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Concourse 2

Theme and rheme


Theme and rheme are analysed elsewhere on the site because the concepts are applicable in a number of areas (genre-based approaches, the use of the passive, academic writing, fronting, markedness and much more).  There are links below to some of these guides.
This guide is concerned with investigating the idea a little more thoroughly and is based on a functional linguistics approach, primarily the work of Halliday (1994 and elsewhere) and subsequent authors.




is defined by Halliday (1994: 38) as:

what the message is concerned with: the point of departure for what the speaker is going to say

For example:

Do not, however, confuse theme with Subject, which is a grammatical rather than a communicative category, or agent, which is a different communicative category, because, for example:

It is true that in most simple declarative utterances the theme and the Subject are often the same thing but that is not always the case and things can become more complex, as we shall see.
The important point here is that when the theme and the subject are the same, the word order, in English, is described as unmarked, i.e., it carries no special communicative force.
This is only true for declarative sentences.  In interrogative sentences, the theme is the finite verb:
    May we come in?
and in imperative constructions, it is usually the Predicate because the subject is generally absent:
    (You) stop that!
When the subject is present, that becomes the theme:
    You try!

It is also the case that the theme is made up the whole of an adverbial, a noun phrase or a prepositional phrase including and modification.

All of these examples are of what is called, for obvious reasons, a topical theme and that may be defined as

the starting point from which experiences are unfolded in a clause
(Butt et al, 2001: 136)

They are also all simple themes because they consist of one element only, although that element may be quite complex grammatically as the examples reveal.

When a topical theme is the only theme in a clause, it is normally just called a theme.  There are, however, two other types of theme that this guide will consider (eventually).


may be defined as:

everything else that follows in the sentence which consists of what the speaker states about, or in regard to, the starting point of the utterance
(Brown and Yule, 1983: 126/127)

So, in all the examples above, the rheme is what follows the theme (all of it).

If you would like a short test to see if you have grasped all this, click here.


How simple rhemes become simple themes

If you have followed the guide to genre, this will be familiar ground.

Here's a short example text which we will use to show the way in which themes and rhemes contribute to a cohesive paragraph:

On Monday, I have to get to the office early because I need to prepare for a meetingThis will be with two of the firm's most important clients and they are very particular and demandingSo much so that all of us, including the CEO will be there.  She doesn't often attend meetings of this sort.

In what follows, we'll look at the functions of the parts which are underlined to demonstrate the relationships.

It is not always as simple as this because rhemes can appear in a sentence but not become themes in their own right until much later in a text so, although rheme 1 may become theme 2, rheme 6 may have to waits its turn until sentences 12 before it is elevated to the status of a theme.
For example:

Simple structure More complex structure

Thus, in more complex arrangements, rhemes (or parts of them) may form later themes more than once and some rhemes may never become themes at all.  Others have to wait in line until their number comes up.
The important thing to remember in terms of teaching coherent writing and speaking is that all themes bar the first should be formed from previous rhemes.  Parachuting in a new theme unrelated to what has come before just confuses the reader / listener.


Three types of theme

Topical themes

All the examples that were used to illustrate the definition of theme were topical in the sense that the theme functions to set the scene for what follows in the utterance.
We saw that topical themes can be:

  1. Nominal elements (Nouns and Pronouns which are usually referred to as Participants), e.g.:
        John and his mother went home
        He made dinner
  2. Complex nominalised non-finite clauses or noun phrases, e.g.:
        My being ill so often has meant I can't work
        The real reason for the breakdown in communication was lack of listening skills
  3. Adverbials and Prepositional phrases (Circumstances):
        Secretly, she's quite pleased
        In the event, I was surprised
        On the following Thursday, we went again
  4. Clauses:
        After we had lunch, we went for a walk
        So that he could identify the ship, he fetched his telescope

The key issue is that all these sorts of theme form the leftmost constituent but that is not to say that they are necessarily the subjects of any following verbs.
In some clauses, the topical theme can be preceded by another theme and then we have a multiple theme.  Themes that precede the topical theme are of two sorts, considered next.

