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semantic roles
semantic roles

Semantic roles (also known as thematic roles or theta roles) are a fundamental concept in linguistics. As we all know, each sentence consists of different entities. Semantic roles are used to indicate the role played by each entity in a sentence.

Not only can words be treated as containers of meaning, or as fulfilling roles in events, they can also have “relationships” with each other. You may access Essay No. 2 to know more about Lexical Relations.This essay will explore some semantic roles such as agents, patients, themes, experiencers, and many others.

Here are some common semantic roles:


“Agent” is the entity  (somebody/ something) that performs an action. (the doer of the action).


The boy kicked the ball.

“The boy” is the agent.

Agents are can be human (The boy), as in (1) below. Also, they can be non-human entities that cause actions, as a natural force as in ( 2) (The wind), a machine as in (3) (A car), or an animal  as in ( 4) (The dog).

  1. The boy kicked the ball.
  2. The wind blew the ball away.
  3. A car ran over the ball.
  4. The dog caught the ball.

The diagram below clarifies the “ Types of Agents”

types of agents

Theme (Patient)

“Theme” (sometimes called the “patient”) is the entity that is involved in or affected by the action.

In the previous examples (1-4), the ball was the entity that was affected by the action. Therefore,  “the ball” in the sentences above is the theme (patient).

However, the theme can also be an entity (the ball) that is being described (i.e. not Performing an action).


  1. The ball is red.


    2. Mary is beautiful.



“Experiencer” is the entity (person) who experiences a feeling, perception or state.


  • John feels happy. ( feeling)


  • Huda heard some noise outside. ( perception)


  • Bill is sitting on the chair.. (physical state)


  • Jack is thinking about the problem. ( mental state)


Instrument” is the entity that is used to perform an action.



  1. The girl  opened the door with the key.


  1. The woman cut the cake with a knife.




Benefactive is the living entity that benefits from the action of the verb.


I bought a present for my friend.

The benefactive is my friend. My friend benefits from the action of buying the present, so he is the benefactive and he is at the same time the “ recipient” because he is the one who will  physically receive it. However, in some cases the benefactive is different from the recipient. See the explanation below.


“ Recipient is the living entity that physically receives something from the agent.  In the example below, the benefactive and the recipient can be different entities.


  • I bought a present for my friend's child.

Benefactive: my friend’s child (It was the child who benefited from the present)

Recipient: my friend ( It was my friend who received the present)


Locative/ Location

“Locative” is the place where the action takes place.


  • John is at the store.


  • The book is on the table.


  • Ali is in the office.


Temporal/ Time

“Temporal is when an event or action takes place.


  • I have an appointment on Sunday.


  • I’ll go shopping in the afternoon.


  • He returned home at 6:00 p.m.



“Sourceis the entity from which something moves or originates.


  • John is coming from Chicago.


  • Ahmad arrived from Makkah.



Goalis  entity towards which something moves or is directed.


  • Khalid is driving to school.


  • Huda went home.


More Examples

1. Mary  saw a fly on the wall

experiencer   theme  location

2. She borrowed a book from  Cathy.

agent       theme     source

3. He wrote a letter with a pen.

agent        theme     instrument

4. She returned the book to Jane

agent    theme       goal

5. Danny  left at 5:00 p.m.

agent     temporal

6. I made tea for my mother.

   agent  theme   benefactive

In conclusion, it is apparent that semantic roles are a powerful tool for understanding the meaning of sentences. They can  also be used to identify the participants in a sentence and the relationships between them. 




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