In This Article Topic

  • Introduction
  • Foundational Works
  • General Overviews
  • Typological Works
  • Topic as a Root Phenomenon
  • Topic as a Speech Act
  • The Acquisition of Topics
  • The Processing of Topics

Linguistics Topic
Reiko Vermeulen
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0200


The topic of a sentence is generally described as the item that the sentence is about. It is principally a notion of information structure, but it interacts in significant ways with other grammatical components, such as morphology, syntax, semantics, and phonology as well as other domains such as philosophy and psycholinguistics. Many languages have an overt, grammatical marking for topics. The nature of the marking varies greatly across languages: It can be a special morphology, a particular syntactic construction or intonation, or combination of these. As the literature reveals, it is extremely difficult to provide a formal definition for the notion of topic. First, the meaning expressed by “about” is extremely vague, being highly dependent on the discourse context, and judgements vary between speakers. Second, a difficulty arises from the fact that grammatical marking of topics is not uniform across languages. In other words, an item in a specific discourse context may be grammatically marked as a topic in one language but is not necessarily marked as such in another language. Even within one language, there is not always a one-to-one relation between a pragmatic interpretation and a linguistic marking. Finally, information structure, as an area of research, is rife with theoretical frameworks, each with its own focus and definitions. This has led to the absence of uniformity in the understanding of what a topic, among other information structural notions, is and also to there being other terminologies for the relevant item such as “theme,” “link” and “given” causing much confusion. Nonetheless, many important advances have been made toward our understanding of its properties, its role in information structure, and its interaction with the grammatical aspects of natural language. For instance, there is now a general consensus that (i) sentences are organized into different information structural units, and a topic plays a key role in its organization, along with other units such as focus (or rheme); (ii) there should be a distinction between a sentence topic, (i.e., the constituent that the sentence containing it is about) and a discourse topic (i.e., what the whole discourse is about); and (iii) there are different types of sentence topics, including aboutness topics, contrastive topics, scene-setting topics, and hanging topics, each of which is associated with a distinct set of grammatical properties. Information structure as an area of research attracted much attention in the Prague School of Linguistics, and pragmatics in the latter half of the 20th century, and since the mid-1990s, its interaction with other grammatical components has become one of the central issues in generative syntax and semantics as well as phonology and is still intensely investigated.

Foundational Works

The idea that one part of a sentence says something about another part was already present in Aristotle’s (384–322 BCE) description of subjects and predicates. Subjects were, however, defined grammatically. Von der Gabelentz 1869 introduces the terms “psychological subject” and “psychological predicate,” where the former is the entity that the speaker wants the hearer to think about and the latter is what the speaker wants the hearer to think about the psychological subject. This dichotomy is the source of what has later developed into partitions such as topic/comment, theme/rheme, topic/focus, focus/presupposition, focus/(back)ground, and given/new in a range of theoretical frameworks. Firbas 1964, working in the Prague School tradition, argues that the relevant distinction is theme/rheme. The framework of Topic-Focus Articulation, which is the standard approach taken in the Prague School today, was first developed by Sgall, et al. 1986. With respect to the grammatical properties of a topic, Kuno 1972 identifies several such properties and offers a set of testable hypotheses in English and Japanese. Reinhart 1981 provides an in-depth discussion of what it means for a sentence to be “about” the topic, offering tests to identify topics. Halliday 1967 introduces the concept of Information Structure, as a level distinct from the syntactic structure, where units such as topic (theme, in Halliday’s terminology) plays a principal role. Vallduví 1992 develops a formal analysis of the mapping between syntax and information structure, where topic (link, in Vallduvi’s terminology) plays a central role. Lambrecht 1994 offers one of the most in-depth discussions of information structure and its relation to other grammatical components with dedicated chapters on topic and focus.

  • Firbas, Jan. 1964. On defining the theme in functional sentence analysis. Travaux Linguistiques de Prague 1:267–280.

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    Motivates the notions of theme and rheme and argues that theme and “given” are independent notions. Also see Theme.

  • Halliday, Michael A. K. 1967. Notes on transitivity and theme in English (part II). Journal of Linguistics 3:199–244.

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    Much discussion and motivation given to having a separate level of Information Structure, how the mapping to sentence structure works, and how topic (theme, in Halliday’s terminology) plays a central role in determining the sentence structure. Also see Theme.

  • Kuno, Susumu. 1972. Functional sentence perspective: A case study from Japanese and English. Linguistic Inquiry 3:269–320.

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    Investigates properties of themes in Japanese and English, observing that themes are intricately linked to such properties as anaphoricity, cataphoricity wa-marking in Japanese, pronominalization, and specific intonation in English. Also see Theme.

  • Lambrecht, Knud. 1994. Information structure and sentence form. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511620607E-mail Citation »

    Addresses fundamental issues of Information Structure and its relation to other grammatical components. Includes a chapter on topics with comprehensive discussions of pragmatic, syntactic, semantic, and prosodic properties of topic. Also see Aboutness Topic.

  • Reinhart, Tanya. 1981. Pragmatics and linguistics: An analysis of sentence topics. Philosophica 27:53–94.

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    Argues that aboutness is the defining property of topics. Offers an in-depth discussion of what aboutness is, the grammatical properties of topics including referentiality, and tests to identify topics on this definition. The term “aboutness topics” is often attributed to this work. Also see Aboutness Topic.

  • Sgall, Petr, Hajičová Eva, and Jarmila Panevová. 1986. The meaning of the sentence in its semantic and pragmatic aspects. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Academia.

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    Provides initial motivation for Topic-Focus Articulation.

  • Vallduví, Enric. 1992. The informational component. New York: Garland.

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    Proposes that an utterance can maximally be divided into three informational units, link (akin to topic in Reinhart 1981), focus, and tail, rather than into two parts as traditionally assumed. Explicates and offers a more formal analysis of the intuitions about topic/theme in Halliday 1967 and Reinhart 1981 and the mapping between information structure and syntax. The system is applied to Catalan and English. Also see General Overviews and Catalan.

  • von der Gabelentz, Georg. 1869. Ideen zu einer vergleichenden Syntax. Zeitschrift fur Völkerpsychologie und Sprachwissenschaft 6:376–384.

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    Introduces the terms “psychological subjects” and “psychological predicates.” Remarks that psychological subjects tend to occur at the beginning of a sentence and coincides with grammatical subjects, but they need not be identical.

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