Something Old, Something New

A version of this article was published in 'Modern English Teacher' April 2009

There is a plaque on a wall in Grosvenor Square which reads:
In this house lived John Adams
If one of your students produced this in a piece of writing, would you mark this as correct? Why is it not:
John Adams lived in this house ?
Why is the ‘normal’ word order reversed, with the subject coming after its verb?
The answer lies in a widespread and simple concept of discourse, largely ignored in textbooks – that of given and new.

The flow of information
When language is used to convey information (as opposed to communication for social purposes), this information can be divided into two stages:
given - old information which is already known to the listener or reader,and
new - that which is presumed to be not yet known.
For example:
[ given ] [ new ]
Margaret’s going to have a baby.

The notion that information is a combination of given and new is a very simple, real world, non-linguistic and common sense concept. Communication wouldn’t work without it. If we only stated given information without the new, for example if we say Margaret’s going to have a baby to somebody to who we’ve already told, then this is repetition or stating the obvious– a pointless redundant utterance. If, on the other hand, all we say is new, e.g. if we’re speaking to somebody who has no idea who Margaret is, then our utterance is meaningless or surreal. To function as successful communication, the listener should already know Margaret, but not yet know about her pregnancy. Similarly in the plaque outside John Adam’s house, the adverbial In this house is the given (you are looking at the house), but what may be news to you is who lived there – John Adams. The dynamic between given and new influences many areas of language and forms an explanatory framework that I believe EFL teachers do not fully exploit.

1. Word and phrase order
In general given precedes new. In other words, you take a bit of the old, then add to it with something new:
[ given ] [ new ]
You know I went for an interview last week? Well, I got the job!

a. Adverbials
When looking at a house:
[ given ] [ new ]
In this house lived John Adams
As we can see, the power of given and new to influence word order can sometimes override the subject – verb – object canon.
If, however, we are on a John Adams themed tour and we approached a house, a more appropriate order would be:
[ given ] [ new ]
John Adams lived in this house
b. Time adverbialsMany EFL textbooks have little to say about the position of time adverbials, and many simply say that it is correct to put them either at the beginning or at the end of the clause:
I went to London on Sunday.
On Sunday, I went to London.

Taken in isolation, both are equally correct. However, as pieces of information, as acts of communication, they mean quite different things. This becomes clear when these sentences are framed as responses to questions:
i) When did you go to London? a. I went to London on Sunday √
b. On Sunday, I went to London
ii) What did you do on Sunday? a. I went to London on Sunday X
b. On Sunday, I went to London

Only one of each pair (assuming normal intonation – see below) is correct, since the new information (the answer) normally needs to come after the information given in the question.

c. Passives
Given and new is a strong determiner for the use of the passive, the choice of active or passive allowing us the flexibility to place the given noun first, whether it is the agent or not. Again questions can help clarify the different emphasis:
What did John do? John was arrested √
The police arrested John X
What did the police do? John was arrested X
The police arrested John √
Again, when looking at them in the isolation of a grammar exercise, passive and active sentences appear to be simply different phrasings of the same idea, but when put into a communicative context it is clear that they are absolutely not interchangeable. Textbook writers and teachers that invoke the phrase 'communicative' would do well to appreciate this a bit more often.

d. Position of indirect objectsAs with passive, the two forms of benefactive structures are usually presented as equal and interchangeable:
John gave Mary a book.
John gave a book to Mary.

The difference becomes clear when we choose the appropriate response to the questions:
Who did John give a book to?
What did John give to Mary?

d. Cleft sentences and topicalising structuresIt was James who opened the door.From a grammatical point of view, why can't we simply say
James opened the door. ?
The function of this cleft sentence is to emphasise James as an important piece of new information. This is achieved by moving James from the known position at the front of the sentence to the new position. Since a subject is grammatically compulsory, the dummy it is inserted, and the who clause added to make James the agent of opened. Cleft sentences are the compromise between the two competing systems governing word order: given-first vs. subject-first.

e. Position of adjectivesGiven adjective: The blue car sped away.
New adjective: The car was blue.

