Explanation

The participant role which an element plays in the situation described by a sentence or clause, such as agent or recipient. These roles concern meaning and are distinct from grammatical functions such as Subject. For example, Tom plays the role of agent in both Tom painted the fence and The fence was painted by Tom.

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:

Direct Object

Consider the examples below. What do the highlighted phrases add to the meanings?

  • He stroked the dog. [W2F-018 #175]
  • They carried mugs of beer. [W2F-018 #140]

These phrases tell us who or what is being 'verbed', i.e. who is undergoing the action denoted by the verbs, in these situations: the dog is stroked, the mugs of beer are carried. Without these phrases, our examples would be incomplete.

Indirect Object

Consider the following example. Here we have two noun phrases which follow the Predicator (the verb).

  • I’ll give [you] [the school’s number]. [W2F-020 #192]

Can you see how they build up the meaning of the clause? Both noun phrases refer to participants in the situation of ‘giving’, but the participants have different roles.

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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