In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Information Structure

  • Introduction
  • Foundational Works and Comprehensive Overviews
  • Article Collections
  • Historical Precursors
  • Grammatical Modeling
  • Methodological Issues
  • Information Structure in Processing and Production
  • Language Acquisition and Language Impairment
  • Historical Linguistics

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Linguistics Information Structure
Malte Zimmermann
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 July 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 July 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0130


The term information structure refers to the interface between the structure and meaning of linguistic utterances, on the one hand, and the interlocutors’ mental representations of information, discourse referents, and the overall universe of discourse, on the other. It is at this interfacing level of mental representation that linguistic rules and constraints on structure-building, interpretation, and processing interact with general cognitive processes involved in belief formation, such as memory, attention, pragmatic reasoning, and general inference processes. Information structure plays a crucial role in embedding linguistic utterances in ever-changing communicative settings and contexts, and it does so by imposing structure on the ways in which the information conveyed by an utterance is linguistically expressed. Information structure is responsible for an efficient information transfer between interlocutors, where information transfer consists in the updating of the interlocutors’ mental models of the world, and in the establishment of mutually shared knowledge bases (common grounds) through the exchange of linguistic utterances. A central observation is that linguistically coded information is structured in a specific way, such that it fits the context of the utterance and the knowledge states of the discourse participants. The information structure of linguistic utterances is typically reflected in their grammatical form. Linguistic marking of information structure facilitates information update and the actualization of belief states. For this reason, information structure, in the general sense, is often characterized in terms of information packaging or content management. In a more narrow sense, information structure refers to the concrete structural realization of information structure categories in linguistic utterances. The information structure categories themselves are taken to be universal, whereas their formal reflexes in the grammatical systems of natural languages are subject to cross-linguistic variation. The categories of information structure are organized along several independent but interacting dimensions, namely focus-background, topic-comment, and given-new. Some scholars assume an additional category of contrast, whereas others treat contrast as a pragmatic epiphenomenon, which is dependent on focus. Under certain conditions, information structure can directly affect the semantic interpretation of clauses. This is observed with focus-sensitive elements, which change the truth-conditions of sentences or trigger additional presuppositions. A further interpretive effect is often found with noncanonical sentence structures, which typically express a marked state of affairs from the perspective of information structure, and which frequently give rise to conversational implicatures. Finally, the interfacing nature of information structure between language and cognition makes it an important research topic in psycholinguistics, neurolinguistics, language acquisition, and historical linguistics.

Foundational Works and Comprehensive Overviews

There are a number of foundational works that provide valuable background information on information structure from different theoretical perspectives. The most widely cited source on information structure, and the best known, in research from different theoretical perspectives is Lambrecht 1994, which introduces the important distinction between the mental representational aspects of information units, on the one hand, and the relational nature of information structure categories in information transfer, on the other. The seminal articles Chafe 1976 and Krifka 2008 and the handbook articles Büring 2007 and Gundel and Fretheim 2006 are also good starting points for beginners. All of them give concise overviews of information structure, the cognitive function and basic categories of information structure, and the effects of information structure on the structure of linguistic utterances. Of historical interest is Halliday 1967, which introduced the term information structure to linguistics. Another important monograph discussing the linguistic structure of sentences in relation to information structure, context, and the knowledge states of interlocutors is Erteschik-Shir 2007, whereas Dik 1997 is a classical overview from a communication-based, functionalist perspective. The online Oxford Handbook of Information Structure (Féry and Ishihara 2014) provides the most comprehensive overview of information structure to date.

  • Büring, Daniel. 2007. Intonation, semantics and information structure. In The Oxford handbook of linguistic interfaces. Edited by Gillian Ramchand and Charles Reiss, 445–474. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Handbook article. Excellent point of departure for scholars interested in the prosody and discourse-semantic effects of information structure. Discusses the two central information structural categories of focus-background and topic-comment. Particular emphasis is laid on how these categories are interpreted at the prosodic and semantic interfaces, respectively.

  • Chafe, Wallace L. 1976. Givenness, contrastiveness, definiteness, subjects, topics, and point of view. In Subject and topic. Edited by Charles N. Li, 25–55. New York: Academic Press.

    Seminal article introducing the notion of information packaging. Elaborates on the information structural status of nominal expressions by looking at cognitive function and linguistic marking.

  • Dik, Simon C. 1997. The theory of functional grammar. Vol. 1, The structure of the clause. Edited by Kees Hengeveld. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

    DOI: 10.1515/9783110218374

    Chapter 13 of this general introduction to functional grammar, first published in 1989, provides a detailed description of the different pragmatic functions of topic and focus and introduces a popular descriptive classification of pragmatic subtypes of topic and focus. Updated in Hengeveld and Mackenzie 2008, cited under Linguistic Realization.

  • Erteschik-Shir, Nomi. 2007. Information structure. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This monograph puts forward an analysis of topic and focus as basic cognitive categories underlying information update in a file-card system. Of particular interest are the comparison of different theoretical approaches (§2.4), and the discussion of how information structural and grammatical constraints interact in the linguistic coding of topic and focus.

  • Féry, Caroline, and Shinichiro Ishihara, eds. 2014. The Oxford handbook of information structure. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Comprehensive collection of state-of-the-art articles by leading scholars on all aspects of information structure, including theoretical analysis, semantics, diachronic development, language acquisition, processing, and computational linguistics. Contains in-depth descriptions of information structure in the major language families of the world. Excellent starting point for beginners. Available online by subscription.

  • Gundel, Jeanette K., and Thorstein Fretheim. 2006. Information structure. In Handbook of pragmatics. Edited by Jan-Ola Östman and Jef Verscheuren, 1–17. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

    Short handbook article. Gives a concise overview of the phenomenon of information structure, its structural coding in linguistic utterances, and its position at the interface of grammar and information processing. Well suited for students and scholars new to the topic.

  • Halliday, Michael A. K. 1967. Notes on transitivity and theme in English: Part 2. Journal of Linguistics 3.2: 199–244.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0022226700016613

    Foundational article. Introduces the notion of information structure in a systematic treatment of contextual factors and prosody. The different accent patterns of English sentences are derived from the complex interaction of two information structural levels: given-new (= information focus) and theme-rheme.

  • Krifka, Manfred. 2008. Basic notions of information structure. Acta Linguistica Hungarica 55:243–276.

    DOI: 10.1556/ALing.55.2008.3-4.2

    Highly influential article. Gives an excellent overview of information structure and relevant literature on the topic. Puts forward a compelling characterization of information structure in terms of several independent dimensions that interact in guiding and facilitating the content management of discourse participants.

  • Lambrecht, Knud. 1994. Information structure and sentence form: Topic, focus and the mental representations of discourse referents. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511620607

    Knowledgeable and very influential monograph. Combines formal and functional approaches to grammatical analysis. Detailed discussion of topic and focus, the mental representation of discourse referents, and their effect on the structure of linguistic utterances. Distinguishes between the referential and mental properties and the inherent relational nature of topic and focus.

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