Topic, Focus, and the Grammar-Pragmatics Interface

Jeanette K. Gundel
University of Minnesota and NTNU, Trondheim

Extensive research on topic, focus and other information-structural concepts in the past three decades has clearly established their relevance for theories of language structure and use. But terminological and conceptual confusion abounds, and there is little agreement on what the conceptual primitives are and how they are related. There has also been relatively little attention devoted to distinguishing grammatical properties of these concepts from properties attributable to more general cognitive principles.
Much of the confusion surrounding these issues has resulted from conflating two types of givenness/newness (see Gundel 1988, 1994). One type is referential; it describes the status of an expression vis-a-vis a model of the world, the discourse, or the speaker/hearer¹s mind. Some representative examples include existential presupposition, various senses of referentiality and specificity, the familiarity condition on definites (e.g. Heim 1982), the activation and identifiability statuses of Chafe (1987) and Lambrecht (1994), the hearer-old/new and discourse old/new statuses of Prince (1992), and the cognitive statuses of Gundel, Hedberg and Zacharski (1993). The second type of givenness/newness is relational , describing two complementary parts, X and Y, of a linguistic representation, where X is given in relation to Y, and Y is new in relation to X. Included here are such well known information-structural pairs as presupposition-focus (e.g. Chomsky 1971) , topic-comment (e.g. Gundel 1974/89), and theme-rheme (e.g. Vallduvi 1992)..
Referential givenness/newness and relational givenness/newness are logically independent, as seen in the following example (from Gundel 1980).

(3) A.Who called?
B. Pat said SHE called.

If SHE refers to Pat, it is referentially given in virtually every possible sense. The intended referent is presupposed, specific, referential, familiar, activated , in focus, identifiable, hearer old, and discourse old. But the subject of the embedded sentence is at the same time relationally new, and therefore receives a high pitched accent here. It instantiates the variable in the relationally given, topical part of the sentence, x called, thus yielding the new information expressed in (2B).

While referential and relational givenness/newness are logically independent, there is evidence that they are connected empirically, the relationally given part being in some sense referentially given as well. Virtually the whole range of possible referential givenness conditions on topics has been suggested . Gundel (1985) proposes that topics must be familiar, referring to something the addressee already knows about. This condition is strong enough to explain why topic marking is typically associated with definite/generic phrases across languages, without restricting topics to entities that are either existentially presupposed (Strawson 1964) or currently Œon top of the file¹ (Erteschik-Shir 1997). It thus allows for newly (re)introduced topics and topics whose existence is merely being entertained. But some authors have suggested that topics only have to be referential (e.g. Reinhart 1982) or specific (e.g. Davison 1984), citing, for example, the possibility of indefinite syntactic topics, as in (3).

(3) An old preacher down there, they augered under the grave where his father was buried. (Prince 1985)

These different positions within a relevance-theoretic account of language understanding (Sperber and Wilson 1986/98), where interpretation involves both a grammar-driven and a purely inferential stage. Specifically, I propose the following:

1. The Logical Form of a sentence, and the expressed proposition which is an Œenrichment¹ of that form, is a topic-comment structure, where the topic is what the proposition is about and the comment is the main predication about the topic. Sentences with non-familiar topics will be well-formed, provided that the topic is referential, and thus capable of combining with a predicate to form a full proposition.

2. Topic-comment structure determines how the information expressed in the proposition is assessed in order to derive Œcontextual effects¹, assessment being carried out relative to the topic. Utterances with non-familiar topics yield no Œcontextual effects¹, since assessment can only be carried out if the processor already has a mental representation of the topic. Such utterances are thus Œirrelevant¹, and therefore pragmatically deviant.

Like other pragmatically based effects, the familiarity restriction on topics can be suspended under appropriate conditions. Thus, sentences like (3) are not pragmatically deviant since contextual effects can be derived without assessing the truth of the proposition in relation to the topic (or assessment could be or carried out only nominally with respect to the familiar phrase that the topic is anchored in), In such cases, the proposition is simply accepted as Œnew information¹ without actually checking whether it contradicts, strengthens or otherwise adds to existing assumptions. This account receives support from the fact that when assessment is essential, dislocation of indefinites becomes incoherent, as in (4b).

(4) a. The old preacher down there, did they auger under the grave where his father was buried.
b. ??An old preacher down there, did they auger under the grave where his father was buried?

Thus, while the topic-comment (presupposition/focus ) relation is clearly linguistic in nature, the familiarity condition and corresponding Œdefiniteness effects¹ of topics, follow from general pragmatic/cognitive principles. They are not part of the grammar.


Chomsky, N. 1971. Deep structure, surface structure and semantic interpretation. In D. Steinberg and L. Jakobovits, eds., Semantics, an Interdisciplinary Reader in Linguistics, Philosophy and Psychology. CUP, 183-216.
Davison, A. 1984. Syntactic markedness and the definition of sentence topic. Language 60, 797-846.
Erteschik-Shir, N. 1997. The Dynamics of Focus Structure. Cambridge Univ. Press.
Gundel, J.K. 1974. The Role of Topic and Comment in Linguistic Theory. Ph.D. Dissertation. University of Texas at Austin. Published by Garland, 1989.
Gundel, J.K. 1980. Zero NP-anaphora in Russian: a case of topic-prominence. In CLS 16. Papers from the Parasession on Anaphora, pp. 139-146.
Gundel, J. K. 1985. Shared knowledge and topicality. Journal of Pragmatics, 9: 83-107.
Gundel, J.K 1988. Universals of topic-comment structure. In M. Hammond et al, eds., Studies in Syntactic Typology, John Benjamins, 209-239..
Gundel, J.K., N. Hedberg and R. Zacharski. 1993. Cognitive status and the form of referring expressions in discourse. Language 69:274-307.
Gundel, J.K. 1998. On different kinds of focus. In P. Bosch and Rob van der Sandt, Focus in Natural Language Processing. CUP.
Heim, Irene R. 1982. The semantics of definite and indefinite noun phrases. Amherst: University of Massachusetts dissertation.
Lambrecht, K. (1994). Information Structure and Sentence Form: Topic, Focus and the Mental Representation of discourse referents. Cambridge University Press.
Prince, E. 1985. Fancy syntax and Œshared knowledge. Journal of Pragmatics 9.65-81.
Prince. E. 1992. The ZPG letter: subjects, definiteness, and information status.² In S.
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Sperber, D. and D. Wilson. 1986/1995. Relevance: Communication and Cognition. Blackwell.
Vallduvi, E. 1992. The Informational Component. New York.

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