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Here is the handout for a session I gave at the Taunton Day School.

 

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The Textual Function

Aims

1 To examine what themes and rhemes are.

2 To examine what effects are produced as a result of changes in the organisation of texts.

Different ways of representing similar meanings

Compare the following text with alternative versions.

I heard that 100,000 Iraqi civilians were dead. I heard there was now an average of 150 attacks on US troops a day. I heard that in Baghdad 700 people were being killed every month in ‘non-war related’ criminal activities. I heard that 1400 American soldiers had been killed and that the true casualty figure was approximately 25,000.

I heard that Donald Rumsfeld had a machine sign his letters of condolence to the families of soldiers who had been killed. When this caused a small scandal, I heard him say: “I have directed that in future I will sign each letter.”

(Weinburger E (2005))

100,000 Iraqi civilians were reported to be dead. An average of 150 attacks on US troops a day were reported. Sources suggest that in Baghdad 700 people were being killed every month in ‘non-war related’ criminal activities. Official figures suggest that 1400 American soldiers had been killed but there are rumours that the true casualty figure was approximately 25,000.

Donald Rumsfeld had a machine sign his letters of condolence to the families of soldiers who had been killed. When this caused a small scandal, he said: “I have directed that in future I will sign each letter.”

By the end of 2004, 100,000 Iraqi civilians were dead. There was now an average of 150 attacks on US troops a day. In Baghdad 700 people were being killed every month in ‘non-war related’ criminal activities. Officially, 1400 American soldiers had been killed but true casualty figure was approximately 25,000.

Donald Rumsfeld had a machine sign his letters of condolence to the families of soldiers who had been killed. When this caused a small scandal, he did not apologise but said: “I’ve directed that in future I will sign each letter.”

Which of these texts do you find most powerful and why?

Compare the following

On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me a partridge in a pear tree.

My true love game me a partridge in a pair tree on the first day of Christmas.

I was given a partridge in a pair tree by my true love on the first day of Christmas.

Why is the first one the one that is used?

Theme

The first element in a clause is of great importance in English and this is called the theme whereas the rest is called the rheme.

Thompson (1996: 119) defines these as follows:

“Theme is the first constituent of the clause. All the rest of the clause is simply labelled the rheme.”

Halliday (1994: 38) writes that the theme is “what the message is concerned with: the point of departure for what the speaker is going to say”.

The theme “must include the whole of the first item in the experiential meaning. This means that the division between theme and rheme always comes at the end of the first group or phrase relevant to the experiential function and meaning” (Butt et al 2000: 136).

When the theme slot is occupied by a nominal group, it is the whole of the nominal group that is included.

Task

What are the themes in the following texts?

He replaced the receiver in its cradle without answering her ….(Frantzen 2001).

The price on the beautiful paper wrapped filet that he was handed was $78.40.

(Frantzen 2001).

The concept of writing as interaction between writers and readers adds a communicative dimension to writing …..(Hyland 2002: 34).

Circumstances as themes

Quite often the first element is a circumstance as in the examples below:

On the first day of Christmas, my true love sent to me.

The following Tuesday, Chip made dinner for Melissa….(Frantzen 2001).

In these examples, there is just an experiential or topical element. However, in many cases, this can be preceded by interpersonal or textual element. In this case, the clause has multiple themes (Butt et al.2000: 137).

Often, we link our experiential meaning to the previous part of the text. Conjunctions are used and when they occur at beginning of clauses, they have to be considered as part of the meaning but they are not the starting point. They are referred to as textual themes.

The examples below show how there can be textual and topical themes in a clause.

But

The pig

Would not

textual

Topical

theme

rheme

And

Jill

came tumbling after

textual

Topical

theme

rheme

(Butt et al 2000: 127)

The examples below show some combinations of interpersonal and topical themes:

Jane,

open

the door please

interpersonal

Topical

Theme

Rheme

Unfortunately

Enid

lacked the temperament..

interpersonal

Topical

Theme

Rheme

( Frantzen 2001)

Analyse the following extracts from a novel.

But she laughs at this suggestion. (Lahiri 2004)

But, darlings, you don’t know how fond I am of you (Nesbit 1906)

Theme and markedness

The idea of theme can help to explain why we see some kinds of clause as being marked and others as being unmarked. This is one of the most interesting uses of the idea.

Giving information

Task

Some statements are given below. Rank them in terms of how marked they seem to be writing 1 for the least marked, 2 for a slightly marked statement etc.

1. My alarm clock wakes me at 7.30.

2. I am woken by an alarm clock at 7.30.

3. At 7.30, my alarm clock wakes me.

4. With the ring of an alarm clock at 7.30, I wake up

In declarative clauses, an unmarked clause would have the actor, subject and theme in the same nominal group. This would be true of “The cat sat on the mat”.

Where the nominal group are goal and subject as in “The book has been read“, the theme seems more marked. This, however, is not so marked as when the first group or phrase is circumstance or adjunct as in “In my road, there are some very old fashioned lampposts.”

