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Theme or Topic - what's the difference? Are they synonyms?

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There is a slight difference between a theme and a topic.

Both can mean the main subject of a talk, piece of writing, film, etc:

  • The theme of this discussion is education.

  • The topic for discussion today is education.

You may have heard the expression "stay on topic". Anything with a "topic" usually sticks fairly rigidly to that subject. We tend to use the word with factual subjects rather than fictional works.

However, "theme" can also be used in a much looser way. It can mean a specific subject or a broader idea that recurs or runs throughout something. For example, a film or movie might deal with many different subjects yet have a recurring theme. Anthologies of short stories may feature many pieces by different authors, all in different settings, but all share a common theme that is touched on to varying degrees within each piece.

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