Discourse

Difference between Theme and Rheme with explanation

Theme and Rheme analysis

Theme vs Rheme

The terms theme and rheme have been defined according to various criteria: The theme is often understood as ‘known,’ ‘given,’ ‘previously mentioned,’ or ‘presupposed’ information present in the context, while the rheme is defined as the negation of these characteristics. Although each of these criteria is relevant to a certain extent, they nevertheless do not suffice for a proper definition. For one thing, the terms used in the definition are themselves imprecise and need clarification. Another problem is that there are numerous counter examples: in the question-answer pair Who did you see? Your mother, the mother is known to both of the speakers but is nevertheless the rheme of the answer.

The unclear concept has given/new information cannot be clarified with the feature previously mentioned:

e.g. Numerous journalists managed to get into the courtroom. The judge pointed out to the journalists that…

Theme (in some sources, also “topic,” “background,” or “presupposition”) is the semantic point of departure of a clause (or more broadly, discourse) about which some information is provided:
1) Tom likes traveling.
2) Our friends have invited us.

In these examples, the theme (Tom/our friends) is in the initial position. This is the most common position for the theme in English. Due to the SVO (subject-verb-object) structure of a typical English sentence, the theme is often the subject of the sentence; however, passive voice violates this rule. It is worth mentioning that in some other languages (e.g. Japanese), the commonplace for a theme is the end of a sentence. In languages with free word order (e.g. Ukrainian), the theme can be found in the middle of a sentence.

Rheme (in some sources, also “comment,” “focus,” or “pre dictation”) is the destination where the presentation moves after the departure point:
3) Tom likes traveling.
4) Smoking is harmful to our health.

In examples 3 and 4, rheme is represented by “like traveling” and “is harmful to our health”. Structurally, rheme usually follows a theme in English. Theme – rheme relationship produce cohesion (Bussmann, 1998) making parts of a sentence a communicative whole.

The boundary between Theme and Rheme is simple but not always obvious enough resulting in numerous cases of terminological confusion which are further enhanced by the various definitional criteria. Thus for ‘theme’, we find the terms ‘topic,’ ‘background,’ ‘presupposition,’ and for ‘rheme,’ ‘comment,’ ‘focus,’ ‘predication’ (in various combinations).

The theme is the first element occurring in a clause; the remainder clause is Rheme, e.g.:

Theme

Rheme

The lion

beat the unicorn All around the town

All round the town

the lion beat the unicorn

However, the unicorn

still did not want to bow to the lion

The lion

decided to beat him to death

Would the unicorn

give in to the lion

When the lion got to the battlefield

the unicorn was ready for the battle

From the above division of Themes and Rhemes in the sentences, we can see that Theme is not equated with the subject of a sentence; nor is Rheme equated with the predicate. However, in the example given above, two sentences e.g. in the first and fourth sentence, it happens that the Theme ‘The lion’ overlaps with the grammatical subjects of the sentences. This kind of Theme is called unmarked Theme. Unmarked sentences typically have Themes that overlap with subjects. On the other hand, marked sentences often contain a Theme that is separate from the subject containing proposed adverbial groups or prepositional phrases, for example, ‘All around the town’ is the Theme in sentence 2 above. From the above sample, we could conclude that the Theme may be realized by a nominal group, verbal group, adverbial group, prepositional phrase, or a dependent clause. The characteristic of these elements is that they appear first in a clause and represent ‘given’ information. All the rest of a clause is Rheme representing ‘new’ information. Knowing where to place the Theme-Rheme boundary in a more complex sentence requires a careful reading of the sentence in context to understand the meaning a writer is communicating. In a study of spoken data conducted by Lovejoy and Lance in1991, they found that there was a noticeable pitch drop at the end of Theme, and near the beginning of Rheme, often on the first word, an abrupt peak in pitch level.

The problem of the brand new Theme

The problem of a brand new Theme is extremely common in the work of inexperienced writers, who introduce new information in the Theme position. For example, the illiteracy rate is quite high in some rural areas. Here Theme ‘The illiteracy rate’ is in the Theme position in the sentence, however, this is the first mention of this information. Where this goes wrong, the communication can suddenly break down at the sentence level.

