Information structure

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This article is about the linguistic and pragmatic description of Information structure within a sentence. For the concept as it relates to webdesign, see Information architecture.

In linguistics, information structure describes the way in which information is formally packaged within a sentence.[1] This generally includes only those aspects of information that “respond to the temporary state of the addressee’s mind”, and excludes other aspects of linguistic information such as references to background (encyclopedic) knowledge, choice of style, politeness, and so forth.[2]

The basic notions of information structure are focus, givenness, and topic,[2] as well as their complementary notions of background, newness, and comment respectively.[3] Focus “indicates the presence of alternatives that are relevant for the interpretation of linguistic expressions”, givenness indicates that “the denotation of an expression is present” in the immediate context of the utterance, and topic is “the entity that a speaker identifies, about which then information, the comment, is given”.[2] Additional notions in information structure may include contrast and exhaustivity, but there is no general agreement in the linguistic literature about extensions of the basic three notions.[3]

Information structure can be realized through a wide variety of linguistic mechanisms.[3] In English one of the primary methods of indicating information structure is through intonation, whereby pitch is modified from some default pattern. Other languages use syntactic mechanisms like dislocation, anaphora, and gapping; morphological mechanisms like specialized focus or topic-marking affixes; and specialized discourse particles. English in fact uses more than intonation for expressing information structure, so that clefts are used for exhaustive focus, and grammatical particles like only also induce contrastive focus readings. Cross-linguistically, there are clear tendencies that relate notions of information structure to particular linguistic phenomena, so that for example focus tends to be prosodically prominent and there do not seem to be any languages that express focus by deaccenting or destressing.[3]

The following German sentences exhibit three different kinds of syntactic ‘fronting’ that correlate with topic.[3]

_Diesen Mann_ habe ich noch nie gesehen
‘this man have I not yet seen’ (movement)
_Diesen Mann_, den habe ich noch nie gesehen
‘this man, that I have not yet seen’ (left dislocation)
_Diesen Mann_, ich habe ihn noch nie gesehen
‘this man, I have not yet seen him’ (hanging topic)

Question and answer pairs are often used as diagnostics for focus, as in the following English examples.[3]

Q: What did John do with the book yesterday?
A: He SOLD the book yesterday.
A: *He sold the book YESTERDAY.
Q: When did John sell the book?
A: He sold the book YESTERDAY.
A: *He SOLD the book yesterday.


  1. ^ Lambrecht, Knud. 1994. Information structure and sentence form. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  2. ^ a b c Krifka, Manfred (2008). "Basic notions of information structure". Acta Linguistica Hungarica (Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó) 55 (3–4): 243–276. doi:10.1556/ALing.55.2008.3-4.2. ISSN 1216-8076. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f Kučerová, Ivona; Neeleman, Ad (2012). Contrasts and positions in information structure. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 1–23. ISBN 978-1-107-00198-5.