Thematic Roles

July 11, 2006 at 3:37 am (Uncategorized)

Hi there people! I was revising the passive voice unit and I came across the word “instrument” and remember that some of us didn’t know what was meant by it. So I decided to look for the different thematic roles of the objects and subjects to see if it made it clearer. Here’s the info. I hope you find it useful.

In linguistics, a theta role or θ-role is the semantic role a noun phrase plays in a sentence. The term thematic role denotes the same concept. As such it is a semantic rather than a syntactic feature, in contrast to such notions as the subject of a sentence or a prepositional object.For instance, in the sentence Debra broke the window, “Debra” is both the subject of the sentence and the agent and “the window” is the object of the verb and the patient. But in The window was broken by Debra, “Debra” is still the agent, even though “the window” is now the subject of the sentence.

Major theta roles

Here is a list of the major theta roles, using the example sentence, Debra broke the window with a bat and Jack fell asleep.

The agent (A) is whoever is intentionally carrying out some action. In the first example sentence, Debra is the agent.

The experiencer (S) is someone or a thing who experiences some state. Thus, in Jack fell asleep, Jack is the experiencer. This is because Jack is not an agent, in that he did not “fall himself asleep”. One semantic test used to distinguish the two roles is to ask if “I promise to…” makes sense. For example, “I promise to break the window” is contrasted with “I promise to fall asleep”. Another example includes “What did she do?” contrasting with “What happened to her?”; this is shown with the pair “What did she do?” — “She broke the window.” which is contrasted with “What happened to her?” — “She fell asleep.”

The patient: a participant which the verb characterizes as having something happen to it, and as being affected by what happens to it. Thus the window is the patient.

Theme: A participant that changes its position or condition, or as being in a state or position. (examples: the objects of give, hand , the subjects of walk, die)

The instrument is whatever is being used to perform the action; the bat is the instrument.

I also found:

In grammar, the voice of a verb describes the relationship between the action (or state) that the verb expresses and the participants identified by its arguments (subject, object, etc.). When the subject is the agent or actor of the verb, the verb is said to be in the active voice. When the subject is the patient, target or undergoer of the action, it is said to be in the passive voice.

That’s it!

See you,



1 Comment

  1. Graciela said,

    Thanks Juliet, I’m one of those persons who hadn’t understood the “agent” and “instrument” concepts. I hope I do now.
    Kisses from

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