Textual themes

We saw that the theme-rheme structures with the latter becoming the former are a prime mover of coherence in a text.
Textual themes are an element of cohesion rather than coherence.
Textual themes are frequently conjunctions of conjuncts (go elsewhere for the technical difference).  Here are some examples:
    When Mary arrived at the hotel, she checked in and went directly to her room
    Nevertheless, this is important
    But I couldn't see anything

The issue to note is that textual themes are followed in many cases by topical themes, making a multiple theme.  In the examples above, the topical themes are Mary, this and I, respectively, and they all follow the textual theme which is, conventionally, left positioned in the clause.

You can often tell the nature of a text from the textual themes it contains.  For example:
A Narrative will often contain conjunctions and conjuncts which link events in time such as and then, afterwards etc.
A Discussion text will more likely contain subordinating conjunctions such as if, although, unless, because etc. which serve to link ideas logically rather than in temporal sequence.

Interpersonal themes

These concern

the kind of interaction between speakers or the positions which they are taking
(Butt et al, op cit.: 138)

A common example is the interrogative in English in which the auxiliary verb precedes the subject or the operator do is required to complete the utterance.
For example, in:
    Can she go now?
we can analyse the theme as a multiple one, with an interpersonal theme (Can), plus a topical theme (she).
and in
    Perhaps they will arrive
we have an interpersonal theme expressing the speaker's attitude (Perhaps) and a topical theme (they) forming a multiple theme.

The interesting point here is that English allows various positions for interpersonal themes (which do not have to be left positioned) so we allow:
    They will perhaps arrive
    She has, apparently, left already

    They will be here, perhaps
and so on.
Wh-elements, however, are less mobile and almost always occur on the extreme left of the clause.

Interpersonal themes occur also in the imperative, e.g.:
    John, be quiet
in which we have the interpersonal theme followed by the topical theme be.



There is a separate guide to markedness on the site but, briefly, if something is unmarked, it is the most unremarkable or normal way of expressing something whereas a marked element is distinguished in some way.  Compare, for example:
    The electorate don't like him
which is unmarked and simply the canonical ordering of Subject, Verb and Object in English
    Him the electorate don't like
which is marked to emphasise the object pronoun.


Peter helped Jane

In English and all other natural languages, there are multiple ways of presenting the same information using different grammatical structures and ordering the constituents of the clause differently.  For example, this simple sentence may be expressed (at least) 22 different ways in English as:

Jane was helped by Peter.
Peter gave Jane some help.
Jane was given some help by Peter.
It was Peter who helped Jane.
It was Jane whom Peter helped.
It was Jane who was helped by Peter.
It was Peter who gave Jane some help.
Peter was the one who gave Jane some help.
Jane was the one who was given some help by Peter.
Peter was the one who helped Jane.
Jane was the one whom Peter helped.
Jane got some help from Peter.
Jane was the one who got some help from Peter.
It was Jane who got some help from Peter.
It was Peter whom Jane got some help from.
It was Peter from whom Jane got some help.
Some help was given by Peter to Jane
Some help was got by Jane from Peter.
Peter it was who helped Jane.
Jane it was whom Peter helped.
Peter it was from whom Jane got some help.
Jane it was who got some help from Peter.

Why should this be?  If all the examples above express the same propositional content:
    helping happened
    Peter did the helping
    Jane got the help
why does a language (any language) need so many possible syntactical resources to express the same content?
One answer is that speakers need to make choices about what they consider the jumping off point for the clause, Halliday's point of departure, and it is this that determines how the syntax is arranged.

Placing an element, other than the subject, in theme position (i.e., on the left of the clause) often marks it in some way because it raises its significance to a theme for the sentence.  For example:
    They ate the meal
is unmarked with the theme they
    The meal was eaten
is marked because the theme is now the meal.
The speaker / writer's intention concerning markedness is often the stimulus for the selection of a passive formulation.
This also happens with other elements, for example:
    All over town I looked
which, by virtue of placing the prepositional phrase in theme position, makes it heavily marked.
    Only in emergency, switch this computer off
which heavily marks the contingent phrase.


