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I personally only knew Topic-comment structure on this site, since it's been used to explain many questions. I also used it in my answers in the past. Recently, I realized that I wasn't taught this structure in my own school years. I asked my 中学语文老师 (literature teacher of middle school), who has a bachelor degree of Chinese literature and has been teaching 语文 over 30 years, and she is unaware of the structure too.

A quick Baidu search suggests it's relevant to 对外汉语.

So, is it a newly evolved structure in Chinese literature or used only for 对外汉语?

The reason I ask this is that none of people around me notice this structure except those (like me) who has some experience on teaching/explaining Chinese to second language learners.

A typical example of the topic comment structure: 水果,我最爱吃草莓。In this case, we'd analyze it as : 在水果中,我最爱吃草莓. So we take 在水果中 or 水果 as adverbial. Well, using topic comment theory, 水果 is topic and 我最爱吃草莓 is comment. Look like they're different ways to see the grammar per se.

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    Quote:- "So, is it a newly evolved structure in Chinese literature or used only for 对外汉语?" Not according to these linguistic scholars. naccl.osu.edu/sites/naccl.osu.edu/files/…. The very first sentence of the Thesis should shock you? – Wayne Cheah Aug 15 at 6:52
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    I want to point out that ways of describing and/or teaching the language, and the language itself, are different things. The fact that someone is not used to a way of describing something doesn't mean it doesn't exist or that's an invalid way of describing it. There are many things about one's native language that non-linguists have never heard of, and which are nevertheless true. – Olle Linge Aug 15 at 6:56
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    @dan Ah, I see! It was the passage "So, is it a newly evolved structure in Chinese literature" that sounded like it referred to something in the language itself, rather than a way of analysing it. – Olle Linge Aug 18 at 6:05
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    It started off as linguistic work as blackgreen pointed out in Thompson and Li. It is not going to be as useful in predicting word order as phrasal categories -- a version of which used to be taught in much of China. As a "fan" of phrase structure grammar, for the lack of better word since I don't research in linguistics, I would rather see subject-topic structure interpreted as noun phrase + verb phrase with the linking verb being optional. (Note: I just put the verb into the second part. It is usually in first as far as I know.) – Argyll Aug 19 at 21:48
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    Whether topic-prominence vs subject-prominence is useful in analyzing language is beyond the point. (I think it is but if it is used too much in analyzing syntax, which does not appear to be the intention of the original theory, I think it can be counter-productive.) In any case, a linguistic concept does not have to be used in teaching language or vice versa. – Argyll Aug 19 at 21:51
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The topic-comment structure 主题述语句式 is a linguistics concept. Also referred to as 主题句 and 主题述题句式.

It appears it has been popularized — in the West — by Thompson and Li, Subject and Topic: A new Typology of Language in the '70s. With that paper, the authors introduce the concept of topic-prominent languages 主题突出语言 (Chinese, Korean, Japanese, etc.) vs. subject-prominent language 主语突出语言 (English, neo-latin languages, etc.).

But there are also Chinese scholars who investigated this around the same time. One of them is Zhao Yuanren 赵元任,《汉语口语语法》(A Grammar of Spoken Chinese):

汉语句子里主语和谓语的语法意义是主题 (topic) 和述语 (comment), 而不是施动者 (actor) 和动作 (action)

So it's definitely not a new idea.

Now, it makes sense that grammar is not taught to natives using linguistics concepts.

The notion is however useful to foreigners, and I would say especially speakers of subject-prominent languages, because it pinpoints immediately the most distinctive trait of Chinese. And it does so in a way that can be understood rather easily, as topic-comment structures exist in English and neolatin languages as well, despite not being very common.

Below, some examples I can come up with, which convey that the topic is especially stressed in the sentence (topics in bold):

[English] it was me who called Anna (= I called Anna)

[Portuguese] à estação, esse autocarro não chega (= esse autocarro não chega à estação)

[Italian] il libro, gliel'ho già restituito (= gli ho già restituito il libro)

(I was also not aware of topic-comment in any of the three above, until when I started studying Chinese)

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    The 赵元任 one you linked me in has this said: "《中国话的文法》)本来是写了给外国人研究中国话用的。" So, it looks like indeed it's been made for second language learner' study. I understand it makes a lot easier for them to understand the language. It also makes sense to introduce it on this site because question askers are second language learners most of times. – dan Aug 16 at 22:52
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No, this kind of thing is present in all languages, I believe. (I never made a study of it.) A reiteration to confirm the correct understanding of the utterance.

All the non-Chinese here can comment if this is the same in their language.

Probably, you would not just say this. Something came before.

你最喜欢吃什么水果呢?
What fruit do you like eating the most?

