What do you call the person who does the verb? For instance, in the sentence

John killed Frank

what is the grammatical term for John?

I don't know if "agent" is the right word?

  • 1
    The verber? The doer? What are you actually asking here?
    – tchrist
    Dec 31, 2012 at 0:10
  • 1
    Welcome to ELU, Hazel. I have guessed at what I think you are asking, and have edited your question accordingly; if this is not what you meant, please rollback my edit and clarify what it is you are looking for. Dec 31, 2012 at 0:50
  • Please edit the question to include references cited and your own research results. Questions lacking evidence of research effort are incomplete.
    – MetaEd
    Dec 31, 2012 at 8:09
  • 1
    John is the killer.
    – Noah
    Jan 2, 2013 at 10:51

4 Answers 4


I take it that you are asking for a technical term used in the formal linguistic study of grammar.

Within that domain, the questions you ask in the title and in the body of your question are really two different questions, and require two different actions. Permit me to rephrase a little.

What do you call the person who ‘does’ the verb [in a sentence]?
This is a syntactic entity and is called the subject of the verb or sentence.

What do you call the person who performs [the] action [expressed in the verb]?
This is a semantic entity and is called the Agent of the sentence or proposition.

It is important to distinguish these two entities, because in some sentences they may be different persons (or animals or institutions or in fact any noun or noun phrase – they need not be persons).

In the sentence “John killed Frank”, for instance, John is both the subject of the verb kill and the Agent of the action the verb expresses. (Frank, by the way, is the direct object of the verb and the Patient of the action it expresses.)

But if you recast the same sentence into the passive voice, “Frank was killed by John”, Frank (which was the direct object in the previous sentence) becomes the subject of the verb—but John is still the Agent of the action.

  • 2
    I think I understand the question better now
    – Ian
    Dec 31, 2012 at 0:45
  • 2
    @Ian Well, it's a guess on my part what OP is looking for. Dec 31, 2012 at 0:51
  • I know what you mean. It's only the first post, so it's OK :)
    – Ian
    Dec 31, 2012 at 1:16
  • What theta role would you suggest for the subject John in the deponent structure John was born? Dec 31, 2012 at 9:12
  • @EdwinAshworth If I regarded it as a true deponent I would have to say John is the Impatient :) Dec 31, 2012 at 11:43

Previous answers have covered the question in terms of traditional grammar, but another way of looking at language is from the perspective of functional grammar. It’s a complex subject, but this is how functional grammar would analyze your example.

Functional grammar sees a clause as centred on a Process, realised as a verb. Processes can be of several kinds, but the one we perhaps come across most often is the Material Process, that is, something that happens in the real world. In the example, killed is just such a Material Process. The persons and things that initiate a Process and that may be on its receiving end are called Participants. Where the Process is a Material Process, the initiating Participant is known as the Actor, and the Participant being acted upon is known as the Goal. So, in the example, John is the Actor and Frank is the Goal.

As StoneyB has pointed out, making the clause passive doesn’t change the fact that it was John who did the killing. Functional grammar recognises this in that in the passive clause Frank was killed by John, John is still the Actor, and Frank is still the Goal.

  • +1 Back in the 1940s Kenneth Burke employed something very similar for rhetorical analysis of ideologies, what he called a "dramatistic" Grammar of Motives whose key terms were Act, Actor, Agency, Scene, Purpose. I've often thought it would be interesting to try developing that into a linguistic grammar. Jan 1, 2013 at 0:12
  • @StoneyB. I didn’t know about Burke. The best known proponent of functional grammar is Michael Halliday, following the work of Malinowski and Firth. I’ve attempted a brief and superficial summary here: realgrammar.posterous.com/functional-grammar Jan 1, 2013 at 18:12
  • Halliday and functional grammar are coming up everywhere I look; I guess I'm going to have to burn a few months learning this. Not least because he expresses himself with English rather than Latin terminology! Jan 1, 2013 at 18:45
  • @StoneyB. As I say in my piece, functional grammar hasn't really entered the lingustics mainstream in the UK or US. If you want an introduction, the one I mention is as good as any. Once you get into it, you may find you prefer Latin terminology. Jan 1, 2013 at 18:54

The noun (person, place or thing) that performs the action directed by the verb is the subject of the sentence. For example:

John walks.

John is the subject and walks is the verb.

If you mean the noun that the verb is done to, then it's the direct object. For example:

John walks the dog.

The dog is the direct object.


The subject, I suppose. You know, the subject performs the action contained in the verb. Example: The cat [subject] chased [verb] the mouse.

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