Activity: Expression and new information

A difficulty for all levels is recognising what is presented as new information within the clause. New information comes through stress in the Expression stratum and differs from the Theme – Rheme distinction of the clause. Here is a short activity to get learners focusing on new information in a simple dialogue. The dialogues all feature a repetition of the same lexico-grammatical clause but the focus of the new information shifts in each case. Learners could try predicting where the stress might fall and then work with a teacher to discuss why it changes. The dialogues are below (possible stress in bold):

Dialogue 1:

A: What‘s your name?

B: It’s Bob. What’s your name?

A: It’s Jane.

Dialogue 2:

A: How old are you?

B: I’m 24. How old are you?

A: I‘m 25.

Dialogue 3:

A: What do you do?

B: I’m a doctor. What do you do?

A: I‘m a lawyer.

Dialogue 4:

A: Where are you from?

B: I’m from Sydney. Where are you from?

A: I‘m from London.

Activity: true/false 2

True/false activities are also useful for demonstrating the role of the Expression stratum in highlighting given and new information within a clause. Let’s take two examples:

  1. The boy is 11 years old.
  2. He rides his bike to school.

In the first example, the new information is ’11 years old’ which, in an unmarked clause, is given tonic prominence: The boy is 11 years old. In the second example, we find a more complex weak-strong iambic pattern, He rides his bike to school, that highlights certain elements within the clause.

When we present these two as being true or false, however, the focus of given and new information changes in a slight, but important, way. If we take the first example first, the given information becomes the entire previous clause, The boy is 11 years old, packaged as a single nominal group (it could be replaced with ‘it’) while the new information is is true. This change is reflected in the Expression stratum:

  • The boy is 11 years old is true

The given information is spoken quickly and without any tonic prominence, which moves to the word false. The two pieces of given information (The boy is/The boy is 11 years old is) would take roughly the same time to be spoken. Similarly with the second example, we move from an iambic pattern to one in which there is a single piece of new information:

  • The boy rides his bike to school is false

Again, the given information is spoken quickly and without stress.

This difference in speed and intonation indicating a nominalised clause can be difficult for both elementary and advanced students (Japanese, for example, does this grammatically with either the particle の, no, plus a topic marker は, wa, or 事, koto). Using true/false activities can be a good way of pointing out the difference.



As well as the grammatical system of THEME, the clause as a message also carries “a unit that is parallel to the clause” (H & M, p.88): the information unit. This is a system of Given and New information, where information “is presented by the speaker as  recoverable (Given) or not recoverable (New) to the listener” (H & M, p.91) and is realised by the tone group. The unmarked form is one that proceeds Given → New:

  • I usually (Given) play tennis (New).

The tone having prominence signals to the listener the information focus:

  • I usually play tennis (Given) on Wednesdays (New).

It is also possible, however, for a marked information focus to signal to the listener that some information is news, often used contrastively:

  • I (New) usually play tennis (Given) but my sister (New) doesn’t (Given).