I am not familiar with the concept of thematic roles, just what is on wikipedia. Here is what I have come up with.

  1. agent: The man runs
  2. patient: The man was tripped.
  3. experiencer: The man falls.

My goal is to compare how different languages combine thematic roles and syntax functions.

What other thematic roles may be played by the subject of an intransitive verb?

  • 1
    Please feel free to re-tag this question. I was not sure what tags are appropriate. Feb 28, 2014 at 7:52
  • Probably you need to look at Case Grammar, or Role and Reference Grammar.
    – jlawler
    Feb 28, 2014 at 17:21

2 Answers 2


A theta role is a very simple concept: is the name that we give to the relation between an event and an individual participating in that event. How coarse- or fine-grained we want our theta roles to be is a totally different question. I suggest you pick up Heidi Harley's survey article on theta roles (referenced in the Wikipedia entry) and work your way from there.

  • Of course, if you call them theta roles, you are not referring to all thematic roles in general, but only to certain formal classifications, with accompanying presuppositions.
    – jlawler
    Feb 28, 2014 at 17:19

My exposure to the notions of thematic roles (or semantical roles) suggests that the particular inventory of roles posited varies quite a bit from one author to the next. The roles that seem to be most accepted are agent, patient, experiencer, and theme. But even these terms are applied variably depending on the grammarian.

The roles that are defined most clearly are agent and experiencer. An agent is a sentient being that acts with volition. An experiencer is sentient being that experiences an occurrence, action, or event. Both of these roles can influence actual syntax in concrete ways. Both can establish point of view and thus influence the distribution of, for instance, certain pronouns, e.g. the -self forms. The role patient is not as clear for me, since I've seen it used in different ways. The question is whether or not a patient should be construed as a sentient being.

The role that might be missing from the list in the question is theme. The theme role seems to be used in a somewhat vague sense when the subject (or object) is not sentient. In this regard, one might classify the man in The man falls as a theme, since a nonsentient entity can also fall, e.g. The glass fell, The leaves are falling, etc. Further, one can classify the copula as an intransitive verb. When the copula combines with a predicative adjective or predicative noun, the theme role seems to be preferred, e.g. The rain is a drizzle, The room is dark.


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