f. Determiners and pronounsA noun is frequently denoted as given or new by its article or demonstrative.
I met this actor. [new]
I met an actor. [new]

The actor left early. [actor=known]
That actor left early. [actor=known]

g. Relative clausesLearners often confuse defining and non-defining relative clauses, and make mistakes such as:
My grandmother that is 98 years old is called Maria.
London that has a population of eight million is the capital of England.
The town that is called Brighton is where I live.
These problems are most easily explained by reference to given and new.
In general defining relative clauses refer back to known information to identify the noun:
[ given ] [ new ]
The students that passed the exam went on holiday.
The town where I live is called Brighton.
Non-defining relative clauses, on the other hand, present two clauses of new information:
[ given ] [ new ] [ new ]
The students, who passed the exam, went on holiday.
My grandmother, who is 98, is called Maria.

London, which has a population of eight million, is the capital of England.

2. Choice of vocabularyThe choice between as and because to introduce a reason comes down to whether the reason is given or new:
She couldn't see the bank manger, as it was Sunday. [We already know it is Sunday]
She couldn't see the bank manager because he had been called away. [A previously unknown reason]

3. PronunciationNew information is commonly marked in speech by a falling tone, and often by extra stress. So in the above example:
What did you do on Sunday? a. I went to London on Sunday X
b. On Sunday, I went to London

While (a) would normally point to Sunday as the new information, changing the emphasis to London and placing the main falling intonation there, moves the new information without changing the word order:

What did you do on Sunday? I went to London on Sunday. √

Consider the intonation in the following exchange. The underlined words are the new information and are indicated with the main stress and falling tone:
I've lost my hat
What kind of hat?
It was a sun hat.
What colour sun hat?
It was white. White with stripes.
There was a white hat with stripes in the car.
Which car?
The one I sold.
(Rogerson & Gilbert, 1990: 46)
In fact, for this conversation to make any sense, correct intonation on the new is essential.

In conclusion, the concept of given and new permeates grammar, lexis discourse and pronunciation, and its usefulness in the EFL classroom is much underrated. Often, when grammar fails to explain, given and new can. It is not a difficult concept (far easier to understand than, say, the progressive aspect) as it relates to real world ideas, and often provides an explanation for the correct use of English where other rules don't. I'm sure I've only touched on a few areas in this article – any further applications of given and new would be gratefully received.
For the sake of simplicity and brevity, I have avoided discussion of the related concepts of subject–predicate and theme–rheme. Those interested in learning more about this area should consult McCarthy (1991), or one of the introductions to functional grammar.

McCarthy, M. (1991) Discourse Analysis for Language Teachers. Cambridge: CUP
Rogerson, P. & Gilbert, J. (1990) Speaking Clearly. Cambridge: CUP

Gimme, gimme, gimme...

The meaning of a statement is not always obvious from the meaning of the words it contains.

I was with one of my beginner students in the library, helping her request some materials. The exchange between the librarian and the English language student went like this:

LIBRARIAN: Have you got your library card?
STUDENT: Yes, I have.
LIBRARIAN: Well can I have it then please?

The learner did not know that, for an English speaker, its completely natural to use have you got...? to mean mean give me.... In other words, we use a structure that looks like it's asking for information (have you got a sister, have you got a degree?) to issue an order (have you got a pen?, have you got any change?, have you got a moment?) and in this situation the correct response is not a literal Yes I have, but Certainly, here you are.

To learn a new language effectively, the student has to learn not only the meaning of words and structures, but (crucially) be sensitive to meaning in the actual contexts they are used. This is called 'pragmatic competence'. So it wasn't very good actually means quite bad; would you like to leave now means I'm ordering you to leave; can you play the piano?' can, in different situations, mean either the genuine question do you possess the ability to play the piano? or the order hiding behind a question form I want you to start playing now.

These changes in meaning according to context occur throughout language, but are particularly common in the delicate area of social interaction, where saying something directly (while easiest for a learner to understand) risks too much imposition on the listener, so we prefer to couch an order in the form of a question Have you got your library card? rather than the more truthful (and consequently less polite) Give me your library card.