What is a semantic role of "the coat" in the sentence "the coat lay on the bed"?

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    Patient. And why don't you consult a book, @mary? – John Lawler Jan 4 '15 at 23:04
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    @JohnLawler Granted, it's just lying there, as if etherized upon a table; but it's not undergoing any action. How is it a Patient? – StoneyB on hiatus Jan 4 '15 at 23:31
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    @JohnLawler That seems a bit unfair. I know many, many books that run through thematic roles, but don't cover this. Even those books that do are beyond the scope of this site. And Stoney's comment is certainly worthy of a response. C'monn Prof! Mary deserves a bit more of an explanation than that, she's even getting close question votes for having asked the question - which is very, very, unfair. – Araucaria - Not here any more. Jan 4 '15 at 23:38
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    It seems that two different answers, both with authoritative backing, have been given. Is this a matter of differing terminology or interpretive model? And how on earth can this therefore be general reference? – Edwin Ashworth Jan 5 '15 at 0:08
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    The tag of this question is semantics. Have "semantic roles" anything to do with semantics which is concerned with the meaning of words and their changes in meaning? – rogermue Jan 5 '15 at 1:16

An entity which undergoes a change of location or possession, or whose location or possession is specified, is called a theme.

See Jeffrey Gruber, Studies in Lexical Relations, Diss. MIT, 1965, 47-60.

(By the way, in case this seems an odd choice of term: in Ancient Greek a thema was something "put down or placed" ... the modern sense derives from its use in the sense "proposition", something set down for discussion.)

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    So V-W snaffled Tallis's theme? – Edwin Ashworth Jan 4 '15 at 23:48
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    Well done for having answered the question. And for having recognised that Mary was asking about thematic roles. And boo to the close-voters who don't know what thematic roles are!! – Araucaria - Not here any more. Jan 4 '15 at 23:50
  • @EdwinAshworth Well, he didn't leave it just lying there on the bed. – StoneyB on hiatus Jan 4 '15 at 23:52
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    @Araucaria I was reading up on these roles for the first time just this morning, so I knew where to look to confirm my guess. (And I do wish we'd stop naming English stuff in Greek and Latin.) – StoneyB on hiatus Jan 4 '15 at 23:55
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    So it wasn't a bed role. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 5 '15 at 0:00

Here's another opinion:

Patient (grammar)

From Wikipedia (tidied):

In linguistics, a grammatical patient, also called the target or undergoer, is the participant of a situation upon whom an action is carried out. A patient as differentiated from a theme must undergo a change in state. A theme is denoted by a stative verb, whereas a patient is denoted by a dynamic verb. (At the very least, there is debate to this effect.) Also, patient is the name of the thematic relation with the above definition.

. . .

The term "theme" is often used to describe the same relation as patient.

It looks like we have the usual confusion of terms.

  • [ I've spent today editing rubbish off Wikipedia pages ... I'm just saying. Those pages don't say what they said yesterday! ] But anyhow, I don't understand how the coat in the proposition the coat lay on the bed goes under a change of state. What's the change? – Araucaria - Not here any more. Jan 5 '15 at 0:18
  • EDIT: Or did you mean theme, but intend to give a different explanation from StoneyB? (i.e. his definition would give patient in your description, and in most descriptions. But in actual fact theme in your definition would be more apt because the situation is actually stative, i.e. there is no change going on) I'd agree with that ... – Araucaria - Not here any more. Jan 5 '15 at 0:33
  • I'm saying that Wikipedia here gives several conflicting (in part) definitions here, claiming they're all championed by various schools. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 5 '15 at 0:34
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    I don't see any argument for not using 'theme' here and I'd use it. But I'm trying to see why J Lawler opts for 'patient'. In handling the 'change in state' definition, one has to first define 'change in state'. Would 'The coat was thrown into the fire' qualify? 'The metal was treated with acid'? – Edwin Ashworth Jan 5 '15 at 0:40
  • Ah, I just got he last line there in your post ... Sorry! – Araucaria - Not here any more. Jan 5 '15 at 0:47

There is a lot of confusion over terminology in this area.

One area of confusion is that theta-roles and thematic roles are often conflated, but more confusing is that it seems as though every researcher has their own take on what the roles are and what they are called. Then (as on Wikipedia...) they get listed together without any indication of whether they come for Chomsky or Fillmore or Gruber or Jackendoff or Dowty or Andrews etc. Added to that is the way that quite often the ideas overlap and differ only in detail, where the Devil lives.

If we take Chomsky to be theta-roles (related to verb arguments in a one-argument-one-role relationship), Fillmore/Gruber/Jackendoff to be thematic relations (one NP can have multiple roles), and Dowty and Andrews to be a sort of unified theory (two photo-roles - P-agent and P-patient), then we can reasonably view Jackendoff's list as a standard, based as it is on both Gruber and Fillmore.

One of the common areas of confusion is (Sod's Law strikes here...) PATIENT and THEME, and it is not uncommon to see them lumped together as 'patient/theme'.

PATIENT is reasonably stable as an entity that undergoes an action (Jackendoff's description) but THEME is all over the place, being an entity that has a position assigned to it, or an entity that changes position, or an entity wit a property assigned to it. Jackendoff gives us for verbs of motion: the moving object, for verbs of location; the thing that is located.

The thing to note here is that it is all about the verb. The verb in our sentence is lays which neither locates nor describes motion, so using Jackendoff the thematic role cannot be THEME.

That leaves us with PATIENT which makes sense. What is laying? The coat is.

Note that for thematic or theta roles, things like 'action' and 'affected' need to be seen as more heuristic than material, and we need to avoid distraction by peripheral arguments such as on the bed.

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