For instance, say I have two individuals and one is active, the other passive. I know I can call the active person the "actor"—he "acts upon" the passive person. But what do I call the "acted upon"? Is there a single word to describe this?

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    Welcome to EL&U! Can you be more specific about under what circumstances the two subjects are engaged? Is it violent or romantic or a employer/employee situation? Any additional information would be helpful because there could be a number of possible words, depending on the context of the interaction or relationship. – Kristina Lopez Jan 24 '13 at 3:11

The term is Patient, which is formed from the same semi-deponent Latin verb (patior, patere, passus 'suffer, endure') as Passive. Most grammatical terminology comes from Latin, so if you want to make up a linguistic term, get a Latin dictionary.

In a prototypical English active transitive sentence,

  • the grammatical relation Subject has a semantic role Agent (< ago, agere, egi, actus 'do'),
  • the grammatical relation Direct Object as the semantic role of Patient.
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    Because I didn't know this usage, I opened a "Google Incognito" window so the Instant feature would tell me what other people search for without being biased by my previous search history. Once I'd typed in "agent and", the fourth alternative auto-complete was agent and patient (behind agent and principal and separate entries for agent anderson with/without criminal minds). That's enough to convince me I haven't been paying attention, and it's obviously common knowledge to many, not just an obscure academic usage. But thanks for larning me, all the same! – FumbleFingers Jan 24 '13 at 4:11
  • The idea is to have separate terminology for the grammatical relations (Subject, Direct Object, etc.) and the semantic relations (Agent, Patient, Experiencer, Receiver, etc.). That way, if you're careful, you have a chance, at least, of avoiding some confusion. There's enough to go around in any case. – John Lawler Jan 24 '13 at 17:02
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    Categorization is a tool; there are advantages to having a matched set of power tools. On the other hand, sometimes simple hand tools do the job easier. It's the linguist who uses the term who decides how they use it and what they use it for. That's why (e.g) McCawley gives so many examples -- because the categories are not obvious by name. This uncertainty as to the interpretation of semantic roles and their overlap with grammatical relations is the root of "Case Grammar", "Construction Grammar", "Role and Reference Grammar", "Frame Grammar", and and other cognitive grammatical theories. – John Lawler Jan 24 '13 at 19:38
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    Sure. All tool users have their own habits of use. Sometimes the important thing is the grip instead of how sharp or big it is. One uses what tools are available, but in giving instructions, one needs to exemplify constantly. Otherwise nobody understands, or rather they understand their way, which may or may not be your way. – John Lawler Jan 24 '13 at 20:06
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    I'm a little sorry they didn't choose 'victim'. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 24 '13 at 20:19

In Functional Grammar the person or thing acted upon is the Patient.

This may seem an odd use of the word, but it is not, in fact, a coinage of modern linguistics. Patiens (the present participle of pati, “to undergo, endure, suffer”) and agens were literal Latin translations of Aristotle’s terms, and the opposition has been used in English since the 16th century:

The eye of the man is the arrow, the bewtie of the woman the white, which shooteth not but receiueth, being the patient, not the agent. —Lyly, Euphues 1580

Love or hate, applaud or condemn, the agents and the patients of [Shakespeare's] mundane scheme. —Swinburne, Essays & Studies 1875


In some circumstances, the term object can be used, as in

She was the object of his affections.

Cambridge defines it as

the particular person or thing to which others direct thoughts, feelings, or actions: The court has been the object of recent criticism

Somewhat ironically, the term subject may also be used. Definition 5 in American Heritage says

One that experiences or is subjected to something: the subject of ridicule.
A person or animal that is the object of medical or scientific study: The experiment involved 12 subjects.
A corpse intended for anatomical study and dissection.
One who is under surveillance: The subject was observed leaving the scene of the murder.

  • Hmm....but I am looking for something other than "subject/object." Is there an equivalent, like "actor/X"? – user36333 Jan 24 '13 at 3:08
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    @V - There are a number of specific terms, such as target, victim, focus, butt, recipient, but each of them is particular to the type of action. – bib Jan 24 '13 at 3:13

Actor is a term used in functional grammar to describe the person or thing that initiates a material Process (but not other kinds of Process), that is, some kind of action that takes place in the real world. If you want to be consistent with the use of Actor in functional grammar, then the term to use for the person or thing on the receiving end is the Goal (not, pace John Lawler and StoneyB, the Patient). In a mental Process it is the Phenomenon, in a Relational Process, the Value, and in a Verbal process, the Verbiage.


FWIW, in various computing process models I've constructed that have an Actor role, the role of that which is acted upon has been either a Subject or a Target.

  • In functional grammar, the Target is the person a speech is directed at. – Barrie England Jan 24 '13 at 20:27

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