When I was reading "Semantics: A Coursebook" (2nd ed), I came across this semantic roles identifying exercise "Detroit is a big city. The answer key is that "Detroit" is Location and "a big city" is Theme. I was confused as to why "Detroit" is assigned the role Location because it is stated in "The Study of Language" by George that Theme also designates an entity being described. Here, Detroit is described as a big city. And if Detroit was the Theme then what is "a big city"?

1 Answer 1


"...is a big city" is a copula construction. The NP in it does not refer to an entity, it is used as a predicate. There is no event participant behind this NP. Therefore, I would not expect it to have a thematic role at all. Sometimes, people use "theme" as the thematic role label for "anything else", so maybe that is why it appears here. But I don't think it's a good analysis.

"Detroit" is definitely not used as a location. Detroit is a "place", but that is a kind of entity, while "location" is the location of something: a relation in space. Note that thematic roles have to be relations, not absolute sorts of entities. A location would be the "y" part of a statement "x is in/at y". But there is nothing that is being localised in Detroit in the example. -- The case is perhaps clearer for temporal than for local relations: when you say "Yesterday was a beautiful day", "yesterday" is not a temporal adverbial, it functions more like a noun and denotes the whole day as such. The temporal localisation (as it were) as in "I made a cake yesterday" refers to some time in the interval "yesterday", not to the whole day. So that's clearly different. (Cf. Wolfgang Klein: Time in language. Routledge, London 1994, p. 143).

"Detroit" as a "theme" seems correct to me, also because it is standard to call "theme" the entity that is in a state (or has a property, as you said).

  • That was very helpful. Thank you so much!
    – Nora
    Dec 19, 2023 at 6:50

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