Glossary: agent

Explanation

A semantic role which indicates the ‘doer’ of an action described by a verb phrase in a sentence or clause. It can be expressed in different ways. For example, Fiona is the agent both in Fiona drove the bus and in The bus was driven by Fiona.

Passives in use

The slides in the Activity page in the right hand menu contain examples of passives from real writing. Have students do the following:

Passives in use: Activity

Extract A (from a student exam paper on emotion)

Furthermore there is evidence that supports these bodily changes as being essential to an emotional state. This evidence involved testing patients with spine severances. The patients were interviewed and tested in a laboratory and results consistently showed that the higher the spine severance the less patients reported being able to ‘feel’ an emotion.

Identify the semantic role

Exercise

You will be given some sentences where two or three noun phrases are marked off with square brackets. For each sentence:

  • Identify the semantic roles of the noun phrases (agent, patient or recipient).
  • Write a different sentence to describe the same situation, where the same roles are expressed in different ways.

Example:

  • [The people we were staying with] cooked [us] [a traditional Normandy dinner]. [S1A-009 #125, adapted]

Roles:

Agents or non-agents?

In each of these examples the Subject is highlighted. For each one, decide whether or not the Subject identifies an agent (or more than one agent) who carries out an action.

Active and passive

Consider the two sentences below. What is the difference between them?

  1. The council workers cleared the path.
  2. The path was cleared by the council workers.

The same event is taking place in both sentences, but the sentences have been expressed in different ways.

In the first example the focus is on what the council workers did (they cleared the path), whereas in the second example, the focus is on what happened to the path (it was cleared by the council workers).

Active and passive: Creating cohesion

When does a writer or speaker choose to use a passive rather than an active? There can be various reasons. We’ll look here at the effects of using passives in different contexts.

Consider sentence (1). Would it be more natural to follow it with (2) or (3)? Why?

Grammatical functions in the clause

The description of word classes, phrases, and clauses in terms of their structure is part of the study of form. We now turn to the study of grammar from the perspective of function: this notion refers to what words, phrases and clauses do as units of language.

Semantic roles

When we talk about grammar, we mostly discuss language from the point of view of its internal characteristics.

We can say that steered in the following example has a grammatical form, namely verb. More specificallty, we say that it is a verb in the past tense.

Subject

The Subject of a sentence is often defined as the phrase identifying the agent that carries out the action denoted by the verb. All the examples below involve actions (fleeingsniffingwriting) carried out by the individuals referred to by the highlighted phrases, and for this reason we identify these phrases as Subjects.

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