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What is a semantic role?



A semantic role is the underlying relationship that a participant has with the main verb in a clause.

Also known as:

Semantic case, thematic role, theta role (generative grammar), and deep case (case grammar)


Semantic role is the actual role a participant plays in some real or imagined situation, apart from the linguistic encoding of those situations.


If, in some real or imagined situation, someone named John purposely hits someone named Bill, then John is the agent and Bill is the patient of the hitting event. Therefore, the semantic role of Bill is the same (patient) in both of the following sentences:

  • John hit Bill.
  • Bill was hit by John.

In both of the above sentences, John has the semantic role of agent.


Payne, T. 1997a 47

  Here are some kinds of semantic roles:

The semantic roles most often embodied by the grammatical relations of subject, object and indirect object in natural languages are: agent, force, instrument, experiencer, recipient, and patient. Other semantic roles are more likely to be embodied in oblique (adpositional) phrases or adverbials.


Payne, T. 1997a 48–49

See also

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