Topic-Focus Articulation

As for the second dimension – the horizontal one – the basic tenets of the TFA are as follows:

(i) The dichotomy of the topic of the sentence and of its focus is specified as a bipartition of  the sentence into what the sentence is ABOUT (its topic) and what the sentence SAYS about the topic (its focus), in other words, the borderline lies between “what we are talking about” and “what we are saying about it” (Sgall et al., 1973, Sgall et al., 1986). TFA is understood as a linguistic rather than a cognitive structuring; the bipartition is based on the given-new strategy, but it is not identical to this cognitive dichotomy, as illustrated by the following examples of sentence (1) and its possible continuations (2a) and (2b), respectively (the assumed position of the intonation center is denoted by capitals):

  • (1) Mary called Jim a REPUBLICAN.
  • (2a) Then he insulted HER.
    (2b) Then he INSULTED her.

 In both sentences (2a) and (2b), both Jim and Mary are (cognitively) ‘known’ since they are referred to in the first sentence (1), but only (2b) is linguistically structured as being about both of them and the information in focus is the event of insulting. In (2a), Mary is put into focus, as a target of Jim’s insult. In addition, at least on the preferred reading, only (2a) implies that calling somebody a Republican is an insult. This interpretation is supported by the different intonation patterns of (2a) and (2b).


(ii) The semantic relevance of TFA can be best documented by the following pair of sentences with the same lexical choice and the same syntactic structure but differing in TFA (Sgall, 1967b):

  • (3) Česky se mluví na Moravě.    Eng. Czech is spoken in Moravia.      
  • (4) Na Moravě se mluví česky.    Eng. In Moravia people speak Czech.

Sentence (3) is about the ability to speak Czech (topic) and it indicates that it is Moravia where people use this language (focus); on the other hand, sentence (4) is about Moravia (topic) and it says that it is the Czech language which is used there (focus). These two sentences differ in their truth values (as only the latter admits that there might be other countries where Czech is spoken).

The semantic relevance of TFA can be also documented by the relationships between TFA and the semantics of negation. If – in terms of the aboutness relation – the focus holds about the topic, then in the prototypical case of negative sentences, the focus does not hold about the topic; in a secondary case, the negative sentence is about a negated topic and something is said about this topic. As Hajičová in (1975, 1984) documented, there is a close relationship between TFA, negation and presupposition.      

Sgall and his colleagues present in their writings (with many references to examples quoted by other linguists) many convincing examples of pairs of sentences that different TFA leads to the different semantic interpretations; the outer forms of the members of these pairs may differ in word order, active or passive forms of the verb or intonation patterns but the common denominator of these difference is their TFA.


(iii) The notion of communicative dynamism is applied in TFA to refer to the underlying (deep) order of elements of the sentence rather than to the surface order of words; it is assumed that the deep order of elements in the topic part of the sentence is guided more or less by contextual criteria (the least communicatively important element comes first, with the verb standing on the boundary between topic and focus) and a rather strong hypothesis concerning the deep order of elements in the focus part of the sentence is formulated, so-called systemic ordering: it is assumed that in the focus part of the sentence, the complementations of the verb (be they inner participants or free modifications) follow a certain canonical order (not necessarily the same for all languages). A tentative list showing the systemic ordering of complementations in Czech suggests the following: Actor – Condition – when – for how long – Cause – Regard – Aim – Manner – Accompaniment – Locative – Means – Addressee – Origin – Objective (Patient) – Directional – Effect (Sgall et al., 1986).