Literary Stylistics:
Workshop Notes no. 16

Downranking and Theme-Rheme II

Page Index

        Below the Clause
        Clausal Level
Fronted Subordinate Clause
Elliptical Theme
Theme in Non-Declarative Clauses
        Mood Ambiguity
Paragraph Theme


In the previous workshop, we dealt with some of the basic considerations in theme-rheme analysis, especially with regard to the constituents of the clause which can be thematised. One issue related to clause complexing that may crop up in theme-rheme analysis, is that of downranking. We have dealt with downranking at the clausal level in workshop notes 3 and we will deal with it again in more detail below. However, we need to also look at downranking at below the clausal level, which will begin our discussion of downranking here.

Downranking below the Clausal Level

In the essay which we analysed last week, and which we will also touch on in today's workshop, you may have noticed instances of phrases which can function as circumstantial adjuncts, but which are not considered as such, due to the process of ranking them at a lower level than that of clausal constituents. Let us look again at sentences 2 and 5 from the passage:

i) However, the preponderance of trochees (a foot with a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed) and spondees (a foot with two unstressed syllables) in the lines changes the overall rhythm from an iambic lilt (unstressed, stressed) to a pounding driving beat.
ii) The "beat" of a line such as this suggests the stroke of a hammer on an anvil, a throbbing pulse, or even drums in the primeval forest.

'[I]n the line' in clause i) above, cannot function as a circumstantial adjunct at the clausal level, as the phrase clearly has a close and inseparable linkage to items going before it, and is thus part and parcel of the theme. This close linkage is evident when one tries to move the phrase out of its position, and place it either at the beginning or end of the clause, where the circumstantial adjunct in a declarative clause can occur. This is not possible, unless one changes the meaning of the clause.

The same restriction applies to the phrases 'of a line' and 'such as this' in clause ii). The phrase 'of a line' clearly modifies '"beat"', and is inseparable from it, and 'such as this' is in turn an inseparable modification of 'line'. Neither 'of a line' nor 'such as this' (or both of them) can be pushed out of their positions to the beginning or end of the clause, and should therefore be included as part of the theme of the clause here.*

*While we are still on this grammatical point, it may be useful to note that a similar principle is applied in relation to the demarcation of the complement for clause ii), which is actually a pretty long one: 'the stroke of a hammer on an anvil, a throbbing pulse, or even drums in the primeval forest'. Notice that phrases such as 'on an anvil' and 'in the primeval forest' cannot be taken out of their positions, and should therefore be regarded as belonging to the complement, as they do not perform a circumstantial function at the clausal level.

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Downranking at the Clausal Level

Downranking can also occur at the clausal level, where what appears to be a clause is downranked to a constituent or part of a constituent. A common instance of a downranked clause is that of a defining or restrictive relative clause. An example is 'which has a blue cover' below:

The book which has a blue cover belongs to John.
The theme above includes 'The book' and the defining relative clause, and the rheme starts from 'belongs'. The case is different if we are dealing with a non-defining relative clause. For instance, in the example below, the theme of the main clause does not include the relative clause (italicised):
That book, which I might buy someday, cannot at present be found in the bookshop.
A downranked clause may also be encountered in what Halliday calls a thematic equative, in which the subject is linked to the complement by the verb 'to be', such as the following:
That the book which has a blue cover belongs to John, is something which everyone knows.
or, for that matter, the second sentence of the notes for this workshop, which is a more complicated example of a thematic equative (with two downranked or embedded clauses in the subject):
One issue related to clause complexing that may crop up in theme-rheme analysis is that of downranking, not only at the clausal level, but also at below the clausal level.
In the two examples above, the part of each sentence which is boldened, which in each instance occurs before the verb 'is', is its theme.
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Fronted Subordinate Clauses

As you may know, a clause need not be downranked for it to be thematised. An entire subordinate clause, for instance, can be fronted, and hence thematised. An example is the first line in the following excerpt from Wright's 'Silence', which after the continuative 'Oh', has a subordinate clause in the rest of the line (italicised):

Oh, when I strike it with my hand
may the artesian waters spring
from that dark source I long to find.
As was clearly implied in our workshops on clause complexing, and entire clause can be fronted and hence thematised. However, the thematisation of the subordinate clause may not be possible with some hypotactic constructions, such as the following:
  • hypotactic constructions involving non-defining relative clauses, and
  • hypotactic constructions involving projection (indirect speech and thought).

    In this connection, we may also want to note the following, with reference to a technical observation made in the workshops on clause complexing (see, for example, the discussion on whether the primary and secondary clauses of paratactic and hypotactic clauses are interchangeable in workshop 12) :

    The secondary clause of a paratactic construction, unlike the secondary clause of a hypotactic construction, cannot be thematised.

    We may further note here that although it is true that the projected clause in paratactic projection (that is to say, in relation to direct speech and thought) can be fronted, for example,
           '"Go on", he said',
    the projected clause here becomes, technically speaking, the primary clause, and in reverse, the projecting clause now becomes the secondary clause. As a result, the secondary clause remains unthematised.

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    A sentence with the subordinate clause as theme is also known in linguistics as a left-branched sentence (i.e. 'dependent clause - dominant clause'). A left- branched sentence is a marked construction.

