentions of the speaker’ (Prince 1988a:164, acknowledgment note). An early work of Ellen’s—‘A comparison of wh-clefts and it-clefts in discourse’ (1978)—showed this influence to good effect. At the time, these two constructions were viewed as interchangeable. Ellen showed that in fact their discourse functions and constraints are quite different; while the presupposed portion of wh-clefts expresses propositions assumed by the speaker to be in the conscious mind of their addressee, the same is not true of it-clefts, one subvariety of which actually uses the presupposed part to introduce new information to the addressee, an instance of what David Lewis was later to dub ‘accommodation’. [End Page 866]

This paper exemplifies an important feature of Ellen’s work, which is her reliance on naturally occurring data. This was before the ready availability of large computerized corpora; almost all of the examples in her paper had been painstakingly collected by hand, either from books and newspapers or, occasionally, from conversations. Well before Google, much less electronic databases, Ellen was ready to enrich her own work or that of colleagues with the inclusion of a deftly selected, fully contextualized example captured in the wild and preserved on a handy index card. Ellen stressed that we human linguists are not very good at constructing or evaluating examples that require specific discourse conditions. Another paper of Ellen’s—‘On the inferencing of indefinite-this NPs’ (1981c)—shows her resourcefulness in finding naturally occurring spoken data. The bulk of the examples in this paper...


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