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Comparison of semantic role and grammatical relation

 

Introduction
 

Grammatical relations (subject, object, oblique…) are morphosyntactic, whereas semantic roles (agent, patient, instrument…) are conceptual notions. Semantic roles do not correspond directly to grammatical relations. Notice what varying semantic roles a subject can play:

 

Sentence

Grammatical relation

Semantic role

Bob opened the door with a key.

Bob = SUBJECT

Bob = AGENT

The key opened the door.

The key = SUBJECT

The key = INSTRUMENT

The door opened.

The door = SUBJECT

The door = PATIENT

 
Caution:
 

In some traditions, the term ‘logical subject’ is used to refer to a participant which is not the grammatical subject, but which has the semantic role of agent in a passive sentence.

 
Example:

In the following English passive sentence, door is the subject/patient, and Bob is an oblique object. However, Bob has the semantic role of agent. Some theories of linguistics would call Bob the ‘logical subject’.

  • This door was opened by Bob.
Source
 

Adapted from Payne, T. 1997a 51


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