How themes and rhemes are linked: the nuts and bolts

English links themes and rhemes in a number of ways.  Here's a short list with some examples of how the linkage works:

coordinating conjunctions
John came to the party with some people but his sister wasn't one of them
in which John is the theme and came to the party with some people is the rheme which is referred to in the next clause with his sister (although she was not part of the group).
subordinating conjunctions
The company has instituted a new policy although the scheme is very unpopular with most of the staff
in which the theme is the company with the rheme has instituted a new policy linked by the conjunction although to the next theme, the scheme (the policy).  This is also an example of the use of synonymy to make things cohesive, see below for a simpler example.
correlative conjunctions
The work was poorly done, either hurried or on the cheap
in which the theme is the work which has the theme was poorly done that becomes the next theme and is linked by either ... or.
relative pronoun clauses
The parents eventually collected the children who were waiting in the rain
in which the theme is the parents with a theme eventually collected the children connected to the next clause by who.  The pronoun who forms the next theme and its rheme is were waiting in the rain.
All relative pronouns (who, whom, which, that, whose) perform this function.
relative adverb clauses
She went back to the village where her parents were still running the pub
in which the first theme, she, is followed by its rheme went back to the village and that rheme, linked by the adverb where forms the next theme concerning her parents with its rheme were still running the pub.
The train is late and consequently I can't make the meeting on time
in which the theme is the train with its rheme is late linked to the next clause by the coordinating conjunction and but also with the conjunct consequently.
The manager gave the meeting the figures.  That made everyone sit up and take notice.
in which the manager is the theme, gave the meeting the figures is the rheme and that rheme becomes the next theme linked back by the pro-form that which stands for the rheme (the whole predicate) of the previous clause.
Pronouns constitute a significant sub-set of pro-forms and, as the name implies, usually stand for noun phrases so for example we can have:
    John looked unhappily at his garden.  It was a total mess.
in which the pronoun performs its usual task of standing for the garden and linking the two clauses, making the rheme of the first the theme of the second.
A range of pronouns can also stand or other types of phrase or clause as in, for example:
    We eventually managed to move the cupboard.  It was pretty hard work
in which the pronoun stands for the non-finite verb phrase
    I put the vase in front of the mirror.  It was the best place
where the pronoun stands for a prepositionally phrase
    Peter and Fred sold their house.  They hadn't lived there long so it surprised everyone
in which the pronoun there stands for the house and the pronoun it for the entire previous utterance.
Pronoun reference is normally the first way that learners acquire to link theme and rheme coherently (but they may not know they are doing that).
non-finite clauses
The manager gave the meeting the figures.  Doing so made everyone sit up and take notice
in which the structure is similar but the linkage is achieved by the non-finite verb phrase, doing so.
finite clauses
The man was walking along the muddy river bank, when it gave way under him and he fell.
in which the theme is the man, the rheme was walking along the muddy river bank and the linkage is achieved by the finite clause it gave way under him.  The subordinating conjunction when also plays a linking role.
I was late because my train was.  The service is getting worse
in which we have a hyponym, the service, functioning to include my train (part of the rheme of the first clause) making it the theme of the second clause.
The rock was enormous, so huge that we couldn't shift it without a tractor.
in which the synonyms enormous and huge serve to link the rheme of the first clause when it becomes the theme of the second.

All of these systems have their own guides linked from the syntax, lexis and discourse indexes.


Other languages

We should pause here to consider how some other languages achieve markedness and how they don't.

We saw above that, in English, raising an element of a clause to the initial theme position marks it so we can have, for example
    We ate well in that restaurant
in which the conventional topical theme, We, is where one would expect to find it and the elements of the clause are unmarked for any special consideration.  However, we can also have:
    In that restaurant we ate well
which raises the prepositional phrase adverbial to the theme and marks it.  We can also have, e.g.:
    That restaurant is where we ate well
which raises that restaurant to the marked theme position.
We can also, and frequently do, mark the object of a verb as in, for example:
    Cigars are what she smoked
    Cigars were smoked by her
and in both those cases the normal canonical word ordering (Subject–Verb–Object) in English is disturbed for rhetorical effect.
(That, incidentally, is just one use of the passive in English.)

