What is the difference between a marked theme and an unmarked theme in clauses?

The difference between a marked and unmarked theme seems to boil down to whether or not the sentence contains an element that can be conflated with the grammatical subject. "Biff said the van was moving" is an unmarked theme. Biff could be the subject as much as the van. Both are people/things in the world. If we wrote, "It looks like the van was moving" we'd have a marked theme. "It looks like" is not a proper subject.

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Before we talk about the difference between a marked and an unmarked theme in linguistics, let's take a moment to define a couple terms. First, a clause is a group of words that contains at least a subject and a verb. The following are examples of clauses: “Anthony made supper”; “Because we went home...”; “Who told the secret.” We won't get into types of clauses here, but note that each of these examples has a subject (Anthony, we, who) and a verb (made, went, told).

Second, a theme is the launching point of a clause, the first element(s) of it (at least in English). Writers choose themes for their clauses based on what they most want to emphasize. The rest of the clause is called the rheme. Let's look at some examples.

Here's a clause: “Jennifer went straight home after the movie.” What is the launching point of this clause, the first element, the emphasized component? It's clearly “Jennifer.” That's the theme. But what about if we write the clause like this: “After the movie, Jennifer went straight home”? Now what is specially emphasized? This time the writer focuses on “after the movie,” so that becomes the sentence's theme. Why would the writer do this? Perhaps he wants to give special attention to where Jennifer has been (did someone think she was at a party instead of the movie?).

Now let's turn our attention to the difference between unmarked and marked themes. Think of unmarked themes as “normal” beginnings to a clause, the ones that are most usually emphasized. Unmarked themes are 1. declaratives or subjects that begin a clause; 2. interrogatives that begin a clause; 3. imperatives that begin a clause. Let's look at examples of each of these.

We see an unmarked theme that is a declarative or subject in one of our examples above: “Jennifer went straight home after the movie.” “Jennifer” is the theme. Unmarked interrogatives can look like this: “Why did Jennifer go straight home?” The theme here is “why,” for it launches the clause, and it is unmarked because it is a normal way to do so.

Another example of an unmarked interrogative is the theme of this clause: “Did Jennifer go straight home?” Here the theme is “Did Jennifer,” for it launches the clause and sets the emphasis. Since it does so in a usual way, it is unmarked. Imperatives can also serve as unmarked themes. They can be inclusive or exclusive. Look at these two clauses: “Let's go home” and “Go home!” The themes are, respectively, “let's” (inclusive) and “go” (exclusive), for they launch the clauses in normal ways.

So what about marked themes? They are marked because they are different than usual, often emphatic, and used to draw attention to a part of a clause that is not usually stressed. We've already seen one of these marked themes above: “After the movie, Jennifer went straight home.” The theme “after the movie” is marked, for it starts the clause in a rather unusual way for special emphasis. Here's another example: “Snails, I just ate snails!” The marked theme of this clause is “snails.” We wouldn't normally write a clause like this unless we wanted to give special emphasis to the direct object (which is repeated again later in the clause). Marked themes, then, place emphasis on parts of the clause that wouldn't normally receive it by positioning them at the head of the clause.

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The difference between a marked and unmarked theme has been the subject of numerous studies by grammar and linguistic scholars. The two terms are often associated with the work of M. A. K. Halliday.

According to Halliday, an unmarked theme is "an element that occupies the point of departure position of the clause and conflates with the grammatical subject,"

As for marked theme, Halliday defines that as "an element other than that which occupies the point of departure position of the clause but does not conflate with the grammatical subject."

In those two definitions, there might be a lot of confusing or head-spinning words. Let's break them down a bit. Let's focus on clauses. A clause is a series of words that contains a subject and a verb.

In the sentence "Michael Jordan said that the basketball wasn't moving," we could say "the ball wasn't moving" is a clause. Why? There's a verb ("moving") and there a subject ("the basketball").

We could also say that this sentence is an unmarked theme. Why? We have an element that "occupies the point of departure position of the clause and conflates with the grammatical subject." What element makes this an unmarked theme? Michael Jordan. Jordan and the subject—the basketball that's not moving—become conflated. Is Jordan the subject, or is it the ball? If the ball is the true subject, then how come Michael Jordan begins the sentence? Indeed, we could say Michael Jordan becomes the covert, undercover, “unmarked” theme.

If we were to rewrite our example sentence to read something like, "It doesn't appear as if the basketball is moving" then we'd have a marked theme since there's no element that can be confused, mistaken, or combined with the grammatical subject. Unlike Michael Jordan, "It doesn't appear" is not a place or thing in the world. The “basketball” doesn’t have to compete with another subject. It’s the clear—the marked—theme.

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A "theme" is simply what the clause is about. In the simplest kind of English sentence, it is the subject, which generally comes first. For example, in the sentence "Mary sings," Mary is the subject (and the theme), and "sings" is the rest of the clause, or the rheme.

If the theme is the same as the subject (if, in other words, it is mapped onto the subject) in a declarative clause, the theme is unmarked. The subject is usually the theme, unless there is a reason for another element of the clause to be the theme. If the theme in a declarative clause is something other than the subject, it is a marked clause. "Marked" in this sense means that the theme is less frequent or is more unusual. For example, a marked theme could be a prepositional phrase, a complement (which could function as the subject but is not), or an adverbial phrase. An example is the clause, "An easy task it is not!" In this example, "an easy task" is the marked theme. Another example is "Her friend she loves to drive around." In this case, "her friend" is the marked theme, as it is the complement in the clause.

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