Daniel Sax: On the Clustering of Information-Structural Properties


Numerous approaches in the field of Information Structure posit a division between two parts of an utterance – TOPIC vs. COMMENT, THEME vs. RHEME, FOCUS vs. PRESUPPOSITION, etc. However, the categories posited and how they are defined have varied tremendously, with the resulting “terminological profusion and confusion” (Levinson 1983) unfortunately showing little sign of convergence (Gundel & Fretheim 2009, Matić & Wedgwood 2013). In this presentation, I argue that Relevance Theory’s model of utterance interpretation sheds light on this theoretical impasse.

Firstly, I propose that information-structural categories such as TOPIC or FOCUS are best viewed as prototype notions – as amalgams of properties that tend to cluster together. I consider a set of the definitional properties that have been used in the literature:

  • ABOUTNESS (object spoken about, thing said about it)
  • LINEAR POSITION (early vs. late)
  • GIVENNESS (given vs. new)
  • INTONATIONAL PROMINENCE (unstressed vs. stressed)
  • ADDRESSATION (where to store, what to store)
  • FRAME-SETTING (sets frame, applies within frame)
  • ALTERNATIVES (lack vs. presence of alternatives)
  • DEVELOPMENT (preparation vs. goal)

As these are properties of quite disparate types (semantic, syntactic, prosodic, cognitive, discourse-interactional, etc.), they are not necessarily very comfortable bedfellows. The Information Structure literature has unfortunately focused on trying to identify the “correct” definitions, instead of asking the more fundamental question: Why should these properties tend to cluster together in the way they do, cross-linguistically?

I propose that Relevance Theory provides a plausible explanation for this clustering.

Namely, the properties of the TOPIC/THEME side of the information-structural division relate to the process of CONTEXT SELECTION, whereas those of the FOCUS/RHEME side relate to the mutually-parallel process of deriving COGNITIVE EFFECTS.

Gundel & Fretheim (2009) “Information Structure” in: Grammar, Meaning & Pragmatics.

Levinson (1983) Pragmatics.

Matić & Wedgwood (2013) The Meanings of Focus. Journal of Pragmatics.