Thematic relations

The concept of thematic relations (semantic roles, deep case) has been introduced in order to explain both the syntactic structure as well as the meaning of sentences. It is based on the assumption that the crucial factor in the construction of sentence meaning is the role played by each noun phrase in relation to the verb. Thus, the notion semantic role refers to the way in which the referent of the noun phrase contributes to the state, action, or situation described by the sentence. The semantic role is not an inherent property of a noun phrase, but a given noun phrase can have different semantic roles in different sentences.

The number and types of semantic roles are a matter of enduring debate in the literature. The most important ones usually mentioned are the following:

Semantic roleDescriptionExample
AGENTThe responsible initiator of an actionPeter injured Harry.
PATIENTThe person or thing undergoing the actionPeter injured Harry.
THEMEThe person or thing moved by the actionHe gave the detective story to Jane.
EXPERIENCERThe person or thing which experiences a psychological or physical stateMrs Miller had been cold all day.
RECIPIENTThe person which receives a physical objectHe gave the detective story to Jane.
BENEFACTIVEThe person for which an action is performedThey planned a party for Mary.
INSTRUMENTThe intermediary through which an action is performedHe opened the door with a key.
GOALThe entity in which the action is directedHarry rolled the ball towards Peter.
SOURCE"Starting point" of the actionPoirot bought the book from Maigret.
CAUSEAny natural force that brings about a change of stateThe wind broke the window.
LOCATIVEA location of an action or stateLondon attracts tourists.
TEMPORALThe time at which the action or state occuredShe left home the day before yesterday.

Exercises on thematic relations

The wind broke the window: A cause

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