As a message, the clause comprises two parts: the Theme, which “serves as the point of departure of the message” (IFG, p64) and the Rheme. In an unmarked clause the Theme (in bold) matches the subject with the rest of the clause being the Rheme:

  • I usually play tennis on Wednesdays.

It is also possible to highlight different parts of the message by placing them in the position of Theme:

  • Usually, I play tennis on Wednesdays.
  • On Wednesdays, I usually play tennis.

One point for EFL classes, however, is that the Theme that is chosen is one part of a network system. This means that the Theme simultaneously highlights what the clause is about and also delimits the scope of the clause. By saying “On Wednesdays, I usually play tennis” the speaker is implicitly excluding the other days of the week (this could be made grammatically  explicit through it-clefting – “It is on Wednesdays that I usually play tennis”). Similarly, by saying “Usually, I play tennis on Wednesdays” the speaker is opposing that habituality with some unusual event. The message thus feels, in a sense, incomplete and we would expect some additional information, such as “but today it’s raining”. Also often overlooked for EFL is that by saying “I usually play tennis” the speaker is implicitly excluding the other participants in the exchange. The Rheme is then adding information within the limits placed by the Theme.

2 thoughts on “Theme-Rheme

  1. Thank you for explaining theme-Rheme. I had a question on identifying the theme of the sentence
    “Facing you as you leave 10 and 11 are the figures of giant man-headed bulls, 6 , from an 8th-century BC Assyrian palace.”
    Thank you very much.

    • Hi Paul – sorry I haven’t replied earlier!
      I think the Theme for this could be taken as:

      Theme: Facing you as you leave 10 and 11
      Rheme: are the figures…

      The main element I think is ‘Facing you’ while ‘as you leave’ would be a Circumstance.

      Hope that helps!

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