Where the first group is attribute and complement, the theme is extremely marked. Butt et al (2000: 140) give the following example: “Happy is the bride the sun shines on.”

Where might you see such marked themes?

Demanding information

Task

Rank the following in term of markedness.

1. Seen the new film?

2. Have you seen the new film?

3. That new film, have you seen it?


An unmarked theme for a yes/no question would include a finite (the interpersonal theme) and a subject as in:

Have

you

seen the film?

Finite

Subject

Interpersonal theme

Topical theme

For wh- questions, the wh- word is the unmarked theme as in, for example “Who is he?”

What would be a marked version of this?

Demanding goods and services

Process/predicator as theme would be the unmarked theme eg “Put the rubbish out”. Marked versions would have the subject or adjunct as the theme as in “You, put the rubbish out” or “Under no circumstances, forget to put the rubbish out”.

Theme and clause complex, paragraph and text

There can be complexities in how theme and rheme are considered in cause complex. Thompson (1996: 131) gives the example “As the universe expanded, the temperature of the radiation decreased”. Here, “expanded” and “decreased” could be considered as rhemes for the preceding parts. However, the starting point is really that the universe expanded.

At the level of clause complex, the first clause can be regarded as theme for the second.

If you see her, say “Hello”.

Thematic progression

If the theme is the starting point of a message, the rheme might be considered the destination (Butt et al 2000: 142).

Most themes will relate back to themes or rhemes that have occurred in a previous part of the text.

What are the themes and rhemes in the following extracts and which of the themes build on previous rhemes?

This is where Bob lives. Every morning he rises at six o’clock. He has a cup of tea and two eggs for breakfast, before leaving for the rocket launch-pad. On the way he stops to buy a newspaper and some chocolate toffee. He’s on his way to work on the moon.

….

Bob starts work. His job as man on the moon is very important. He has to keep the moon clean and tidy. Quite often astronauts drop sweet packets and cans.

(Bartram 2002)

Mervyn King: Bank of England not to blame for crisis

 

 

It was the banks and Gordon Brown wot did it. Neutered by New Labour and unable to prevent the City from behaving in an increasingly reckless fashion, the Bank of England could only issue reports and deliver sermons as Britain slid inexorably towards its worst financial and economic crisis since the 1930s.

That is the recent past as seen through the eyes of Sir Mervyn King, and there will be many both in the financial sector and at Westminster who will raise more than a sceptical eyebrow at the governor's conclusions. King, they will argue, is now rewriting history in order to salvage his own reputation.

Several mistakes were made, the governor admitted in his BBC Today Programme Lecture. The Bank should have done more to prevent the disaster and should have tried much harder to make the case for a big recapitalisation of the banks before the critical moment in October 2008 when the entire global system teetered on the brink of bankruptcy. But a mea culpa it was not.

Larry Elliott The Guardian May 3, 2012 http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/economics-blog/2012/may/02/mervyn-king-financial-crisis

Given and new

Organisation into given and new is parallel rather than the same as theme and rheme. The most unmarked way of giving information is for the given to be in the same place as theme and the new information to be the rheme.

New information is shown by a proclaiming tone whereas given information is shown by a referring tone. Proclaiming tones are shown by a fall whereas referring tones use fall-rise tones.

Implications of an awareness of this way of viewing the textual function

An awareness of theme and rheme and how they are related can be very useful for learners of English as they read or listen to texts and help them when they produce their own spoken and written texts.

When students are writing (and, to a lesser extent, speaking), they need to use textual themes to help the structure of the text clearer.

The idea of markedness can help learners to become aware of how certain texts are attempting to emphasise certain aspects of the message. This can be useful in the receptive skills because it will allow the learners to read or listen more critically. When producing language, learners might be able to produce language that achieves their purpose by using more or less marked forms. This awareness of marked ness may be particularly useful when reading literary texts (writers on literature and language teaching (eg Short 1996) tend to refer to this as deviance).

The idea of given and new is very important in terms of pronunciation, especially for intonation. Being able to use pronunciation effectively so that the new information is highlighted can have a great influence on how intelligible a speaker is.

References

Bartram S (2002) Man on the Moon: A day in the life of Bob Dorking: Templar.

Butt D, R Fahey, S Feez, S Spinks and C Yallop (2000) Using Functional Grammar (2nd Edition) Sydney: Macquarie University.

Frantzen J (2001) The Corrections London: Fourth Estate.

Halliday MAK (1994) An Introduction to Functional Grammar (Second Edition) London: Arnold.

Hyland K (2002) Teaching and Researching Writing Harlow: Longman.

Lahiri J (2004) The Namesake London: Harper

Nesbit E (1906) The Railway Children London: Puffin.

Short M (1996) Exploring the Language of Poems, Plays and Prose Harlow: Longman

Thompson G (1996) Introducing Functional Grammar London: Arnold.

Weinburger E (2005) “What I Heard about Iraq” London Review of Books 27: 3.

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