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In Steven Pinker's book The Sense of Style, he talks about the 'given-before-new' principle (most notably on pages 131–138). He states, '... people learn by integrating new information into their existing web of knowledge.' He also says this is a significant contributor to coherence in writing.

In his examples of good adherence to the 'given-before-new' principle, he often highlights the subject as the 'given' information, the object as the 'new' information. See this example from the book ('given' information highlighted in bold):

A man arrives from Corinth with the message that Oedipus's father has died .... It emerges that this messenger was formerly a shepherd on Mount Cithaeron, and that he was given a baby .... The baby, he says, was given to him by another shepherd from the Laius household, who had been told to get rid of the child.

I question what 'given' information really is. These, in my opinion, are obvious examples; the 'given' subjects refer back to information from the previous (or the same) sentences. There is little room for argument. But what happens when the examples aren't so cut and dried?

This resource states that 'given' information is anything that we assume to be familiar. This resource, on the other hand, says that 'given' information is anything that 'has already been mentioned in the text.'

Which is it? Is it both? If so, how do we define what is assumed to be familiar? How far does this stretch, and must 'given' information take the position of subject?

See these examples:

(1) Jake entered the room. At the far end of the room was a piano.

(2) Jake entered the room. Floorboards creaked with every step.

In Example 1, we'll say that 'the far end of the room' is 'given' information. The 'piano' is new information. The principle, I think, has been adhered to by fronting and inversion. The preposition containing 'the far end of the room' is at the front of the sentence. However, this is not a subject, so is it correctly following the principle? The limited examples provided by almost every resource I have read are not clear on this.

In Example 2, we use 'floorboards' as the subject of the second sentence. This subject has not been explicitly introduced before this, but we could say that the reader might assume a room has floorboards.

Looking at fiction novels, the principle is seemingly ignored quite often. Subjects with indefinite articles are common. Then again, it could be argued that the scope of 'given' information is expanded and we simply expect the reader to accept the information on the basis that they are immersing themselves in a narrative. The goal of the text is not always perfect cohesion.

This isn't surprising; to maintain perfect cohesion with such unclear rules would result in a book without style, restricted by sentences beginning with 'they,' 'he,' 'she,' 'it,' and so on.

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  • There's material about this online (also known as Given-New or Information Flow), e.g. here and here although the Wikipedia page is a stub. But I don't think this is specific to the English language, so probably belongs elsewhere; there's already a question on Writing SE, or try Linguistics SE.
    – Stuart F
    Nov 13, 2023 at 13:32
  • I've never heard of this principle before; it seems like fluff to fill a book. Nov 13, 2023 at 15:29
  • @HippoSawrUs I first encountered it when reading Oxford Modern English Grammar by Bas Aarts. It relates to information structure, making communication more understandable. When it's obviously subverted, it becomes clear why it's important.
    – MJ Ada
    Nov 13, 2023 at 16:29
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    @HippoSawrUs. The Given-New principle is hardly fluff. In fact, the second clause of your comment is an example of it.
    – Shoe
    Nov 13, 2023 at 16:38
  • @Shoe - Bah, humbug! :-( That's probably just Old-Old… Nov 13, 2023 at 16:44

2 Answers 2

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The relevant concepts are discourse-new and discourse-old (or "familiar" — or "given") information. Old information in understood as anything that is familiar in a given discourse. It is indeed well-known that old information tends to precede new information in English sentences, so Pinker is not saying anything, ahem, new here.

A good example of this is the passive voice. Some passive sentences are normal, while others are bad:

(1) The guitar was eventually found in the attic. — completely normal

(2) #A guitar was found by me yesterday. — bad

The unacceptability of (2) stems from the fact the "me" clearly refers to familiar information, but "a guitar" is new. The following is of course much more natural:

(3) I found a guitar yesterday.

But without the "by me" bit, the acceptability of a passive clause improves, even if we retain the indefinite article:

(4) An electric guitar was found in the park.

This is because the active counterpart would have to be something like this:

(5) Somebody found an electric guitar in the park.

"Somebody" and "a guitar" are both new here. So this is about relations rather than absolute values.

In Example 1, we'll say that 'the far end of the room' is 'given' information. The 'piano' is new information. The principle, I think, has been adhered to by fronting and inversion. The preposition containing 'the far end of the room' is at the front of the sentence. However, this is not a subject, so is it correctly following the principle? The limited examples provided by almost every resource I have read are not clear on this.

