Focus - Background

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2003

19 Pages, Grade: 2.2 (B)



1. Introduction

2. An overview of the dichotomies and categories of Information Structure
2.1 Theme–Rheme
2.2 Topic–Comment
2.3 Focus–Background
2.4 Given–New
2.5 Dominance
2.6 Ground(Link-Tail)–Focus

3. Focus–Background
3.1 Definition of Focus-Background
3.2 Definition of Broad-Focus and Narrow-Focus
3.3 Examples for the different types of Focus

4. Applying the Focus-Background: An interview with Bryan Adams

5. Summary


1. Introduction

Language is and has always been the most important means of communication. We exchange information by talking or writing to each other; we read books, magazines, newspapers or any kind of written text either for personal entertainment or reading for intensive studies to find out what is going on. For my responsible future work as a teacher in primary schools it is very important and interesting for me to analyse and understand the structure of language. Therefore, I need as well a background knowledge about Information Structure in order to be able to give for example adequate answers to the pupils’ questions concerning sentence structures.

The course”Information Structure: The Interface of Syntax, Pragmatics, and Phonology” helped me to appreciate this topic better.

“Information Structure means the division or organisation of the sentence/ utterance and its elements according to the discourse situation.” (Dr. Nicole Dehé 2003) A typical situation is for example an interview or a conversation. There must be more than one speaker because “Information Structure reflects the relationship between the speaker’s assumption about the hearer’s state of knowledge and consciousness at the time of an utterance and the formal structure of the sentence.” (Dr. Nicole Dehé 2003)

According to this defintion there must be at least one hearer and one speaker. Information Structure sentences can be analysed in terms of “information packaging”[1] such as theme, rheme, topic, comment, focus, background, dominance, ground (link, tail), given and new.

This term paper highlights the catagory focus – background.

In the first part I will give a short overview of the catagories and explain them in the following way: Firstly I will give a short definition of the category, then I will give one or two examples and at the end I will discuss possible problems. Then I will have a closer look at the focus – background topic. After that I will analyse the interview with Bryan Adams basing on the catagory focus – background. Finally a brief summary about this term paper will be given.

2. A short overview of the dichotomies and categories of Information Structure

As I mentioned in the introduction I will now give a short overview of the dichotomies and categories of Information Structure and explain them with the help of an example and at the end I will discuss possible problems.

2.1 Theme – Rheme


illustration not visible in this excerpt

The Theme is, as it is shown in the three examples above, what comes first in the clause. “It is what is being talked about, the point of departure for the clause as the message” (Halliday 1967:212)

According to that definition the theme of the first sentence is Peter. Peter comes first in the clause and Peter is what is being talked about in the rest of the sentence i.e. we know when we hear the name Peter that we will get further information about him. In this sentence the rheme – the information about Peter or in other words the rest of sentence – is that he (Peter) saw a book last week.

The theme in the second sentence is last week because it is assigned initial position in the clause and what follows, the rheme, will be facts about what happened last week. In this sentence we get the information that “Peter saw the book”.

In the third example this book is the theme by using the definition of Halliday. That means “Peter saw last week” is the rheme.

But there are problems as you can see in the following questions:

1. What did Mary read yesterday?
2. When did Alex watch the movie?

Referring to Halliday the themes of both questions are what and when but the information is given about Mary and Alex and not about the wh–elements.

Furthermore Halliday distinguishes between unmarked and marked themes. In the following table the most important differences are listed:

illustration not visible in this excerpt

So far I explained the first categorie “Theme – Rheme”. The following paragraph

deals with the categorie“Topic – Comment”.

2.2 Topic - Comment

At first the expressions topic and comment are defined and explained. In the following occurring problems concerning these definitions are discussed.

Hockett (1958:201) describes this category in the following way:

“The speaker announces a topic and then says something about it” or in other words:

Topic is the part of the sentence which the sentence is about and

Comment what is said in the sentence.


Mary ran away.

Mary is the topic in this sentence, whereas ran away is the comment. With the help of the comment we get further information about Mary. The topic refers to something that has been said before and occurs at the beginning of the sentence. In contrast to that Levelt claims that a topic doesn’t need to provide old information “but that a speaker can introduce a brand-new entity and at the same time make a comment about it”. (Levelt 1989:99)


It is raining.

In this case the subject is a so-called “dummy it” which substitutes the subject for impersonal verbs. So there is no topic as the comment does not refer to it.

Another problem is that sentences may have more than one topic.


Bill met Susi in the park.

This sentence may be a statement about Bill and Susi (topic) and what is said about them is that he met her in the park. (comment)

Further on the topic-comment cannot take all the informational distinctions that appear in sentences into consideration.

In the following sentence:

She told the STORY to Harry.

She is the sentence-initial element and therefore the topic of the sentence although it should be the story. The informational status of STORY cannot be accounted for.

2.3 Focus-Background

In the last part I explained the category topic-comment. While the dichotomy focus-background will be explained in greater detail under point 3 the most important facts are already specified in this paragraph.

The background is also called presupposition because the speaker supposes that the information is already familiar to the hearer. Both speaker and hearer know the background at the time the sentence is uttered.

Focus: Here the speaker cannot suppose that the information is familiar to the hearer. The hearer cannot infer or recover the information from the context or discourse situation. Ergo the information is only new for the hearer.


[1] „I have been using the term packaging to refer to the kind of phenomena at issue here, with the idea that they have to do primarily with how the message is sent and only secondarily with the message itself, just as the packaging of toothpaste can affect sales in partial independence of the quality of the toothpaste inside.” (Wallace Chafe:28)

Excerpt out of 19 pages


Focus - Background
Technical University of Braunschweig
Information Structure: The Interface of Syntax, Pragmatics and Phonology
2.2 (B)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
618 KB
Applying the Focus-Background: An interview with Bryan Adams
Focus, Background, Information, Structure, Interface, Syntax, Pragmatics, Phonology
Quote paper
Maren Göpffarth (Author), 2003, Focus - Background, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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