This is an exchange from the TV show ‘Friends’ (Season 1, Episode 4) between the characters Monica and Joey:
Monica: Hey, Joey, what would you do if you were omnipotent?
Joey: Probably kill myself!
Here we can see that certain elements of the conversation have been foregrounded reflecting the personal nature of the conversation. These are called the interpersonal Theme, and include:
- Vocatives: “Joey”
- Modal adjuncts: “Probably”
- Wh- questions: “what”
- Finite operators, like modals.
Here is a sentence from the Wikipedia page for Japanese writing:
The modern Japanese writing system uses a combination of logographic kanji and syllabic kana
The part highlighted in bold is called the ideational, or topical, theme. These show the main topic, or what the sentence is about. Sometimes, sentences do not begin with the grammatical subject of the sentence. The topical theme can also be a prepositional phrase:
In modern Japanese, the hiragana and katakana syllabaries each contain 46 basic characters;
an adverb of time:
Even today Japanese high schools teach kanbun as part of the curriculum;
or subordinate clause:
when used as a suffix meaning “try out”, the whole verb is typically written in hiragana.
All clauses, however, must have at least one topical theme.
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.