Topic, Focus and Subject

between grammatical necessity
and information-structural load

19th - 23rd of September 2023, University of Osnabrück

Detailed Description

Subjecthood is a multifaceted and allegedly universal notion that – quite surprisingly – still eludes a universally accepted definition. The traditional definition was heavily influenced by the Greek term hypokeimenon ‘subject of predication’ (literally ‘the material of which things are made’): the clausal constituent of which the rest of the sentence is predicated. However, this definition of subjecthood falls short on several points. First, it is at odds with the very existence of expletives in non-null subject languages (It seems that …). Furthermore, it is unclear to what extent the pair subject – predicate differs from the pairs topic – comment and/or focus – background. Although subjects and topics share the notion of “aboutness”, they diverge with respect to optionality: a clause must have a subject, but can dispense with a topic (Rizzi 2005; and more generally the very existence of wide-focus sentences). In many cases, subjects will also be topics and there are grammatical processes where both notions must coincide, typically topic-drop (e.g. German Was ist mit Peter? – Ist wieder krank). However, topichood is neither restricted to, nor required for subjects. Topics may be recursive, while subjects never are. Therefore, a sentence may involve topics that are not subjects (e.g. Italian Le pillole, sì che pro le ha prese ‘The pills, for sure he has taken them’). On the other hand, focused subjects instantiate subjects that are not topics, at least under the standard view that topics and focus do not coincide (possibly with the exception of contrastive readings, but see Neeleman e.a. 2009). Just like other constituents, subjects may also be focused and there are principled interactions between the notions of subjecthood and focus. Since focus must always be overtly realized (and is frequently prosodically marked), focused subjects may never be null, not even in null-subject languages. Interestingly, whereas expletive subjects may be left out in topic-drop (e.g. German 11. Dezember. Hat nicht aufgehört zu regnen ‘December 11. Didn't stop raining’), they cannot be in the context of focus (e.g. *It was yesterday that didn't stop raining).


A proper definition of subjecthood should, at the best, consider three major aspects: thematic-argumental, morpho-syntactic and information structural properties (Svenonius 2002, Dryer 2013). There are straightforward cases in which these three components converge on a single constituent (John sleeps). In contrast to these “easy” subjects and as discussed above, there are also cases in which these components are carried over to different constituents, or may lack altogether (There are cats in the garden; it rains; The Russian-Ukrainian war worries the president; It was yesterday that John came): expletives lack a theta-role by definition, the argumental status of quasi-argumental subjects is still unsettled (but see Haider 2019) and the subject of (some) psych verbs does not carry the thematically highest θ-role etc.


Dryer, Matthew S. 2013. Expression of pronominal subjects. In: The World Atlas of Language Structure Online, Matthew S. Dryer & Martin Haspelmath (eds) Available at:

Neeleman, Ad, Elena Titov, Hans van de Koot & Reiko Vermeulen. 2009. A syntactic typology of topic, focus and contrast. In: Alternatives to Cartography, Jeroen van Craenenbrouck (ed.), 15-52. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Rizzi, Luigi. 2005. On some properties of subjects and topics. In: Contributions to the XXX Incontro di Grammatica Generativa, L. Brugè e.a., 203-224. Venice: Cafoscarina.

Svenonius, Peter. 2002. Subjects, Expletives, and the EPP. In: Subjects, Expletives and the EPP, Peter Svenonius (ed.), New York: Oxford University Press.

Welcome to the Topic, Focus and Subject (TFS) Conference!

The TFS conference reaches out to researchers from all theoretical frameworks and invites them to convene and discuss new insights in all areas of the syntax and semantics of subjects, topics and foci and the interactions thereof, e.g.

·         Resolution strategies of pronominal subjects,

·         Expression of subjects and subject marking,

·         Word order variation and universal implications,

·         Internal make-up and feature composition of pronouns,

·         Interactions between subject syntax and Verb-second,

·         Contrastive categories in discourse,

·         Clausal Left Periphery,

·         EPP effects,

·         Interactions between subject- and non-subject clitics,

·         Focus movement and subject placement,

·         Taxonomy of topics,


For the conference, we invite abstracts for 30-minute talks (20 minutes for presentation + 10 minutes for discussion) or for posters on any topic related to all areas of the syntax and semantics of subjects, topics and foci, from a theoretical and/or experimental perspective. 

We particularly welcome contributions that investigate these and related themes in a contrastive, diachronic or interdisciplinary way. The conference language is English.