You are on page 1of 2

Seminar 3

Thematic Roles / Syntactic functions


Frawley (1992, pp. 201 ff.) contrasts the thematic role of Agent with that of Author : whereas the agent
is the direct doer, the author is simply the enabler, or the indirect cause (1992, pp. 205). He claims that
distinguishing these roles allows us to account for the differences between (i) and (ii) below:


Bill floated down the river.

The canoe floated down the river.

From the point of view of thematic roles, what differences can you detect between the Subject expressions of
these sentences? Do you feel that adding a new thematic role of Author to the list in the text is justified?

Both of the following are possible sentences of English. They have the same meaning.


The Government faces difficult debates.

Difficult debates face the Government.

First analyse these sentences in terms of grammatical functions, then discuss the thematic properties of the verb
face. Can you think of any other verbs that behave like face?

Sentences 1 10 below are all grammatical. Identify the theta roles for the main verb of each sentence:
Mary is eating an apple.
John is washing the dishes.
The baby is drinking a glass of whisky.
John has never met Mary.
The president is kissing his wife.
The professor is writing a book on syntax.
The new secretary pleases all the students.
The analysis leads us to an unexpected conclusion.
Poirot smokes a pipe.
Joan is shaving her legs.

Now consider the following examples. They are also all grammatical. What problems do they raise for your
treatment of the examples 1 10?
1. The children are eating.
2. Mary is washing.
3. John drinks.
4. These two students have never met.
5. The professor and his wife are kissing.
6. My father writes.
7. Joan is easy to please.
8. This analysis led to quite unexpected conclusions.
9. Poirot is smoking.
10. Joan is shaving.

From the sentences above we conclude that certain thematic role can be implicit. In (a) below, eat has
an understood object, which would correspond to the explicit object in (b):
The children are eating.
The children are eating lunch.
This is not a general property of transitive verbs, though:
The children are devouring their food.
*The children are devouring.
Consider the following paired examples. In variant (a) there seems to be one more argument present than in
variant (b). Try to characterize the semantic relation between the two sentences. You are not asked to give a
techincal discussion, but simply to provide a description of the difference and/or similarity between the
1 a Mary is cooking dinner.
1 b Dinner is cooking.

2 a Maigret opened the door.

2 b The door opened.
3 a Poirot does not grow artichokes.
3 b The artichokes are not growing.
4 a Maigret has arrested the criminal.
4 b The criminal has been arrested.
5 a Mary is eating too much cake.
5 b Mary is overeating.
6 a Poirot was smelling the envelope.
6 b Your feet smell.
7 a Maigret is washing his shirts.
7 b These shirts wash well.
8 a They are closing down the cinema already.
8 b The new cinema is closing down already.
9 a Poirot is reading the announcement.
9 b Poirot is reading.
10 a The guard marched the prisoners round the square.
10 b The prisoners marched round the square.

Discuss the assignment of thematic role and the problems, if any, raised by the following examples:
John, I really dont like him.
Which detective will lord Emsworth invite?
Which book do you think Poirot will read first?
Which assistant do you think will reveal the secrets?
The new assistant appears to have revealed the secrets.
Ho visto Maria.
Lo vimos a Juan.

It is generally accepted that morphological processes may affect thematic structure. Consider the following
1a I understand his position.
1b His position is understandable.
2a This shirt is too wide.
2b He has widened the shirt.
3a They arrest the criminal.
3b The criminal has been arrested.
4a They activities are not regular.
4b They are regularizing the activities.
5a He read the book.
5b He reread the book.

Discuss the impact, if any, of the affixation of able, -en, -ed, -ize and re- on the thematic structure of the stems
to which they attach. For each affix, provide 5 more examples of the affixation process and check whether your
conclusion holds.
Analyse the syntactic functions of the items in the following fragments:
a. A couple of hunters are out in the woods when one of them falls to the ground. He doesnt seem to be
breathing. The other whips out his mobile phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps out to the operator:
My friend is dead! What can I do? The operator, in a calm soothing voice says: Just take it easy. First, lets
make sure hes dead. There is silence, then a shot is heard. The guys voice comes back on the line. He says
OK, now what? (Guardian, G2, 20.12.2001, p. 4, col. 6; The worlds funniest joke?)
b. When he was named chief by Mayor James K. Hahn, Bratton told The Times that he wanted to establish close
ties with prominent leaders in the citys minority communities. In doing so, he said, he would be better able to
keep local leaders informed of police action and reduce the likelihood of communities exploding in anger.
(Los Angeles Times, 26.11.2002, p. B10, col. 5)
c. More than in any recent presidential election, the critical economic issue this year boils down to whether
middle-income people think they are being squeezed. President Bush passionately argues they are not. (Adapted
from New York Times, 1.8.2004, section 3, col. 2)