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Concourse 2

Genre and theme-rheme structure


When texts share the same general purpose in the culture, they will often share the same obligatory and optional structural elements and so they belong to the same genre or text type.
(Butt et al, p9 [emphasis added])

There are two things to notice, highlighted above.

  1. general purpose: this refers to the reason for a text.  What is it doing?
  2. structural elements: what is each part of the text doing?

The next thing to note is that genre is not defined in its literary, musical or lay sense here.  In those registers genre includes, e.g., science fiction, romance, thriller, detective, heavy metal, folk, classical etc.  That is not a useful definition of genre for our purposes.


General purpose

What are the purposes of texts?  Think for a moment and then click here to see how many purposes you have thought of.

It is not hard to see that there is potential overlap between some of these.
Recount and Narrative are similar as are Procedure, Information report and Explanation; Exposition and Discussion are often confused.  The similarities and differences can be seen in the table below.


Structural elements

All of these text types or genres have distinct way of structuring information in English (other languages may do things differently).

Genre or text type Staging Very simple example 
RECOUNT Orientation: who/what is the story about?
Record of events: in chronological order
Reorientation: what happened in the end?
Coda: how did I feel/think/react?
I was in London for the first time.  I visited lots of museums and galleries.  I went home in the evening.  I enjoyed it all but was tired.
NARRATIVE Orientation: who/what/where?
Complication: the crisis/problem and an evaluation
Resolution: how was the problem resolved?
Coda: how did I feel/think/react?
My friend and I were on the train.  I suddenly realised I had lost my ticket.  I had to pay for a new ticket.  It was not a good day because I lost a lot of money.
PROCEDURE Goal: what do you want to do?
Materials: what do you need?
Steps in sequence
To plant the tree:
You will need a spade and some fertiliser
Dig a large hole, put in the fertiliser and then the tree.  Fill in the hole and water it well.
INFORMATION REPORT Identification: what's it about?
Description: sections bundled in topic areas
Owls live near my house.  They only come out at night and then they hunt for mice and other animals.  They have chicks in the spring time.
EXPLANATION Identification: what am I explaining?
Explanation: the phases in the process
To lock up the house do as follows:
Close all doors and windows and lock them with the keys.  Set the burglar alarm using the code on the wall.  Lock the front door.
EXPOSITION Statement of position
Preview of arguments
Arguments: statement + evidence in each case
Restatement of position
People should not study grammar.  It's too difficult because there are lots of rules.  It doesn't help you speak because you can't remember the rules.  So don't bother with it.
Arguments for
Arguments against
(All the arguments for can follow each other before arguments against [FFF followed by AAA] or they can be interwoven [FAFAFA].)
Optionally, this genre may have a conclusion stating the writer's view.
Grammar may be useful.  Some people like learning rules and working things out because it interests them.
Other people don't enjoy it because it's boring.
Grammar helps you write well because you have time to think.
Grammar doesn't help you speak because there's too much time pressure.
Grammar maybe useful for some people. 

How much can you remember?  Click here for a test before we go on.


Theme and rheme

This will be familiar territory if you have looked at the guide to spoken discourse.
You are probably familiar with the idea that the first sentence of many paragraphs in written texts signals the writer's theme for the paragraph.  This is often called the 'topic sentence'.  Consider this paragraph from a popular 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.

This is how 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.  It is possible, for example, for theme 1 to have rheme 1 and for that to become theme 5 later in the text and so on.

Theme-rheme structures can look nice and tidy, like this:

theme and rheme

or they can be much more complicated with, for example, the first rheme becoming the fourth theme and so on, like this:

theme rheme
Theme 1 has rheme 1 which becomes theme 2 with a new rheme 2.
Rheme 2 becomes both theme 3 and theme 4.
Then rheme 3 becomes theme 5 and rheme 4 becomes theme 8 and so on.
The more the theme-rheme structure is disturbed, the more difficult the text is to navigate and comprehend and the more lost the writer can become.

Related guides
genre in the classroom the next logical step
theme and rheme for a much more detailed look at this area
genre in English for Academic Purposes this has more detail but is linked primarily to EAP
tense and genre for a guide to which tenses are most frequently used in certain generic types and how they are used
spoken discourse a general guide to speaking which draws on discourse analysis but also considers the structure of interactions
verbal processes  the guide concerned with what verbs do and what text types they appear in
writing skills the first of two guides in the General English section
assessing writing should you wish to

Butt, D et al, 2001, Using Functional Grammar: an explorer's guide, Sydney NSW: NCELTR (If you are interested in teaching using a genre approach, this is an invaluable guide.)
La Plante, L, 2006, The Red Dahlia, London: Simon and Schuster