Theme & Rheme

The Theme of the clause is:

the element that serves as the point of departure of the message.

It is the Theme that helps us organise the clause as a message. Everything else is the Rheme. In English, the Theme is the first part of the clause, such as this example from H&M (p.90):

The duke

has given my aunt that teapot.



The Theme can be identified as:

the first group or phrase that has some function in the experiential structure of the clause, i.e. that functions as a participant, a circumstance or the process


These are called topical Themes. Whatever follows the topical Theme is the Rheme.


shall I put the pot?


the pot on the table.


put the pot on the table.

On the table

I put the pot.

Did you

put it there?


leave the pot there.



More correctly though, the topical Theme marks the end of the Theme. It might also be the case that there are other elements that come before the topical Theme. We might want to foreground our opinions or feelings about the topic, in which case we might use an interpersonal Theme, or we might want to link to some other message, and so use a textual Theme. This cartoon from Footrot Flats is a good example of an extended multiple Theme:

Related image

NO = Textual Theme

REALLY = Interpersonal Theme (modal adjunct)

HORSE = Interpersonal Theme (vocative)

THIS LITTLE GUY = Topical Theme

Now that we can identify a topical Theme, the next element is the Rheme:


In extended longer text, the Theme also enables us to repackage discourse as a message. We can see this in the author bio for Murray Ball, where the preceding passage is repackaged into the following Theme (underlined):

…for a while it seemed that his cartoons would serve only to agitate – All this changed in the mid-1970s


One of the key aspects of Systemic Functional Linguistics for EFL teaching is the notion of the language as an exchange, that “the clause is organised as an interactive event” (H & M, p.106). At a semantic level, language simultaneously operates through a system of three speech-act functions:

  • Move – initiating or responding;
  • Role – giving or demanding, and;
  • Commodity – information or goods & services.

This is the fundamental system of exchange in language. The importance of this for EFL is that all the seemingly infinite number of social functions of language we might initiate, such as requesting something or borrowing a pen or giving instructions, may in fact be reducible to just two combinations of role and commodity:

1.  Propositions

  • Giving information – It’s a pen.
  • Demanding information – What is it?/ Is it a pen?

2. Proposals

    • Demanding goods & services – Give me a pen!
    • Giving goods & services – Would you like a pen?

Essentially, everything within the clause is semantically related to one of these four functions. We may want to expand this with regards to how sure we are (Admittedly, it almost certainly must not be a pen) but it is still just giving information.