What is the difference between 'actor' and 'subject' in systemic functional grammar? Sometimes in a functional grammar, 'actor' has a different meaning

  • 1
    I made a point about the difference between agent (aka actor) and subject once in my old answer: ell.stackexchange.com/a/67582/3281. Dec 7, 2016 at 7:27
  • 1
    Here is a dissertation (by me) on the relationship between subjects and agents: linguistics.osu.edu/sites/linguistics.osu.edu/files/… . See Subjects and Agents: II.
    – Greg Lee
    Dec 7, 2016 at 12:26
  • Thanks, Greg. After reading the foreword I can say that I hadn't known that Barbara had proposed that in her dissertation, and I'm looking forward to learning more.
    – jlawler
    Dec 7, 2016 at 17:51

2 Answers 2


In Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL), a clause is analysed for transitivity in different ways depending on the type of process the main verb represents. Let's consider the following clauses:

  1. [I] am [tall].
  2. [I] own [this computer].
  3. [I] am [in the office].

The clauses above represent relations between two elements. Clause 1 represents the relation between a person and one of his or her qualities, the second between the person and his or her belongings, the third between the person and his or her current place. For this reason, the first element is said to play the role of attribute Carrier and the second the role of Attribute. The process is said to be of relational type because it relates two elements.

Other clauses are said "material" in the sense that they represent a portion of matter changing through time. Examples can be seen below:

  1. [I] grew up {in California}.
  2. [I] bought [this computer] {in Best Buy}.
  3. [I] arrived [here] {today}.

Material processes have an Actor, someone (or something) who does something either to him/herself or to something else. The first element of the three clauses above is always an actor. Notice that in California and in Best Buy are not attributes of the actor, but actually the place where something happened. Notice also that this computer and here are not attributes of the actor while the process is going on. It is the change in attributes for a portion of matter that is being represented in those clauses.

The function of Subject does not belong to the transitive model of English. It belongs to the model of predication. The subject is the element (typically a person or a thing) that we are talking about. Let's consider the following two clauses:

  1. [I] bought [this computer] {in Best Buy}.
  2. [This computer] was bought {in Best Buy}.

In both clauses, we are talking about the first element. In Clause 7 the Subject element is the speaker and in Clause 8 the Subject element is the computer. However, the Actor of buying is the speaker in Clause 7 while it is left unspecified in Clause 8.

This is the difference between Actor and Subject. Actor is a function of an element in the transitive model of language and Subject is a function that one element of the clause has in predication (what is being revealed about what).


I thought a shorter answer might help some people:

The actor (or agent) performs the action (upon the patient).

The subject is what the predicate gets filed under.

With a verb in active voice, the subject will be the agent, and (if used) the direct object will be the patient and the indirect object will be the recipient.

active: S V [I] [O] == a V [r] [o]

With a verb in passive voice, the subject will be the patient or the recipient, and (if used) the direct object will still be the patient and an adverbial will supply the agent.

passive: S V [I/O] [D] == o V [r] ['by' a] .or. r V [o] ['by' a]

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