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Concourse 2

Theme and rheme


dominoes

How texts are structured

This is the last and shortest section of the course.


reading

Topic sentences

If you have tried speed reading, you will probably be aware that reading the first and last sentence of any paragraph tells you almost everything you need to know about a text.
Why should this be?
The simple answer is that the first sentence sets the theme for the paragraph and the last sentence often sets the scene for the next paragraph.  This leads you through the text without your having to read all the intervening stuff.  The first sentence of a paragraph is often called the topic sentence.

In terms of individual sentences, the first part of the first sentence will usually contain the theme and the second part will tell you something about it.  The second part is called the rheme and often that is used as the theme for the next paragraph or sentence, and so on.
To see how this works, read this 4-sentence paragraph:

My new computer runs so much faster than my old one.  The old one was so slow that it took me ages to write a simple document.  Now when I write a document or do other things, everything works much faster and saves me time.  I can use the time to think a bit more carefully about what I am actually writing!

Here's an analysis of the sentences in the paragraph, explaining what's happening to make the text coherent:

  1. My new computer runs so much faster than my old one.
    1. This is the topic sentence and tells us what the paragraph will be about.
    2. The theme is My new computer: that is what the sentences is about.
    3. The rheme is the rest of the sentence explaining what the contrast is.
  2. The old one was so slow that it took me ages to write a simple document.
    1. The rheme of the last sentence (the old computer) now forms the theme of this sentence.
    2. The rheme of this sentence is the part about writing documents.
  3. Now when I write a document or do other things, everything works much faster and saves me time.
    1. The rheme of the previous sentence (writing documents) has become the theme of this sentence.
    2. The rheme is the part about speed and time.
  4. I can use the time to think a bit more carefully about what I am actually writing!
    1. The rheme of the last sentence (speed and time) has become the new theme.
    2. The rheme of the sentence is the part about thinking and that will probably be the theme of the first sentence of the next paragraph.

Graphically, this is a simple structure:

theme and rheme 

Here's another example with a little analysis of what's happening when a good writer sets out to tell a story. 

arrival

A paragraph from a novel (La Plante, 2006):

Arriving at Milan airport, Anna passed through customs way behind Langton and Professor Marshe.  They seemed to be in deep conversation; he was constantly bending down to listen to her, guiding her with one hand at the small of her back.  There was a familiarity about them that Anna found upsetting

  1. The first clause sets the scene and is called the theme (it's the non-finite clause, Arriving at Milan airport).  The rheme of that is Anna passed through customs
  2. This becomes the theme of the next small section with the rheme way behind Langton and Professor Marshe
  3. They (the two characters, Langton and Marshe) form the theme of the next clause which has as its rheme in deep conversation
  4. This idea forms the theme of the next section with the rheme he was constantly bending down to listen to her, guiding her with one hand at the small of her back
  5. That rheme becomes the next theme (a familiarity about them) which has as its rheme Anna found upsetting.

In this way, well written paragraphs hang together and guide the reader smoothly through the text.

There is much more to it than this and not all texts (spoken or written) will conform to such a neat structure.
Theme-rheme structures can look nice and tidy, as in the examples above, or they can be much more complicated with, for example, the first rheme becoming the fourth theme and so on.  It is also possible, for example, for theme 1 to have rheme 1 and for that to become theme 5 later in the text and so on.


end

The end

There is no test on this but if you want to know more about this area, consult the discourse section on this site.

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Reference:
La Plante, L, 2006, The Red Dahlia. London: Simon and Schuster