Subjects and Topics


By Sentence Topic we do not mean something like the gist of a sentence, a general idea that the writer is addressing. And we do not mean by Sentence Topic whatever might be captured in the title of a document. In that sense, the "topic" of this handout is something like "writing clearly and strategically."

Instead, our definition of Sentence Topic is something very different. The Sentence Topic is the particular word or phrase that begins a sentence or is somewhere near its beginning:

THIS LETTER should confirm the arrangement recently made between First National Bank of Oregon and your firm for meeting certain firm-related borrowing needs of the partners and, in certain cases, the senior associates.

FNB OF OREGON has agreed, under certain circumstances, to make loans based on its Small Business Prime Rate.

The Topic of a sentence is usually the same as the subject of a sentence. The Topic of this next sentence is China:

CHINA is on the verge of either an industrial explosion that will forever change world commerce, or a population explosion that will forever change world ecology.

The sentence is "about" China. The writer puts forward the concept "China," then says something about it; the writer predicates something of it.

Sometimes, however, Subjects and Topics are not the same. Consider this sentence:

In regard to China, we can confidently predict that it is either on the verge of an industrial explosion that will forever change. . .

This sentence is about China, but China is not its subject. The main subject of this sentence is we. But the sentence is not "about" us. The sentence is "about" China. Now consider this sentence:

We can confidently predict that China is either on the verge of an industrial explosion that will forever change. . .

This sentence could be about "us," given the right context: "You are really smart. You predict all sorts of things. Tell me something about yourself. " But on an ordinary reading, the "psychological subject," or Sentence Topic, is China.
 
Here's the point: The more sharply and concisely you present the Topic/Subject of each sentence, the more easily your reader can read that sentence.
 
When a writer constructs sentences with long subjects, she gives her reader complex and difficult Topic/Subjects. And when she puts at the beginning of her sentences information that doesn't have much to do with her real topic, she makes it difficult for her reader to follow her prose.
 
Remember these two principles about Sentence Topics:

1. Keep your topics as simple, short, and Old as possible.

2. Make your topic the subject of the sentence as often as possible OR keep your topic as close to the subject of your sentence as possible.