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Simple transitive verbs can be associated with easily identified semantic roles.  In the active voice, the subject typically identifies an actor or an agent, although other roles like observer are also available.  Similarly, the direct object of an active voice verb is typically a patient or a theme, again alongside other possibilities that do not seem very difficult to discover.

These semantic roles are convenient labels.  We can discuss clause structure, saying things like: "In this active-voice clause, the subject represents an agent and the direct object represents a theme.  In the passive-voice equivalent, that same theme is represented by the subject and the agent is represented (if at all) by a prepositional phrase".

It's not a complicated system.  It's also typical of transitive verbs to express an action, and these semantic roles describe how those other constituents relate to the action.

So, what do we do when there is no action?  What kind of semantic role does the subject of "He is a student" play?

The grammar poses no trouble, and neither do the semantics of the clause as a whole.  "He" is the subject, "is" is the copula, and "a student" is the complement.  The clause establishes that the subject and its complement share their referent in the present tense.  We can go so far as to claim that the copula expresses a state of being in the same way that a transitive verb might express an action.

But, what is "he", given that he isn't doing anything?  "He" must have a role to play in the clause.  There is no chance that the "he" of "he is a student" is as semantically empty as the "it" of "it is raining".

I cannot and will not accept that there is no such role.  I certainly can and would accept that there is no general consensus.  In fact, I'd find a lack of consensus unsurprising and unremarkable.  All I want is at least one viable contender, one reasonable description of how the subject of a copular clause behaves semantically, independent of the grammatical relationship that attaches it to its verb and independent of the denotation and use of personal pronouns.

  • Seems to me it's usually named theme – StoneyB on hiatus Jul 29 '17 at 2:09
  • It depends entirely on the predicate. Which will be a noun or adjective if there is an auxiliary be that's not Passive or Progressive. Some adjectives and nouns are active (Be honest! and Don't be a jerk! have volitional agent subjects), but most are stative (*Be tall! doesn't work). If they refer to emotional states, they have experiencer subjects (He's scared). Otherwise patient, especially if they're affected in some way (He's ill; he's a resident here). Verbs can also have patient subjects if they're not active (He owns 3 houses in town.) – John Lawler Jul 29 '17 at 3:00
  • It seems to me that theme is a terrible name for the role in question, @StoneyB. I use patient and theme to describe how a constituent relates to the action of the verb. Given that stipulation, those roles are not available here. There is no action. The copula establishes nothing more than a state. We're looking for something that might or might not overlap patient, but is certainly orthoganal to theme. – Gary Botnovcan Jul 31 '17 at 15:45
  • @GaryBotnovcan As the link says, theme designates an entity that is or is caused to be 'located', literally in a place or figuratively in a state. It's a 'placing' metaphor, just as 'state' is a 'standing' metaphor. ... But if you don't like theme, what about old-fashioned predicand for the subject and predicate for the PC? A is B really is an Aristotelian predication! – StoneyB on hiatus Jul 31 '17 at 17:10
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English Predication and Semantic Roles_ Claudia Leah has:

Another surface subject is represented by the Patient:

The door is open. / John became suspicious.

[bolding mine; corrected]

This lack of standardisation of terms is clearly illustrated in this article by SIL International:

Patient As A Semantic Role

Definition: Patient is a semantic role that is usually the surface object of the verb in a sentence.

Discussion: Some linguists define the patient and affected semantic roles in slightly different ways.

Longacre 1983 155–156 (following Chafe) defines a patient as the entity:

predicated with a state or location

undergoing a change of state or location, or

which is possessed, acquired or exchanged.

Larson 1984 199–203 defines the affected role as the:

thing that is affected by an event

person or thing that undergoes a process, or

person who experiences an event.

Examples: (Longacre 1983) [patients in italics]

The entity predicated with a state or location:

The door is open. / John is at home.

The entity undergoing a change of state or location:

He opened the door. / The door swung open. / He threw the ball across the yard. / The ball rolled off the table.

The entity which is possessed, acquired, or exchanged:

John has a new book. / John bought a new book. / John gave Mary a new book. (Larson 1984)

Affected semantic role

The thing that is affected by an event:

The dog ate the meat. / The tree fell on the house.

The person or thing that undergoes a process:

The water evaporated. / Mary became sad.

The person who experiences an event:

John smelled the smoke. Mary saw the snake. ...........

Also Known As: Affected / Undergoer

Thus the patient role may be realised by a subject as well as a DO.

  • 1
    In Leah's example, patient makes a good bit of sense to me for "John". Although I agree that "became" is copular, it also indicates the transformation that he undergoes. Of course, I see no such change in "the door is open" -- for all I know the door was installed open and it's never been closed. But, the phrasing "predicated with a state or location" brings me a lot closer to what I'm trying to understand. – Gary Botnovcan Jul 29 '17 at 1:09

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