In the real world,

  1. The sun melts the ice. (the sun is causing the change)

but the same event can be described as

  1. Ice melts.

Are both sentences describing the process, or is sentence 1 describing the action and sentence 2 is describing the process ?

  • 2
    Both your 1. and 2. describe processes: 1. The sun is in the process of melting the ice; 2. The ice is in the process of melting. The difference is the presence of an actor or agent in 1.
    – Greg Lee
    Sep 8, 2016 at 11:08
  • Wikipedia: Transitive verb vs. Reflexive verb.
    – bytebuster
    Sep 8, 2016 at 15:04
  • Thanks for your answer. But the agent role for the sun is not the best in my opinion because it doesn't have volition like the human, so better semantic role could be: cause or natural force. Similar to sentence: wind moved a box, is it a proces or action ? Box can be moved also by some robot, which also doesn't have volition. Will be this an action ?
    – Adrian
    Sep 9, 2016 at 7:32
  • 1
    This is really a question of philosophy, pertaining to the difference between "process" and "action". 1 describes an action of the sun, and the essence of the difference is that an action has an actor.
    – user6726
    Sep 9, 2016 at 15:25
  • So process doesn't have an agent, right ? Is this correct to say that the second sentance is a metaphor in which we are saying that sun is doing something (some action), but in real world is a process too ?
    – Adrian
    Sep 10, 2016 at 6:33

2 Answers 2


As Greg points out (above), both describe processes, but 2 omits the agent/actor. This is a well known behaviour of ergative verbs.

  • I agree that in real world this is a process. But having agent in the 2nd sentance it looks like action of the sun as user6726 noticed, even if only from language perspective. Is this a metaphor ?
    – Adrian
    Sep 10, 2016 at 6:41
  • No, it's not a metaphor, since the literal meaning of 'melt' is intended in both sentences. But with regards to your initial question, we require a more precise definition of 'process' and 'action'. If you tie your definitions to thematic role theory and define 'action' as an event where an agent is present and 'process' as an event where no agent is present, then you are right to say 1 expresses an 'action' and 2 a 'process'. Note that this distinction can only be guaranteed at the linguistic level. In the real world, the exact same phenomenon can be happening.
    – Rodrigo
    Sep 11, 2016 at 17:33
  • Acion and process I would define without refer to existence of actor in the sentence, but use a well-known undersinding of this two concepts. Action is easy to detect when agent is a human, but is it also an action when agent is a thing or natural force ? In sentence Hamer broke window, is this an action (hamer is a tool in thematic role theory) ? It would be action for sure if Hamer would be a person.
    – Adrian
    Sep 15, 2016 at 6:33
  • I doubt that there exists "a well-known understanding" of action and process, such as I doubt that you will find the answer you're looking for in linguistics. Thematic role theory (a linguistic theory) can only help you label the participants of the event, not the event itself. See this list of thematic roles. According to the list, the sun in 1 is an agent, 2 hides the agent because "melts" is ergative, and the hammer in your last example is an instrument.
    – Rodrigo
    Sep 15, 2016 at 17:32
  • correction: according to the list I linked, the sun in 1 is a cause, not an agent. So 2 omits the cause -- not the agent -- with the ergative form of "melt".
    – Rodrigo
    Sep 16, 2016 at 12:50

I'm not a native english speaker, but I think it doesn't matter.

I see different questions here: What the sentence describes?

A sentence has a purpose, means someone wrote a sentence to express something. It could be: to describe a fact/an observation/a hypothesis or what ever is happening out there. In fact, let's look at what's actually going on there in chronological order:

  1. The sun burns itself.
  2. The sun radiates light.
  3. Lights heats ice
  4. Heat energy causes molecules of ice moves faster
  5. hydrogen bonds between ice molecules breaks
  6. Form changes from ice to water

From observer's point of view:

  1. We see chemical or other process like: burning, radiating, heating, accelerating, breaking, changing.
  2. We see substance like: the sun, those lights, those ice, those heat energy, those ice molecules, those hydrogen bonds, those water...
  3. We could also use other concepts to describe like: task, system, input, output...etc. It depends on what concept that "writers" chose to use to describe/express.

Same logic, "readers" are free to use other concepts to reconstruct the information carried by the sentence.

So, if I use actor-action concept to describe from what's going on out there.

  • I see sun as actor and his action is "burn himself", and he radiates light.
  • I see other actors like light, he reach ice, and he heat ice.
  • Finally, actor ice acts, he transform into water.

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