水果?我最爱吃草莓。
Fruit? I like eating strawberries most of all.
(Which) Fruit (do I like to eat the most)? I like eating strawberries most of all.
Fruit? (You're talking about fruit?) I like eating strawberries most of all.

It's hard to say what wasn't said, if anything.

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  • The way you put "水果?我最爱吃草莓" does not demonstrate the topic comment structure usage. It should be 水果, 我最爱吃草莓, which is a declarative or assertive sentence. – dan Aug 16 at 23:49
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Is “topic-comment structure” only used for teaching second language learners Chinese?

In short, no.

As others pointed out, it started off as a tool to analyze languages and showcase their differences using topic-prominence vs subject-prominence. The main proponents being Li and Thompson.

To demonstrate the effect of topic-prominence, here are some examples:

饭*煮好了。

作业*做了吗?

身体*好吗?

Please let me know what else you can think of. Especially if you have non-inquisitive, non-exclamative examples.

Of course, alternatively, we can say

煮好饭了。

做了作业吗?

They are said. This ordering may convey slight different connotation. They are probably (?) much less common than topic-prominent variants.

Please supply references if you know of research measuring frequency of one vs another.

It is worth noting that the Li and Thompson paper used speech that tend not to be singular sentences as the examples of topic-prominence. e.g.

那颗树叶子真大,所以我不喜欢

I think using single sentences is important here. In the above example, do they mean 那颗树 being topic in 那颗树叶子真大 and again for 我不喜欢 or something else? I myself need some more examples to see this spectrum defined.

Moreover, no source discussed in this thread claims or demonstrates that topic-comment is required for explaining the syntax of Chinese sentences. Instead, I expect phrasal structure grammar to be more successful in synthesizing and predicting legible Chinese sentences. Every example above -- in my mind, I can only think of examples of topic-comment where we are just as successful in explaining (single) Chinese sentences as noun phrase + verb phrase. And if this was English the verb phrase would consist of linking verb + adjective -- requiring a linking verb. In Chinese, linking verb is optional.

Certainly sentence ordering is very flexible in Chinese relative to English. However, I don't think that the flexible ordering will break the phrasal structure approach or make it unwieldy.

All that is a discussion on how to analyze syntax. It is worth noting that Li and Thompson seems to have proposed that topic-prominence vs subject-prominence is useful in identifying the semantic of sentence as well as recognizing prevalent syntax. Languages do exhibit different preferences in what kind of sentence orders are most used. Topic- vs subject- prominence is at a minimum a prevalent concept to describe such differences.

Now onward to whether topic-comment should be taught when learning Chinese.

Well, as stated before, I fail to see how topic-comment is an exceptional structure that stands above other sentential structures in Chinese. If it is taught that way, I think it is a mistake. In using topic-comment as a standalone structure, you may as well say every sentence is topic-comment. However, it is worth highlighting a popular ordering choice in Chinese sentences. In the future, we can teach the phrasal structure of Chinese (after researchers reach a consensus, that is), and also highlight topic-comment a part of the possible structure.

A personal anecdote: before hearing about the concept, in an attempt to explain the flexible ordering that is common in Chinese sentences, I proposed this exact concept to a friend, who then told me about the topic-comment idea. So it can be useful for an illustrative purpose.

As for why topic-comment is not taught in native Chinese. Well, grammar has not been taught in Chinese schools (ie. before university; also depending on the region) since ~ early 2000. See this thread where people share their experiences. I'd like to highlight one opinion from the thread (biased selection of mine): there is not yet academic consensus of Chinese grammar. ie. No consensus phrasal structure; no consensus on which part of Chinese linguistics should be taught, which is a step beyond. Thus you cannot conclude whether topic-comment will be a productive theory to teach either.


In summary,

  • Topic-comment structure most closely relates to the topic-prominence vs subject-prominence concept popularized by Li and Thompson. (near 1k citation)

  • Topic-prominence vs subject-prominence is useful in analyzing the specific preferences of a language in sentence ordering, as demonstrated by Li and Thompson.

  • Topic-comment is not required to explain phrasal structure in Chinese sentences. (<--- according to me. Please do propose lots of examples to test idea together.)

  • Due to the above, topic-comment should not be taught as a standalone grammatical structure. But is useful in showcasing popular choices of sentential ordering, ie. to showcase the topic-prominence in Chinese sentences.

  • The primary reason of topic-comment structure being unknown among native speakers is that mainland China has not taught grammar in school since ~ early 2000. (Example.)

Although the fact that people don't recognize this structure alludes to how it may not be a standalone structure just as I claimed.

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  • C'mon, let's tone back the arguing in comments please. If there's something worth highlighting, it can be done through voting, or using one comment. This back-and-forth is not needed. – Becky 李蓓 Aug 20 at 3:07

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