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.

  • John steered the boat.

We might also say that John is the Subject and the boat is the Direct Object of the clause (or sentence in this case). The terms Subject and Object are called functions: they explain the grammatical role played by a particular element in the clause.

Semantic roles are rather different. They concern the roles that people and things play externally, in the real world.

These people and things are referred to by the parts of the clause in a way that tells us what their roles are.

The most obvious semantic role is called the agent.

The agent is the ‘doer’ of an action described by a ‘doing’ verb. So John is the agent in the following example:

  • John steered the boat.

Who or what is the agent in the following clause?

  • The boat was steered by John.

The answer is still John. Although we have changed an active clause into a passive one, and the boat is now the Subject, nothing has changed in the real world.

Semantic roles indicate the parts played by participants in ‘a state of affairs’ or ‘a situation’.

The same situation might be described in a number of different ways. So looking at semantic roles is useful in thinking about alternative ways to describe the same situation.

Another important semantic role is patient. This is the role of being acted upon by an agent. It is sometimes called undergoer. It doesn’t refer to a patient in the medical sense (although it is a bit like the role of a medical patient having tests and treatments done to them by others).

So the patient role applies to the person or thing who has the action of a ‘doing’ verb done to them.  Do we have a patient in these examples?

  • John steered the boat.
  • The boat was steered by John.

Yes, in both these examples the boat is the patient, because it is acted on by John. It has the steering done to it. So the role of patient can be expressed in different ways in different clause structures.

English also has a semantic role of recipient which indicates the ‘receiver’ in a situation. Can you identify the recipient in this example? What other roles can you find?

  • The children sent Ahmed a postcard.

Here we have:

  • Ahmed as the recipient, as he is the receiver of the postcard
  • The children as the agent, the ones doing the sending
  • a postcard as the patient, the thing being acted on (sent)

The recipient role can also be expressed in other ways. Compare:

  • The children sent Ahmed a postcard.
  • The children sent a postcard to Ahmed.
  • Ahmed was sent a postcard by the children.

Ahmed has the same role of recipient in all these examples. Using a different verb, we could also have:

  • Ahmed received a postcard from the children.
  • Ahmed got a postcard from the children. (more informal)

We’ve looked at three of the most important semantic roles: agent, patient and recipient.

There are a number of further semantic roles. Here we’ll just take a quick look at a couple of others. 

What about the role of the highlighted noun phrases in these examples?

  • His friends felt very sad about his news.
  • The passengers heard a strange noise.

These noun phrases do not have the role of agent, but rather the role of experiencer: the individuals identified by these phrases are experiencing feelings or sensations.

What about the highlighted noun phrase in the next example? What kind of role in the situation does it express?

  • The pen rolled off the table.

Here the pen is not an agent or a patient: it is not acting itself or being acted on by an agent. (Abstractly, we could say it is acted on by the force of gravity, but that is not expressed in the sentence.) This kind of neutral role is sometimes called theme.

The same neutral role of theme can be applied to a strange noise in The passengers heard a strange noise. It is not a patient because the passengers are not really acting on the noise, just experiencing it.

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