Other languages do things differently.
Tagalog (a language spoken as a first language by some 22 million people and as a second language by three times as many), to take just one example, typically places the theme in the final position in the clause (Lock, 1996: 227, drawing on Martin 1992).
Even languages which are similar to English in terms of canonical word ordering such as Italian and Spanish, will often place the object of the verb in the initial position but that does not signal markedness – it is simply a feature of the languages.  So, for example, in Italian it is common to find the object placed in what in English would be a marked theme position but which carries no particular emphasis.  For example:
    No, la lasagna l'ha consigliata Elizabeth
is literally
    No, the lasagna it recommended Elizabeth
(Lock, 1996: 228, drawing on MacWhinney and Bates, 1984.)
Some languages, notably Chinese languages and Japanese, routinely place the topic (i.e., the theme) in the initial position of the clause but, it bears repeating, this does not carry any particularly significance in terms of marking.  They are known, in the trade, as absolute themes, incidentally.
So, for example, in Japanese, we find:
    Sakana wa tai ga ii
which is translatable as:
    As for fish, red snappers are good
and in which the particle wa marks the theme and the particle ga marks the subject of the verb.
Many Germanic languages also routinely place the time adverbial in what would be in English a marked initial theme position but which is not marked in those language, so, for example, in German we might encounter:
    Gestern bin ich nach Berlin gegangen
which is, word for word:
    Yesterday am I to Berlin gone
but the initial position of the noun adverbial does not single it out for particular attention as it would in English where placing tomorrow in the initial theme position endows it with more significance than it gets in the conventional final position.  Compare:
    I went to Berlin yesterday
in which we have the topical theme, I, and the conventional following rheme (part of which, Berlin, is quite likely to be the theme of the next sentence) with:
    Yesterday, I went to Berlin
in which we have a multiple theme: a textual theme (the locational Circumstance, Yesterday) and a topical theme, I.  The act of inserting the textual theme raises the significance of the Circumstance in a way that it would not in many other languages.

The implication is twofold:

  1. Speakers of languages which differ from English in this respect may produce utterances in English in which an element appears, to a native-speaker ear, to be marked but are not intended that way.
  2. Speakers of such languages may not grasp the significance of left positioning of elements in theme position in English and may, therefore, misinterpret what they hear or read, missing the communicative effect of marking one of the constituents.

So, for example, in response to:
    Can you do it next week?
we might have:
    Next week I'm going on holiday
which, in English clearly sets Next week as the marked theme (and implies No, I can't).
A speaker of a language which routinely places the time adverbial in the leftmost part of the clause may well miss the special emphasis that has been placed on the adverbial.
Equally, a speaker of such a language may produce:
    Next week I'm going on holiday
in the mistaken belief that it is equivalent to the English
    I'm going on holiday next week
which it isn't, so a native-speaker listener may well spend a little time trying to work out what is so important about next week.

These differences are unlikely to result in full communication breakdown but they may well disturb the expected theme-rheme progression and disorientate the reader / hearer.


The given and the new

The positioning, in English, of given and new information parallels the organisation of theme and rheme insofar as the given generally occurs in the theme and the new in the rheme.
For example, in
    A: Where did John go?
    B: He went to London to see his kids
The opening textual theme is Where and the rheme is did John go.  The rheme of the first speaker's comment forms the given theme of the response and the rheme of that response is the new information (went to London to see his kids).
An allied conceptualisation is that English is strongly end focused in that new information is conventionally placed towards the end of an utterance but that has, arguably, less explanatory force than analysing conversational, and written, information ordering as the workings of theme and rheme.
For more on end focus, see the guide to extrapositioning linked in the list of related guides at the end.


Teaching implications

We have seen so far that:

  1. Themes in cohesive texts, whether written or spoken, are conventionally formed from elements of the preceding rhemes.
    Introducing unassociated themes generally results in incohesive or incoherent speaking and writing.
  2. Textual themes serve to add a layer of cohesiveness in addition to the coherence offered by logical theme-rheme relationships.
  3. Placing any element other than the subject in theme position, in English, marks it as remarkable in some way, especially if its normal or canonical ordering is not to appear in the leftmost position.
  4. Topical and textual and interpersonal themes may be combined to make multiple themes.