Part of the confusion stems from your assuming that old information must be realised by grammatical subjects. That is not what's implied. It's really just about the linear order of constituents; what's familiar goes to the left, and what's new goes to the right. This is what is going on with your example (1). The second sentence there contains subject-dependent inversion; its purpose is to relocate the preposition phrase (which contains familiar stuff) to the left. Another relevant construction is complement preposing, where a complement, such as direct object, goes to the beginning of the clause:

(6) His newer novels I wouldn't recommend.

(7) Jim you can count on.

It's hard to imagine such sentences in a vacuum, or at the beginning of a text, so they're said to be discourse-sensitive: for a complement to be able to be preposed, it has to refer to discourse-old information.

In Example 2, we use 'floorboards' as the subject of the second sentence. This subject has not been explicitly introduced before this, but we could say that the reader might assume a room has floorboards.

You're right: it's not about specific words, but about a salient relationship between what's been mentioned and what's about to be mentioned. For the purposes of information structure, anything saliently related to what's familiar also counts as old information.

The "given-before-new" mnemonic only embodies a general tendency, a natural way to structure English sentences. But each specific construction has its own peculiarities. In some ways, the passive voice and subject-dependent inversion are similar, but there are differences. To study this in detail, it's better to consult a reference grammar rather than a style guide.

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    Welcome to EL&U! Very nice post! +1 Nov 14, 2023 at 12:44
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Your first question asks if the given information in the Given-New principle refers a. to 'anything that we assume to be familiar' or b. to 'anything that has already been mentioned in the text' - or both.

My answer: The following extract from The Grammar Book - An ESL /EFL Teacher's Course in its section on Given-New (p24) indicates that the answer is: both.

Given information is that which is assumed by the writer to be known to the reader. This assumption is made either because the given information has been previously mentioned or because it is in some way shared between the writer and reader. New information on the other hand, is 'newsworthy'—not something that the writer can take for granted that the reader knows.

Your next question is How do we define what is assumed to be familiar? (Presumably, you are asking about a context when the writer is referring to something that has not 'already been mentioned in the text'.)

My answer: Why do we need a definition? If the writer assumes the reader will understand the given phrase in the context of what has gone before, then he or she uses that phrase. The Cambridge Dictionary of English Grammar in the section given and new (p149) suggests a third term (i.e. an alternative to given), namely inferable. Maybe that would suffice as a definition, if one is needed.

Your third question is: Must 'given' information take the position of subject?

My answer: The given information is invariably the subject. If it is not the subject, then it doesn't seem to conform to the Given-New principle. But I am open to counter-examples.

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  • A very helpful breakdown. For your final answer, I would refer to my Example 1, wherein the 'given' information, in my opinion, is present in the prepositional phrase 'at the far end of the room.' If we were to remove the inversion, making it 'A piano was at the far end of the room,' this places the new information at the front of the sentence, which changes the way in which the reader absorbs said information.
    – MJ Ada
    Nov 13, 2023 at 18:57
  • My issue is that I don't see subject being one word. As we are talking about "information", it would seem to me that more than one word might apply. Isn't this entire sentence new info? A man arrives from Corinth with the message that Oedipus's father has died . Maybe I'm missing something...
    – Lambie
    Nov 13, 2023 at 19:06
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    @MJ Ada. Yes. That is a good counter-example. The Given-New principle is associated with the information structure/packaging terms theme/topic and rheme/comment. In your example, the given information is the theme/topic of the sentence, rather than its grammatical subject.
    – Shoe
    Nov 13, 2023 at 19:26
  • @Lambie. The principle applies to a sequence of sentences. So, to extend your example, we could have a second sentence that contravenes the Given-New principle. E.g. A man arrives from Corinth with the message that Lauis has died. Oedipus has killed him. The use of the passive allows the second sentence to conform to the principle, with the given information (he/Laius): A man arrives from Corinth with the message that Lauis has died. He was killed by Oedipus. This second version sounds more natural to me.
    – Shoe
    Nov 13, 2023 at 19:38
  • @lambie My understanding is that the opening of a written piece (or section) is exempt from the principle. 'Given before new' applies to all sentences that follow in that passage.
    – MJ Ada
    Nov 13, 2023 at 19:51

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