Literary Stylistics:
Workshop Notes no. 15

Theme-Rheme & Given-New I

Page Index:

Basic Ideas
        Meaning of Theme

        SFPCA Arrangement
        Basic Concept of Theme-Rheme
        Marked & Unmarked
Topical Theme: Significance
Other Themes
Themes & Their Metafunctions
Multiple Theme
Given & New Information


We will be dealing with the concepts of theme-rheme and given-new in this workshop. The required reading is Chapter 3 of Halliday's Introduction

Basic Ideas

Meaning of theme

In a course in literary stylistics, it is perhaps appropriate for one to mention at the outset that the term theme here is used quite differently from the way it is generally understood in literary analysis. When it is used in relation to the term rheme, it is a more technical grammatical term.

The SFPCA arrangement

In relation to its meaning here, we have noted an earlier workshop that 'there is no necessity for the Subject-Finite-Predicator- Complement-Adjunct pattern to be present in the given order in a simple declarative clause in the active voice'. In the examples below, which have been used in the workshop, the italicised elements are the thematised elements.

i) 'I am writing handouts for my students',
ii) 'For my students, I am writing handouts',
iii) 'Handouts I am writing for my students'.
  • The subject in i),
  • the circumstantial adjunct in ii), and
  • the complement in iii)
    are the themes of their respective clauses.


    Table 15.1
    Theme Rheme
    am writing handouts
    for my students
    For my students,
    (Circumstantial Adjunct)
    I am writing handouts
    I am writing for my students
    We have also noted that everything else which follows the theme in a single clause, is the rheme. In other words, the rhemes of the above clauses are formed by all the other constituents which follow

  • the subject 'I' in example i),
  • the circumstantial adjunct 'For my students' in example ii), and
  • the complement 'Handouts' in example iii).
    These are illustrated by the table on the right, which was used in the workshop.

    The subject, circumstantial adjunct, and complement, when they are fronted, are all known as topical themes. The term topical theme is used in order to distinguish it from the two other types of themes which we will mention later.

    Marked & unmarked

    Another observation made in the earlier workshop is that the italicised constituents in ii) and iii) are less commonly thematised than that in i), as it is more likely for the subject rather than the adjunct or complement of a declarative clause to be thematised. In this regard, we have made the observation that

  • the theme of clause i) (the subject) is unmarked, whilst
  • the themes of clauses ii) and iii) (non-subjects) are marked.
    We have also noted that due to the fact that instances of thematised complements in declarative clauses are less common than those in which circumstantial adjuncts are thematised, the former is sometimes described as being more marked than the latter.
    Back to the page index

    Significance of the Topical Theme

    We mentioned above that:

    The circumstantial adjunct, like the subject and the complement, but unlike the modal and conjunctive adjuncts, refers to the content of what is being described by the clause (hence the 'topic' of the clause). The line of demarcation between theme and rheme is thus invariably drawn between the end of the topical theme and before the beginning of the next constituent; the next constituent is the initiator of the rheme.
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    Other Themes

    As regards the two other types of theme, we have to note that the interpersonal theme is not restricted to the modal adjunct.

  • Other than the modal adjunct,
  • the vocative,
  • finite verb or
  • WH-interrogative element
    is also considered as (or as part of) the interpersonal theme if it appears before the topical theme.

    The same is true of the textual theme, which is not restricted to

  • the conjunctive adjunct, as
  • the continuative or
  • the structural element (which is a conjunctive or WH-relative)
    can also appear as, or as part of, the textual theme.

    Themes and Their Metafunctions

    The constituents of the various types of themes are conveniently described in the table below from Halliday's Introduction. Explanations of the terms which have not been defined in an earlier workshop, or of problems which may arise with Halliday's classification, follow the table.

    Table 15.2: The Metafunctional Relationships of Thematic Constituents
    (Taken from p. 54 of Halliday's Introduction [slightly different version on p. 79]. Refer to pp. 49-56; 48-54; 79-87 of the book for a more detailed explanation)
    metafunction component of theme
    textual continuative#
    structural (conjunctive or WH-relative*)
    conjunctive (adjunct)
    interpersonal vocative@
    modal (adjunct)
    finite (verb)
    ideational topical (subject, complement, or circumstantial adjunct)

    *The WH-element in a relative or interrogative clause, as it can function entirely as or as part of the subject, complement or adjunct, can also be (or be part of) the topical theme. There is a conflation of the topical theme with either the interpersonal theme (in relation to the WH-interogative) or textual theme (in relation to the WH-relative) when this happens. We may further specify that if the WH-element functions entirely as the subject, complement or adjunct, then there is a complete conflation of the topical and either the interpersonal or textual theme. However, if the WH-element functions together with other elements to form the subject, complement or adjunct, then the conflation of the topical and another theme occurs only in relation to the WH-element. Back to table.

    #Continuatives are defined by Halliday as consisting of 'a small set of items such as yes, no, well, oh, now'; these items are used to signal initiating or continuing moves in interactive discourse. Back to table

    @A vocative is an optional nominal in interactive discourse which clearly signals to the person or persons concerned, that the clause refers to him/her/them. Back to table

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    Multiple Theme

    As noted earlier, a topical theme can appear together with the interpersonal or textual theme, if elements which belong to either the interpersonal or textual theme appear before the topical theme. If this happens, then we have what is known as a multiple theme. A useful example of a clause with a multiple theme is found on p. 55 of Halliday's Introduction (see p. 81 for a slightly different version):

    Table 15.3
    well but then Ann surely wouldn't the best idea be to join the group?
    continuative structural conjunctive vocative modal finite topical Rheme
    textual interpersonal experiential

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    Given and New Information

    One of the ways by which the analysis of theme-rheme can be useful to stylistic analysis, is through its combination with an analysis of given and new information. It may be helpful to refer to what Halliday says in relation to given and new information on p. 277; 298; 91 of his Introduction here. To Halliday, 'the significant variable' as far as given and new information are concerned, is:

    information that is presented by the speaker as recoverable (Given) or not recoverable (New) to the listener. What is treated as recoverable may be so because it has been mentioned before; but that is not the only possibility. It may be something that is in the situation, like I and you; or in the air, so to speak; or something that is not around at all but that the speaker wants to present as Given for rhetorical purposes. The meaning is: this is not news. Likewise, what is treated as non-recoverable may be something that has not been mentioned; but it may be something unexpected, whether previously mentioned or not. The meaning is: attend to this; this is news.

    I would like to mention here that our approach to given and new information in this course, as it is concentrated on written and not spoken language, will be more psychological and less phonological than Halliday's.

    The significance of the combination of given-new and theme-rheme in stylistic analysis is I think, best illustrated by how clarity and smoothness in the style of writing are achieved by the coincidence of given information with each of the themes of the various clauses in a passage which will be given during the workshop.

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