The problem of the double Rheme

The problem of the double Rheme means a sentence has two Rhemes with one of the Rheme not mentioned previously. For example, the educational reform had a big influence on young teachers, and the students’ families paid a lot of money for their children. There are two Rhemes in this clause. One Rheme is ‘had a big influence on young teachers’. The other Rheme is ‘had a big influence on the students’ families’. The latter Rheme has had no previous mention.

The problem of the empty Rheme

The problem of empty Rheme is also common in students’ writings, who fail to present ‘new’ information in Rheme’s position. For example, the lack of qualified teachers is a serious problem. Rheme ‘is a serious problem’ fails to offer any information, which should be mentioned previously or it is shared by the potential readers.

Thematic Progression

The flow of information in a sentence from Theme to Rheme is crucial in achieving communicative effectiveness in a message. The exchange of information between successive Theme and Rheme pairings in a text is called Thematic Progression (Eggins, 1994). Thematic progression contributes to the cohesive development of a text, that is to say, in a cohesive text the distribution of given and new information needs to follow certain patterns. There are several main types of Thematic progression, which depends on different text types. For example, in a narrative-type text we often repeat the Theme of one clause into the Theme of subsequent clauses, e.g.:

Theme

Rheme

A good teacher

need show great passion to the teaching

He or she

should be intellectually and morally honest

He or she

should have a genuine capacity to understand students

However, the Thematic development of an academic text is different. Thematic progression of an academic text needs to have a high incidence of cross-referential links from the Rheme of one clause to the Theme of the next clause, as the academic texts present complex arguments in which each successive ideas is an expansion of an idea in the previous sentence.

Let us have a look at an example of Thematic progression in an academic text:

e.g. ‘To stop the outbreak of the unknown diseasetwo medical teams were sent immediately to the affected area in Sichuan to diagnose the disease. Each medical team was formed by ten doctors selected from the first-rate hospitals across the country. The expertise of all the doctors was well-known in China, and some were world-famous.’

In this example, the infinitive ‘to stop the outbreak of the unknown disease’ is Theme, ‘two medical teams’ first appearing as Rheme in the first clause becomes Theme of the second clause. The element ‘doctors’ which is Rheme of the second clause becomes the Theme of the third clause. This text demonstrates high cross-referential linking between the Rheme of one clause and the Theme of the next. This Thematic progression gives a reader orientation as to where the information has come from and where it is going and hence creates cohesion in a written text.

For translation-oriented analysis, we can confine ourselves to the context-bound aspects of the theme-rheme structure. From this point of view, the theme refers to that part of the information presented in a sentence or clause which can be inferred from the (verbal or non-verbal) context (= given information) whereas the rheme is the non-inferrable part of the information (= new information) irrespective of its grammatical function as subject or predicate or its position at the beginning of the end of the clause, the theme refers to the information stored in “presupposition pool” of the participants. This pool contains the information gained from general knowledge, from the situative context of the discourse, and from the completed part of the discourse itself. Each participant has a presupposition pool and this pool is added to as the discourse proceeds.

According to the distribution of given and new information in a text, we have to distinguish different forms of thematic progression, which characterize the argumentative structure of the text. There can be no doubt that the “communicative dynamics” of a text with a linear thematic progression, where the rheme of one sentence constitutes the theme of the next sentence, is totally different from that of a text which has one continuous theme with several rhemes. Theme-rheme structure has to be regarded as a semantic universal which is realized in different ways by different languages.

Checklist

  • What is meant by the subject matter?

  • What is meant by the content?

  • What are the forms of content formal simplification?

  • Why are the presuppositions important?

  • What is meant by macrostructures and how will you define the correlation between macro-and microstructure of the text?

  • Dwell on cohesion and coherence. How do translators tend to deal with literary and other texts that are deliberately lacking in conventional cohesion or coherence?

  • Explain the difference between theme and rheme. Provide your examples. Why are the notions of theme and rheme important for the translator/interpreter?

  • The categories of cohesion and coherence, theme and rheme, and presuppositions are interrelated. Comment on this interrelationship.

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