What is the difference between grammatical categories "Topic" and "Focus"? They are both optional, and they succeed "Force" and they both seem to stress a part of text. Rizzi places them in the following order:

... Force ... (Topic) ... (Focus) ... fin IP

But the difference between them is not clear to me.

One of the things I found is that Topic allows known information to be fronted, whereas Focus introduces new information. Though that can't be all, right? I mean, I think it would be strange to solely base such a theory on Information Structure.

  • What framework is that?
    – curiousdannii
    Jan 13, 2014 at 13:50
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    @curiousdannii This is typical of the cartographic representational system of X-bar theory (and later minimalism).
    – Olivier
    Jan 13, 2014 at 14:44
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    We really need somebody to publish an Audubon-like Syntactic Theories of North America. With tables of common terms and abbreviations used, for field identification.
    – jlawler
    Jan 13, 2014 at 19:59
  • have you seen this article on Topic and Focus?
    – prash
    Jan 14, 2014 at 14:42
  • Mon frère, il s'appelle Naïm of your example might also be an Hanging Topic
    – user10493
    Sep 21, 2015 at 9:51

1 Answer 1


I am slightly puzzled by the fact that you seem to know Rizzi's work but not the answer to this question, but anyway. This answer entirely presupposes the framework in which L.Rizzi is working.

Rizzi's aim is to describe the articulation of what he calls the complementizer layer CP of a sentence. He remarks that this part of the sentence (typically found at the left periphery of the clause, and universally so if one believes in R.Kayne's antisymmetry principle) may contain several projections which typically differ in syntactical properties and semantic interpretation. Among them, the one he calls Topic hosts topicalized elements (for the moment, by definition). In Romance, a characteristic property of an element in that position is that it is left-dislocated and replaced by a coreferential clitic pronoun.

Le livre que tu m'as conseillé, je l'ai adoré.

(The book that you me recommended, I it have adored)

Focus hosts elements in focus (again, for the moment, by definition) and is distinguished in Romance from Topic by a number of properties: most saliently focal stress, the necessity for the sentence to be contrastive and the fact that there may be only one Focus position. L.Rizzi also gives a number of much more subtle diagnosis (weak cross over, quantificational properties...)

For instance (focal stress in bold):

Ton livre, je l'ai adoré. Pas celui de Nolan.

(Your book, I it have adored. Not Nolan's).

Now part of the difficulty is that even though these two functional projections are usually easily distinguished in Romance, hence my stress on this family of languages above, the distinction might be quite mysterious or elusive in other languages. For instance, the topic position in Finnish seems to be the normal subject position and as such entirely unmarked. At the other side of the spectrum, some languages mark theses positions overtly, as does the post-position も in Japanese with Focus (but note that Japanese tolerates multiple Focus positions, contrary to Romance).

As usual with syntax anyway, more subtle characterizations will depend on what you intend to do with these categories.


L.Rizzi The fine structure of the left periphery in Elements of grammar: Handbook in generative syntax.

S.Miyagawa Why agree? Why move? Linguistics Inquiry Monograph 54.

UPDATE: I can't believe I forgot to cite the following truly wonderful poem. I can't see how anyone could wonder about Topic and Focus ever after.

On functional structure

  • Thank you for the extensive answer. I am familiar with some of Rizzi's work (or at least I try to be) but I first encountered the concepts Topic and Focus in a summary by Van Gelderen, therefore I did not immediately understand the difference. However, after additional reading Van Gelderen (2003, The CP and split CP cross-linguistically) (as well as Rizzi (1997) The fine structure of the left periphery)) the easiest way to distinguish between the two is saying that most typically Focus can hold new information, whereas Topic only holds old information that is already known. Jan 13, 2014 at 16:20
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    whereas Topic only holds old information that is already known. Is this really true, though? "Mon frère, il s'appelle Naïm", though not very literate, seems to be common enough in spoken French even in a context where the brother in question has never be mentioned beforehand. But maybe we should not expect functional projections to exhibit a unified behavior cross-linguistically anyway: that they exist in the same relative configuration could the best we can hope for.
    – Olivier
    Jan 13, 2014 at 20:06
  • French is only my second language, but would one really out-of-the-blue start a sentence with "Mon frère" if the speaker's brother has never been mentioned before? Jan 13, 2014 at 20:43
  • In contemporary spoken French, yes, this is a common enough construction (much frowned upon in written French). But let's forget about French: the topic position in Finnish is the most natural landing place of the grammatical subject, same (to some extent) in Japanese.
    – Olivier
    Jan 13, 2014 at 20:56
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    Are the concepts of "topic" and "focus" particular to one theory? I usually remember the difference between the two in English with mnemonics like this: "(As for) topic, we studied (it) first. It was focus that we studied next.' Jan 14, 2014 at 22:56

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