    The dependent clause is in an unmarked position (i.e. the position it usually occurs in) if it is located after the dominant clause (i.e. 'dominant clause - dependent clause'). This is called a right-branched construction.

    Another possibility is the mid-branched construction, whereby a dependent clause is inserted within the dominant clause (for example, 'The ring, which I have spoken to you about, is missing': i.e. 'dominant clause - {dependent clause} - dominant clause').

    If you are interested in reading further on the idea of branching in stylistic analysis and in composition, you can refer to pp. 111- 118 of Walter Nash's Designs in Prose (London: Longman, 1980).

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    Elliptical Theme

    An elliptical theme (sometimes also described as ellipted or ellipsed) is one which is not physically found at the thematic position of the clause, but which has to be included in a grammatical analysis. A familiar example of an elliptical theme is the deleted subject in the secondary clause of a coordinate construction, which has the same reference as the subject of the primary clause (this is known in generative grammar as equi-NP deletion). For instance, the secondary clause of the line 'Jack fell down and broke his crown' has an elliptical theme which should be included in grammatical analysis:

    Table 16.1
    and [Jack] broke his crown
    Textual Theme Topical Theme (Elliptical) Rheme

    A more tricky instance of ellipsis is found in the following, which was analysed in the previous workshop:

    'Thus in the first stanza, the first lines are trochaic and the fourth line begins with a spondee,...'
    In the secondary clause here, it is the adjunct and not the subject which is deleted. Although I would definitely accept an analysis which has 'the fourth line' as the topical theme of the secondary clause, it would be better, in my view, to have the circumstantial adjunct 'in the first stanza' as the elliptical (topical) theme of the clause, as the phrase should logically be there: it is 'the fourth line' 'in the first stanza' that we are concerned with in the second clause, and not the fourth line of any other stanza.

    There are also themes which are ellipted because of stylistic or poetic reasons, apart from, or perhaps in addition to, the grammatical (or logical) reasons noted above, and the cohesive reasons which we will discuss in the next two workshops. The ellipses which are apparent in Judith Wright's 'Silence', for instance, are evidently there for stylistic and poetic reasons, and the possibilities for their analysis provide students with various ways to interpret the poem. For example, one student may consider the elliptical theme to be 'I' in '[I shall stand on] / The silence between this and the next breath', whilst another may consider the elliptical elements in the poem as not operating in the theme but in the rheme, as in 'The silence [is that] between this and the next breath', and so on.

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    Theme in Non-Declarative Clauses

    Themes of clauses which are not in the declarative mood may be problematic for some students (pp. 44-8; 42-8, 71-9 of Halliday's Introduction), as the theme may consist of

    Interrogatives: WH & Polar

    As mentioned in a previous workshop, the wh-element in a wh-interrogative, in spite of its being fronted, can either occur in the subject, complement or adjunct. You may have also noticed that:

    If the fronted constituent which includes the wh-element is not the subject, then the positions of the finite and subject resemble that of a polar interrogative, as the clause usually needs an auxiliary verb (which is, as you know, also the finite element of the clause) occurring before the subject.

    Unlike a polar interrogative however, we do not have theme 1 and theme 2 in a wh-interrogative, even when the finite element precedes the subject. This is because the finite element is not the first element of the clause. The complement or adjunct, which is or includes the wh-element, comes before the subject, and is hence the thematised constituent.


    The positions of the finite element and subject in wh-clauses with complements or adjuncts thematised, provide us with one of the means by which we can distinguish the wh-interrogative from the exclamative mood. The exclamative mood only shares the first feature below with the wh-interrogative:

    Mood Ambiguity & Thematisation

    There are some difficulties in the classification of clausal mood which may lead to differences in the demarcation between theme and rheme. We can see this in the following clause given by Halliday, which may be rather confusing, as it can be analysed either as an imperative or declarative, although only the imperative version is given by Halliday in the first edition of his book:

    Table 16.2
    a) Imperative
    b) Declarative
    girls and boys come out to play
    girls and boys come out to play
    vocative topical (note the
    predicator as topical
    subject fi-
    topical Rheme
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    Paragraph Theme

    The idea of paragraph theme, although not discussed by Halliday in the main text of chapter three in his Introduction, seems to be an important one, especially in the sample analysis given towards the end of the chapter. His conception of paragraph theme seems to be related to the idea of topic sentence in traditional rhetoric and composition, but this relationship is not indicated by Halliday in his discussion. One difference is that the paragraph theme appears to coincide with the first sentence of the paragraph in Halliday's usage (just as the theme is the first (ideationally significant) constituent in the clause), but this is not necessarily the case with the topic sentence of the paragraph in rhetoric and composition. Thus the paragraph theme may not coincide with the topic sentence. (If you are interested, there is the possibility here for the coincidence of paragraph theme with topic sentence to be described as unmarked, while the non-coincidence is described as marked).

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    Texts to Analyse
    Extract from T. H. Huxley
    A poem to be distributed during the workshop

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    Click here for the notes for the previous workshop.

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    Last revised: 12 May 2017
    Ismail S. Talib 1996-2017.