Knowledge of these four phenomena can contribute very positively to helping learners of English construct and comprehend texts.

In particular:

  1. It is sometimes hard to pinpoint exactly what has gone wrong in learners' production (whether written or spoken) although it is clear that what they are saying or writing is obviously faulty but the grammar and lexical choice are good.
    The answer often lies in looking at how they are linking theme and rheme and what they are placing in the theme position based on the structures of their first languages.
  2. Textual themes need attention in the classroom because they will vary significantly depending on the generic nature of the target text type.  This means making sure that learners have, for example, mastered textual themes associated with consequences and logical connections before asking them to talk about or write about topics which demand them.
  3. At first, the focus of almost all teaching is on the unmarked forms of the language, so that the canonical or normal ordering of elements is acquired.  Sooner or later, however, all learners will need to know how to depart from the learned ordering to mark some elements as more important than others.  How this is done varies greatly from language to language and has explicitly to be the focus of the teaching.
  4. Understanding that fluent and skilful writers and speakers will produce texts which are linked by thematic connections allows comprehension to proceed because the reader / hearer will be alert to the theme-rheme connections in a well-formed text.


Taking a genre approach to teaching

One approach to helping learners to recognise and produce cohesive and coherent writing and speaking is to take a genre approach to skills work.  This normally follows this kind of pattern:

genre approach

To explain how this series of lessons might happen, we are going to use a Discussion text that might, for example, serve as a short spoken (or written) presentation.  Choose carefully because much depends on this text.  It has to be representative of the sort of text that you want your learners to be able to produce independently by the end of the series of lessons.  It also needs to be quite easily comprehended because you are using the text as a model for production, not mining it for new language.
For this example, this is the text:

I like the village where I live but I recognise that living here has both advantages and disadvantages.
On the negative side, the place is quite remote and there are not many of the services that people who live in larger towns naturally expect. For example, there is no post office or bank and only one small minimarket. There is also no doctor or dentist. This means that we have to travel 10 kilometres to the local larger town to do our banking and most of our shopping, post letters and access healthcare.  That's inconvenient and expensive.
Another disadvantage of living in a village is that it is quite boring for my children because there is very little to entertain them. There's no sports field at all and neither of the cafés is really very interesting for them (although the older people meet up to gossip and chat in them). Consequently, most of the kids in the village take a bus to town in the evenings or at the weekend to meet their friends and drink coffee with them. That all costs money.
Transport, too, is a problem because the local bus service is not very good and there are no trains. The bus only goes to and from town twice a day and the last bus at night is gone by 9 in the evening. This means that we often have to act as a taxi service for my children, taking them into town and bringing them home.
On the positive side, village life is very relaxing. There’s almost no noise, especially after dark and getting to sleep is not a problem. It’s waking my children up that is the most difficult part! They have to catch the early school bus and they hate early mornings. Because the village is quite small, there are no parking problems. I just leave my car outside my front door and that’s not something you can do in most towns.
The village is very friendly, too. There is a real sense of community because everyone knows everyone and looks out for them. People meet outside their houses or in the café and sometimes they just walk in for a chat and a cup of something. There’s always something to talk about.
Living here is cheaper, too, because house prices are lower than in towns and most of our neighbours grow their own vegetables and keep chickens. Free vegetables and eggs are always welcome. There also isn’t so much temptation to spend money!
Finally, although transport is not good, we can be in the countryside in a 5-minute walk from our front door. All our family enjoy that and in the winter, we go skiing almost every weekend. In the summer, having lazy picnics is what we like most.
All in all, I wouldn’t change where I live. I think there are more advantages than disadvantages to living here.

