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Consider the below sentences, all of which contain a subject, a verb, and a predicative.

The door felt cold.

He is smart.

She's got taller.

What is the semantic role of the subjects in these sentences? Is there a name for it?

Note: I have already posted this question on the English Learners StackExchange, and the only answer I received there was that the subjects all have the semantic role of 'affected', or 'patient' (as it is more commonly known). But to my unintelligent mind, that does not make sense: for instance, in the first sentence, the door does not seem to be affected by anything; it is undergoing no action. Instead, in the first sentence, it would seem that the door is being ascribed the property of being cold. Similarly, in the second, the antecedent of 'he' is being ascribed the attribute of being smart; in the third, the antecedent of 'she' is being ascribed the quality of being taller than she used to be, which she has acquired as a result of some change (namely in her height).

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  • Which set of semantic roles are you using? In some, Patient is the unmarked semantic role unless there is an obvious alternate. And which theory uses the term "predicative"?
    – jlawler
    Mar 23, 2022 at 17:03
  • @jlawler. I am not trained in the field of linguistics as you are; I am merely a neophyte. Most of my information regarding semantic roles comes from CGEL and a book called The Linguistic Structure of Modern English. According to the latter, an argument is said to have the semantic role of patient if it 'undergoes change' or is 'affected by an action'. Note, too, that this theme distinguishes between theme, factitive, and neutral, instead of lumping the semantic roles together under 'theme'.
    – Eric
    Mar 23, 2022 at 20:45
  • According to The Linguistic Structure of Modern English, a patient is changed in some way by an action; a theme is affected by an action and often changes location, though remaining unchanged itself; a factitive comes into being by virtue of the action; a neutral is present at an event but does not undergo the associated action.
    – Eric
    Mar 23, 2022 at 20:48
  • For instance, in the sentence Mary broke the glass, the object ("the glass") has the semantic role of patient; in the sentence Mary moved the glass, the object has the semantic role of theme; in the sentence Mary saw the glass, the object has the semantic role of neutral; in the sentence Mary made the glass, the object has the semantic role of factitive. Do you see?
    – Eric
    Mar 23, 2022 at 20:51
  • So you're using the set that that textbook uses? Then you're limited to their choices, unless you want to broaden your options. Case grammar has lots of possibilities, depending on what you want them for. If it's for a class, talk to your teacher. I'll deal with these 3 sentences, but it's not guaranteed to be consistent with CGEL or LSME.
    – jlawler
    Mar 23, 2022 at 22:39

1 Answer 1

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  1. The door felt cold.
  2. He is smart.
  3. She's got taller.

(1) uses a flip sense verb feel, which is parallel to sound and look in that its subject is some sensation that is experienced by someone (default case is the speaker) and described by whatever follows feel. This is similar to It looked dirty or It sounded off-key. Note that feel is not always restricted to tactile sensation -- This feels silly is not about touching something. But in (1) it is, because the resultant adjective cold is tactile.

(2) is a straightforward descriptive predicate adjective, which predicates the personality trait 'smartness' on the subject, which must be a human (or at least sentient because bricks can't be smart -- as smart as a brick is an insult}. Smart is an attribute that reflects a judgement on someone's behavior based on past experience; it doesn't refer to the human body, only the mind.

(3) would be ungrammatical in the US because this is an occasion where an American would use gotten instead of got. But the sense is clear enough. Tall is a predicate that refers to the human body (and also slender vertical objects like trees and skyscrapers), not the mind or personality. Has got(ten) refers to continued change in the direction expressed by the comparative -er in taller. I.e, she has grown.

In (1), I would say the Su role was Experience (while whoever did the feeling was Experiencer). In both (2) and (3), I would go for Patient, since essentially this is the semantic role that just says "Present" and does nothing. You could use it for the subject of almost any predicate adjective or noun -- It's red, They're gone, He's an accountant -- because the subjects are normally old information in these constructions, and not much interesting depends on their semantic roles.

Now, if you want to get more complex, just look at the relationships between transitive verbs and direct objects -- every verb has a different relation with its direct object, to the extent that it's basically part of the meaning of the predicate.

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  • Thanks for responding. I would be interested to learn more about case grammar and what its approach to semantic roles is. Do you have any good reading suggestions?
    – Eric
    Mar 25, 2022 at 21:18
  • Case grammar is rather obsolete, but you can read Fillmore's "The Case for Case" and succeeding papers. Basically it suggested that every predicate used arguments with attached case labels (invisible, of course, in English) that had an effect on syntax. It's certainly reasonable, but it didn't have natural boundaries. For more recent stuff, look at Framenet to see how context determines meaning.
    – jlawler
    Mar 26, 2022 at 1:29

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