I am interested in information packaging. One particular area of interest is how writers start their sentences, how they present what is known as the ‘theme’ of the message. The theme is the ‘peg on which the message is hung’, and in Hallidayan linguistics is very much seen as reflecting a speaker/writer choice, something that is in the centre of the language producer’s attention at the moment of utterance production. It is also assumed that a clause and a sentence can have more than one theme because there are different ways in which one can orient the addressee to the message one is constructing; in such cases one talks about an ‘extended’ theme.
This presentation is about something that I am calling thematic parentheticals. Put simply, thematic parentheticals are elements that (a) are separated by punctuation from the rest of the sentence, (b) occur either between elements of the theme or immediately following the last elements of the theme, and (c) in some sense modify their host, or are triggered by it. While theme is a well-studied phenomenon, the same cannot be said for parentheticals. Here are some examples of thematic parentheticals, taken from Tavecchio (2010):
- A feared post-election backlash, with more arrests, show trials and newspaper closures, could in turn rouse the Iranian street from its present state of disillusioned torpor.
- Support from the chief constables, who historically have opposed such a unit, suggests extra funds for the new unit have been guaranteed.
- The BBC, whatever its faults, is too important to be destroyed by politicians.
I am interested in the different ways in which parenthetical information might contribute to the extended theme. I am particularly interested in investigating the notion that writers use thematic parentheticals as a ‘second step’ – the idea being that the initial theme is presented as a speaker/writer-centred choice but the second step parenthetical is often a more addressee-oriented choice along the lines of <ok, I have presented my starting point, but what does my reader need to know about that starting point in order to fully understand the message as a whole>.
But there is also a different line of attack, and that is a contrastive analysis of how these thematic parentheticals work in different languages. The trigger for such an analysis is provided by Tavecchio (2010), who found that across the genres she studied (academic articles, short stories, news reports, and public information leaflets) English had significantly more interruptions (= parentheticals) than Dutch. Her study is broad and essentially quantitative, while a more detailed analysis of structural, punctuational, semantic and discourse features might provide more insight into how parenthetical expressions work in the two languages, and might therefore also contribute to a contrastive-rhetorical picture of the two languages. I take analysis at the level of the complex text sentence to be an essential part of contrastive rhetoric studies, in addition to studies of macro-discourse features, single discourse functions, and single grammatical constructions. Such an analysis can offer a meaningful contribution in relation to a traditional function of contrastive linguistic analysis, namely by providing a basis for the development of advanced teaching materials in writing skills programmes.
In this paper, which reports on early stages of the work, I will present a few details of the quantificational study conducted so far on the English and Dutch data, but I also want to spend some time looking in detail at some of the data which are perhaps more intriguing from a non-language specific discourse point of view and which may help in getting a fix on writers do to prepare their readers for what is to come.
This work is being conducted together with María de los Ángeles Gómez González from the University of Santiago de Compostela, within the framework of a larger project we are undertaking on parentheticals within our Santiago research group, Scimitar. The research is supported by a grant from the Galician Junta, though I hasten to add that I am not a separatist.
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