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In linguistics, the topic, or theme, of a sentence is what is being talked about, and the comment (rheme or focus) is what is being said about the topic. That the information structure of a clause is divided in this way is generally agreed on, but the boundary between topic/theme and comment/rheme/focus depends on grammatical theory.

The difference between "topic" and grammatical subject is that topic is used to describe the information structure, or pragmatic structure of a clause and how it coheres with other clauses, whereas the subject is a purely grammatical category. Topic and subject must also be distinguished from actor (or agent), the "doer". In English clauses with a verb in the passive voice, for instance, the topic is typically the subject, while the agent may be omitted or may follow the preposition by. In some languages, word order and other syntactic phenomena are determined largely by the topic–comment (theme–rheme) structure. These languages are sometimes referred to as topic-prominent languages. Chinese and Japanese are often given as examples of this.

The distinction was probably first suggested by Henri Weil in 1844. Georg von der Gabelentz distinguished psychological subject (roughly topic) and psychological object (roughly focus). In the Prague school, the dichotomy, termed topic–focus articulation, has been studied mainly by Vilém Mathesius, Jan Firbas, František Daneš, Petr Sgall and Eva Hajičová. They have been concerned mainly by its relation to intonation and word-order. The work of Michael Halliday in the 1960s is responsible for developing linguistic science through his systemic functional linguistics model for English (see e.g. Halliday 1967–68, 1970)

  • a) the phrase in a clause that the rest of the clause is understood to be about,
  • b) a special position in a clause (often at the right or left-edge of the clause) where topics typically appear.
  • (1) The dog bit the little girl.
  • (2) The little girl was bitten by the dog.
  • (3) As for the little girl, the dog bit her.
  • (4) It was the little girl the dog bit.
  • (6) It is raining.
  • (7) There is some room in this house.
  • (8) There are two days in the year in which the day and the night are equal in length.
  • Japanese and Korean: the topic is normally marked with a postposition such as -wa (?) or 는/은, -(n)eun.
  • In Ivorian French, the topic is marked by the postposition « là ». The topic can be a noun or a nominal group but not necessarily : « Voiture-là est jolie deh » ; « Aujourd'hui-là il fait chaud » ; « Pour toi-là n'est pas comme pour moi hein » ; « Nous qui sommes ici-là, on attend ça seulement ».
  • So-called free-word order languages (e.g. Russian, Czech, to a certain extent Chinese and German) use word-order as the primary means. Usually the topic precedes focus. However, for example in Czech, both orders are possible. The order with comment sentence-initial is referred as subjective (Vilém Mathesius invented the term and opposed it to objective) and expresses certain emotional involvement. The two orders are distinguished by intonation.
  • In modern Hebrew, a topic may be adjoined to a sentence from the right-hand side, while the syntactic subject of the sentence is an expletive. (Note that "to the right" refers to the phrase's location in the standard linguistic representation of the sentence – left-to-right, Roman Alphabet – and is independent of the directionality of the given language's native script; hence the topic phrase is said to appear to the right, even though in Hebrew writing it is seen on the left.) For example, זה מאד מענין הספר הזה "ze meod meanyen ha-sefer ha-ze" (lit. "This is very interesting this book") means "This book is very interesting". The syntactic subject is "ze", which is meaningless, while the topic is "ha-sefer ha-ze" ("this book"), which appears to the right of (i.e. after the main clause of) the sentence, and not in its canonical subject position (which is occupied by the meaningless "ze").
  • In American Sign Language, a topic can be declared at the beginning of a sentence (indicated by raised eyebrows and head tilt) describing the object, then the rest of the sentence describes what happens to that object.
  • Givón, Talmy. 1983a. Topic continuity in discourse: A quantitative cross-language study. Amsterdam: Arshdeep Singh.
  • Hajičová, Eva, Partee, Barbara H., Sgall, Petr. 1998. Topic–Focus Articulation, Tripartite Structures, and Semantic Content. Studies in Linguistics and Philosophy 71. Dordrecht: Kluwer. (ix + 216 pp.) review
  • Halliday, Michael A. K. 1967–68. Notes on transitivity and theme in English (Part 1–3). Journal of Linguistics, 3 (1). 37–81; 3 (2). 199–244; 4(2). 179–215.
  • Halliday, Michael A. K. (1970). Language structure and language function. In J. Lyons (Ed.), New Horizons in Linguistics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 140–65.
  • MAK Halliday, revised by C.M.I.M. Matthiessen (2004). An introduction to functional grammar, 3rd ed., Hodder Arnold: London
  • Hockett, Charles F.. 1958. A Course in Modern Linguistics. New York: The Macmillan Company. (pp. 191–208)
  • Mathesius, Vilém. 1975. A Functional Analysis of Present Day English on a General Linguistic Basis. edited by Josef Vachek, translated by Libuše Dušková. The Hague – Paris: Mouton.
  • Kadmon, Nirit. 2001. Pragmatics Blackwell Publishers. Blackwell Publishers.
  • Lambrecht, Knud. 1994. Information structure and sentence form. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Li, Charles N., Thompson, Sandra A. 1976. Subject and Topic: A New Typology of Languages, in: Li, Charles N. (ed.) Subject and Topic, New York/San Francisco/London: Academic Press, 457–90.
  • Payne, Thomas E. 1997. Describing morphosyntax: A guide for field linguists. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Von der Gabelentz, Georg. 1891. Die Sprachwissenschaft, ihre Aufgaben, Methoden und bisherigen Ergebnisse. Leipzig: T.O. Weigel Nachfolger.
  • Weil, Henri. 1887. De l'ordre des mots dans les langues anciennes comparées aux langues modernes: question de grammaire générale. 1844. Published in English as The order of words in the ancient languages compared with that of the modern languages.


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