Topic and topicality in text

A contrastive study of English and Spanish narrative texts


  • Raquel Hidalgo Universidad Complutense de Madrid
  • Angela Downing Universidad Complutense de Madrid



discourse analysis, topic, narrative texts, topicality


In this study, topic and topicality are explored through the application of a model of analysis to a bilingual sample of English and Spanish written narrative texts in equivalent genres. A Core Annotation Scheme and an Extended Annotation Scheme were designed to search for and test ‘aboutness’ topics, frame setting topics, and the information status of discourse referents. The texts are also analysed for classes of topics, namely NewTops, GivTops, SubTops and ResTops. All the Annotation categories were tested in both the Spanish and the English texts. The results of the analysis show that aboutness topics and frame-setting topics are cross-linguistically stable categories, although language-specific differences are found in the syntactic coding, for instance in how Spanish marks topicless sentences. The distribution of the information status of discourse referents is also stable, with minor differences between languages and genres. Likewise, the distribution of the different classes of topics tallies with the general principles of topic organisation and information structure. A surprising result was to find a higher distribution of Resumed Topics than expected, suggesting that this class has a wider range of discourse functions than is usually noted in the literature.

Author Biographies

Raquel Hidalgo, Universidad Complutense de Madrid

Raquel Hidalgo is Associate Professor in Linguistics at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid. Her research has centred in functional theories applied to the study of grammar, in particular to the grammar of spoken Spanish; some of her works in this line are “The pragmatics of transitive voice in Spanish: from passive to inverse” (T. Givón (ed.), Voice and inversión. Amsterdam, John Benjamins, 1994) and the book La tematización en el español hablado (Madrid, Gredos, 2003). She has also carried out research in discourse analysis, with special attention to rhetoric and political discourse, and applied linguistics.

Angela Downing, Universidad Complutense de Madrid

Angela Downing holds B.A. Honours and M.A. degrees in French and Spanish from the University of Oxford. She is also a graduate of the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, where she obtained her PhD. She held the Chair in English Language and Linguistics at the Universidad Complutense from 1986 until 2003, when she became Professor Emerita. Her research interests and numerous publications centre on functional grammar, discourse and pragmatics. With Philip Locke she co-authored A University Course in English Grammar (Prentice-Hall 1992), which in 1993 won First Prize in the Grammar and Dictionaries category of the Duke of Edinburgh´s Award and also the Premio de Investigación Enrique García Díez granted by AEDEAN. A new edition was published by Routledge in 2002, followed by a second revised edition in 2006 under the title English Grammar. A University Course. She was Editor-in-Chief of the journal Estudios Ingleses de la Universidad Complutense from its foundation in 1992 through 2006, and was General Editor of Atlantis from 2006 through 2012.


Cadiot, P. (1992) Matching syntax and pragmatics: A typology of topic and topic-related constructions in spoken French. Linguistics 30 (1): 57–88.

Chafe, W. (1994) Discourse, Consciousness and Time, Chapter 10 (Discourse Topics). Chicago, IL and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Dik, S. C. (1989) The Theory of Functional Grammar. Dordrecht, Foris.

Dik, S. C. (1997) The Theory of Functional Grammar. Part II. Dordrecht, Foris.

Dipper, S., Götze, M. and Skopeteas, S. (2007) Information structure in cross-linguistic corpora: Annotation guidelines for phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics and information structure. ISIS Working Papers of the SFB. Universitätsverlag Potsdam.

Downing, A. (2004) Achieving coherence: Topicality, conceptualisations and action sequences in negotiating conflicting goals. Revista Canaria de Estudios Ingleses 49: 13–28.

Downing, A and Locke, P. (2006) English Grammar. A University Course (2nd edn). London and New York: Routledge.

Givón, T. (1990) Syntax. A Functional Typological Introduction. Volume II. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Goutsos, D. (1997) Modeling Discourse Topic: Sequential Relations and Strategies in Expository Text. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Gundel, J. (1985) Shared knowledge and topicality. Journal of Pragmatics 9 (1): 83–107.

Gundel, J. (1988) Universals of topic-comment structure. In M. Hammond, E. A. Moravcsik and J. Wirth (eds) Studies in Syntactic Typology, 209–239. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Hidalgo Downing, R. (2002) Orden de palabras y conversación: la tematización sintáctica como introductor de temas discursivos. In J.L.Girón Alconchel et al. (eds) Estudios ofrecidos al profesor J. J. Bustos Tovar, 167–176. Madrid: Editorial Complutense.

Hidalgo Downing, R. (2003) La tematización en el español hablado. Estudio discursivo sobre español peninsular. Madrid: Gredos.

Lambrecht, K. (1994) Information Structure and Sentence Form. Topic, Focus, and the Mental Representation of Discourse Referents. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Leckie-Tarry, H. (1995) Language and Context: A Functional Linguistic Theory of Register. London: Pinter.

Maynard, D. W. (1980) Placement of topic changes in conversation. Semiotica 30 (3–4): 263–290.

Morris, T. (1988) Topicity vs. thematicity: topic prominence in impromptu Spanish discourse. Journal of Pragmatics 29 (2): 193–203.

Prince, E. F. (1981) Toward a taxonomy of given-new information. In P. Cole (ed.) Radical Pragmatics, 223–255. New York: Academic Press.

Reinhart, T.(1982) Pragmatics and linguistics: An analysis of sentence topics Philosophica 27: 53–94.

van Dijk, T. A. (1981) Sentence topic and discourse topic. In T. A. van Dijk (ed.) Studies in the Pragmatics of Discourse, 177–193. Paris: Mouton.



How to Cite

Hidalgo, R., & Downing, A. (2012). Topic and topicality in text: A contrastive study of English and Spanish narrative texts. Linguistics and the Human Sciences, 6(1-3), 193–217.



Thematic Structure and Meaning