For example, in the sentence I want to sleep.

The verb want takes two arguments, which get two theta roles, I gets the agent role, what theta role does to sleep get?

Here is another example: I want her to sleep.

What theta role does to sleep get?

Here is my third and last example, I want to sleep her. What role does her get? Is her part of the infinitival so does not get assigned any role?

It is important to note that the tags I was able to put on were not even remotely accurate in describing the type of thematic roles I am discussing here in this post. Unfortunately, they they haven't created a tag for theta role theory nor do they allow me to create a new one.

  • 1
    You asked a similar question here link.
    – BillJ
    Dec 27, 2021 at 12:54
  • 2
    These are catenative constructions. In the first, "want" is a catenative verb, and the infinitival "to sleep" is its catenative complement. In the second, a complex catenative, again "want" is a catenative verb, and the infinitival "to sleep" is its complement. The intervening NP "her" is the syntactic object of the matrix verb "want" and the semantic (understood) subject of the subordinate infinitival clause. Note that "her" is a raised object.
    – BillJ
    Dec 27, 2021 at 13:09
  • @FumbleFingers Do you mean the "to sleep" in "I want to sleep" or as in "I want her to sleep"?
    – Jenny
    Dec 27, 2021 at 13:24
  • 1
    Your third and last example, I want to sleep her, does not sound felicitous.
    – rajah9
    Dec 27, 2021 at 13:31
  • 1
    I don't really see much future in this "theta" categorisation business anyway - like most of Chomsky's ideas about language, current developments in neural net natural language processing tend to imply such things are a waste of time. But if "theta type goal" works for you with I want [me] to sleep, I don't see why the same category shouldn't apply to I want her to sleep. Unless you want to sub-categorise theta type goal for things like "Agent-enacted" (reflexive?) and "Patient-enacted" (indirect object?). Dec 27, 2021 at 14:48

1 Answer 1


Theta roles only apply to noun phrases, not to all verbal arguments. The phrase to sleep is not a noun phrase, so it doesn't have a theta role. (In some theoretical frameworks, that clause contains a "null subject" called PRO, which can be assigned a theta role; its theta role would then be the same as that of her in the next sentence.)

In your second sentence I want her to sleep, the theta role of her would probably be described as Experiencer, since she is the one "experiencing" sleep. That said, linguists who work in a theta-role framework don't all use the same list of theta roles, and there can be disagreements about how best to classify specific instances.

Your third example, I want to sleep her, is not a grammatical English sentence, so it can't really be analyzed.

  • THANK YOU! PRO, that empty category pronoun is the thing I was looking for.
    – Jenny
    Dec 28, 2021 at 2:02
  • Yes ... I'm glad there's disagreement. Here, 'her/[referent]' is also the desiree. The lady has two notional roles. Dec 28, 2021 at 17:49
  • @EdwinAshworth She isn't a desiree -- I want her to sleep doesn't entail I want her, just like I believe you to be lying doesn't entail I believe you.
    – TKR
    Dec 28, 2021 at 19:05

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