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given-before-new principle

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Definition:

The linguistic principle that speakers and writers tend to express known information (the "given") before previously unknown information (the "new") in their messages. Also known as the Given-New Principle and the Information Flow Principle (IFP).

American linguist Jeanette Gundel, in her 1988 article "Universals of Topic-Comment Structure," formulated the Given-Before-New Principle in this way: "State what is given before what is new in relating to it" (Studies in Syntactic Typology, ed. by M. Hammond et al. John Benjamins).

See also:

Examples and Observations:

  • "In principle, words in a sentence are arranged in such a way that those that represent old, predictable information come first, and those that represent new, unpredictable information last."
    (Susumu Kuno, The Grammar of Discourse. Taishukan, 1978)


  • "In English sentences, we tend to present old or given information first, and put new information at the end. In that way, our writing follows a certain linear logic. Look at these sentences:
    Researchers have been examining the way people choose where to sit in a library. The choice of seat is often determined by the other people in the room.
    The writer of these sentences introduced new information at the end of the first sentence (where to sit in a library). In the second sentence, that old or given information comes first (as the choice of seat), and the new information (the other people in the room) is left for the end of the sentence."
    (Ann Raimes, How English Works: A Grammar Handbook with Readings. Cambridge University Press, 1998)

  • Given-Before-New Principle and End Weight
    They gave me a lotion that wasn't as good as the cream.
    "Notice that this example conforms to both the Given-Before-New Principle and the Principle of End Weight: the NP a lotion that wasn't as good as the cream carries new information (witness the indefinite article), comes last, and is also a heavy phrase. The IO is a personal pronoun, which conveys given information because the person referred to is identifiable by the addressee."
    (Bas Aarts, Oxford Modern English Grammar. Oxford University Press, 2011)


  • Background
    "[T]here is broad agreement that some sort of 'give-before-new' principle applies to English word ordering within the sentence. This idea was formulated by [Michael] Halliday (1967) as what we can term Given-New Principle. . . .

    "This ordering of information was codified by Prague School linguists in the 1960s and 1970s as Communicative Dynamism; here, the notion is that a speaker tends to structure a sentence so that its level of Communicative Dynamism (roughly, its informativeness, or the extent to which it is presenting new information) increases from the beginning of the sentence to the end. . . .

    "To see the given-new principle at work, consider (276):
    (276) Several summers ago there was a Scotty who went to the country for a visit. He decided that all the farm dogs were cowards, because they were afraid of a certain animal that had a white stripe down its back. (Thurber 1945)
    The first sentence of this story introduces a number of entities, including a Scotty, the country, and a visit. The first clause of the second sentence begins with the pronoun he, representing the previously mentioned Scotty, and then introduces the farm dogs. After the conjunction because, we get a new clause that begins with another pronoun, they, in reference to these now-given farm dogs, after which a new entity--the animal with the white stripe down its back--is introduced. We see here the clear workings of a principle of starting each sentence (except the first, reasonably enough) with given information, then introducing new information via its relationship to the given information . . .."
    (Betty J. Birner, Introduction to Pragmatics. Wiley-Blackwell, 2012)
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