  1. Analysis of the text
    The assumption here is that comprehending the text will not be a time-consuming process and that the learners have the language resources to understand it quite easily.  Nevertheless, you may have to spend a little time with some well-chosen comprehension questions making sure everyone is comfortable with the lexis and grammar.
    Once you and the learners are happy, you can start the analysis.
    1. Staging and structure
      This is a discussion and it follows quite a simple set of stages.  Here, you could get learners to identify each of the following sections:
          Statement of the issue
          Arguments against
          Arguments for
          Coda and personal statement of preference
      This is not too challenging but it may be worth pointing out that we could reverse the ordering of the arguments or entwine disadvantages and advantages in separate paragraphs.
    2. Topic sentences
      Each paragraph in the text begins with a topic sentence setting the overall theme for what follows.  The one for the second paragraph is
      On the negative side, the place is quite remote and there are not many of the services that people who live in larger towns naturally expect
      Your learners' task is now to identify all the other topic sentences.  That is easy because they are the first ones in each paragraph.  At this stage, you are simply raising awareness of the need for topic sentences to set the theme for each section.
    3. Theme-rheme structure
      This is a crucial stage so it needs to be taken carefully with plenty of time allowed for thorough analysis.
      One way to do this is to exemplify what is meant by taking one paragraph and presenting it like this:
      and then giving the learners blank grids to complete for the other paragraphs.  This is an obvious vehicle for some pair-work cooperation.
    4. Textual themes
      Because this is a Discussion text, focusing on both sides of an issue, the important textual themes to look for are those which present contrasts, examples, alternatives, additions and consequences.  Providing some examples and eliciting or explaining their functions is the place to start before asking the learners to locate the others.  For example:
      Paragraph 1: but
      Paragraph 2: and, also, On the negative side, This means, For example
      Paragraph 3: because, although, Consequently
      and so on.
      A little work distinguishing between conjunctions and conjuncts would be helpful here if the learners are capable of it.
      Some work categorising the devices in terms of whether they introduce example, consequence or contrast is also needed.
      Sequencers, too, can form a separate category.
  2. Controlled practice
    There are many ways to do this and much will depend on the text and text type on which you are focused.  A few ideas are:
        Writing themes and passing them on to a classmate to write the rheme
        Speaking a theme and getting a classmate to provide a relevant rheme
        Selecting an appropriate theme from a choice of three which matches a given rheme (or vice versa)
        Skeleton sentences to expand by inserting textual themes and other elements
        Matching themes to rhemes
        Reordering paragraphs or sentences
        Matching points to examples
        Finding synonyms
        Finding hypernyms (superordinates) and associated hyponyms
        Tracing lexical cohesion by lexical sets and fields
        Starting with simple sentences and adding adverbials to make them more information rich
        Combining simple sentences to make compound, complex and compound-complex sentences
    and so on.
  3. Guided writing
    Here is where the real productive process begins.  Much will depend on the abilities of the learners but you might try getting the learners to write a list of the advantages and disadvantages of, e.g.:
        Their home town / city / village
        The school or institution where you are set
        A place they know well
        The weather where they live
        Air travel
    Then the learners take each idea in turn and construct a short paragraph including:
        A topic sentence
        An expansion of the point
        Two examples
        One consequence
    This is where you have to be quite active because the learners will need a good deal of support and help.
    The learners then re-write and polish the paragraphs until they (and you) are happy.
  4. Free writing practice
    At this stage, you can get away from a purely product approach (which is what we have, more or less, been following up to now) and implement a more process-focused procedure in which the learners brainstorm ideas, order them, draft the paragraphs, polish them, insert better exemplification, check their textual themes and finally produce a version which satisfies them.
    Finally, the learners exchange texts or conduct short oral presentations based on them for the rest of the class.

After a series of lessons like this (about 8 hours' work depending on the learners' abilities) you are ready to take a different genre, such as Narratives, Procedures or Information reports and repeat the process.

Related guides
genre in the classroom for a simple guide to applying genre theory in practice
genre for a less detailed overview of genre types
genre in English for Academic Purposes this has more detail but is linked primarily to EAP
markedness if you would like to learn more about how English singles out item for particular emphasis
the word order map for links to guides which consider some of these issues from a different perspective or two
extrapositioning and postponement for more about end weight and end focus
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
conjuncts if the distinction between conjunctions and conjuncts is obscure

Brown, G and Yule G, 1983, Discourse Analysis, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Butt, D et al, 2001, Using Functional Grammar: an explorer's guide. Sydney: NCELTR
Halliday, MAK, 1994, An introduction to functional grammar: 2nd edition, London: Edward Arnold
Lock, G, 1996, Functional English Grammar, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press