Here we’re getting into linguistic technicalities. Typically, each statement contains a bit of information already known because it was just introduced in the discourse, and a bit of new information. That is, it signals that part of what it says is an attachment to the previous context, and part is what it adds. For example, if someone asks you:

– Where did you go over the weekend?

you could respond:

– We went on a ski touring trip.

Upon closer inspection, the first half of the response (We went) doesn’t say anything new; it just prepares the field for the introduction of the new and relevant information. In fact, you could also respond with just the new part:

On a ski touring trip.

Well, linguists call the part that serves as a link to what the participants’ attention is already focused on the “Topic”, and what presents the new contribution of the message as “Focus.”

Sometimes the distinction between Topic and Focus can be more distinct and emphasized:

–  It was at dawn that I saw Jeff leaving Charlene’s house.

In this case, we’re talking about the topicalization of a content. This statement is suitable for a context where there was already a discussion about Jeff’s nocturnal visit to Charlene. It presents the idea of dawn as the speaker’s contribution to the receiver’s knowledge, but presents the fact that Jeff left Charlene’s house as what was being discussed. In other words, the statement does not attribute the responsibility for this idea to the speaker, but rather presents it as already being the focus of attention by the receiver. The speaker takes responsibility just for the information that the notable event occurred at dawn.

Persuasive communication leverages Topics to give the recipient the impression that they are already thinking about something, as if that thing were not an idea from the seller, but an opinion or a need already felt by the potential buyer. If not attentive enough and influenced by this presentation, the recipient of a message will not question it as they would with someone else’s opinion, and will accept it even in its most debatable components.

For example, a pro-European advertisement distributed in Italy by the Government in the 1980s presented itself as a series of instructions (“The Guide to Europe”) for Italian companies wishing to take advantage of the new opportunities offered by European economic measures. As always in advertising, everything written small is irrelevant because it will not be read, while the only text that matters is the headline: “To enter Europe, choose the right key“.

Here, in particular, all the instructions listed on the right are just a pretext to formulate the headline, which presents the idea that “joining Europe” is desirable as if it were already active in the discourse (through a final subordinate clause in Topic), albeit effectively vague (see Vagueness). The preposed final subordinates have the function of presenting a purpose as already shared by the recipient; this explains why in normal situations it is strange or sarcastic to say to someone: “To irreparably stain your shirt, use blackberry ice cream,” or “In Rome, to get your wallet stolen on the bus, you should let it stick out more from your pants pocket.” Now, presenting the desire to “join Europe” as something already shared by all the message recipients is precisely what this pro-European advertisement wanted to do, at a time when Euroscepticism was widespread in our country.

The evident sexual symbolism of the straight and hard key pointing towards Europe’s hole serves to reinforce in the entrepreneur reading the advertisement the desire to “enter Europe,” confirming that making that desire feel real is the main purpose of the message.

“Ours, it wil be a normal revolution“. In this advertisement by the Five Star Movement, the phrase “our” referring to the idea of revolution is presented in the Topic. Apparently, the purpose (in Focus) seems to be to say that it will be a normal revolution, but the most important part of the message is precisely to suggest that no one questions the part in Topic, namely that what they will accomplish in the Municipality of Rome will be a revolution. By emphasizing that it will be “normal”, the idea that is more difficult to convince the recipients of is tacitly introduced and taken for granted: that they will be capable of making a revolution.

In the advertisement below, BMW could have asserted, in Focus: “The new BMW 1 Series is a novelty!”. But this would have triggered the critical judgment of the recipients, who would have realized that it was only minimally a new car. Instead, by presenting the idea of “a novelty” in Topic, the advertiser manages to give the recipients the impression that it is a well-known and shared state of affairs; with the result that many will absorb almost entirely without discussing the idea that the car is a novelty:


In politicians’ speeches, it often happens that an idea of the speaker is presented as a Topic to give the impression that discourse on it is already happening, and that the speaker does not express that idea because it is dear to him, but because it is shared by many. In statements like the ones below (from a speech by Matteo Renzi and one by Paola Taverna), the part (in italics) that is presented as Topic (i.e., with a specific “background” intonation) encodes information that the speaker prefers not to present as introduced by him/her, but as “proposed” by the circumstances in which he/she is speaking; a content whose activation in the current discourse is not his/her responsibility, and which he/she is obliged to recall to make it clear what he/she wants to add, but ultimately something everybody is already talking about:

  • “On the other hand, an idea of Europe that has not worked in recent years, has failed.” (Renzi)
  • “In short, a habitual criminal, recidivist and dedicated to crime, even organized, given his associates.” (Taverna)

In the first statement, the opinion that a certain idea of Europe has not worked is expressed as Topic, presented as if everyone already knew it well; therefore, not a subjective and debatable opinion of the speaker, but a state of affairs unanimously recognized in the circumstances. In the second example, the idea that Berlusconi’s associates are of such a nature as to qualify him as a criminal is presented as a “tail” in Topic, i.e., as something taken for granted by everyone and not as a malicious insinuation by the speaker.

Similarly, the following statements work in a similar way, where the part in italics presents as already active in the discourse contents that the speaker is introducing at that moment of his/her initiative:

  • “…without having to go back to Manzoni’s “gride”, the idea that the norms that have succeeded over the years have not produced the desired result is evident to everyone.” (Renzi)
  • Having won the organizational challenges of the EXPO and the Jubilee is not the merit of the Government but of an extraordinary structure of professionals to whom my renewed gratitude goes.” (Renzi)
  • “Prostitution, it is for sixty years that Italy has been pretending nothing was happening.” (Salvini)