Thematic Roles of Predicates. Yay Grammar!

December 16, 2010 / by Kimberly Cortes


Hello again! My last blog left off with a brief introduction to different phrase types, e.g., determiner phase (DP), verb phrase (VP), etc. So let’s take a closer look at these phrases. For example, the phrase, “ate the apple.” This phrase is made of three components; ate (verb), the (article/determiner) and apple (noun). We have already determined that I can’t simply string these words together in any order I wish and convey the same meaning, if any. These lexical items (words) alone do not consist of a complete proposition. Recall from my previous blog entry that a proposition is a complete thought, e.g., Jane ate the apple. In other words, each of these items needs to merge with another entity or entities in order to be well formed or have meaning in a sentence or phrase. Now we are getting to the good stuff. Let’s start with the verb: ate. Ate alone doesn’t convey a complete thought or proposition. Rather we know that ate expresses a relationship between two other elements. That is, someone ate something. So we can say that the verb ate needs to combine/merge with at least two other elements in order to form a complete proposition or thought. In linguistics we say that the predicate (e.g., ate, in this case) needs to combine with a theme. The theme is merged with, or physically moved, to combine with the predicate. That is, this predicate, ate, is in need of two themes (the some-one and the something) and therefore draws these other elements to it. In linguistics we say that the predicate has thematic roles it must assign. The some-one of ate is given the thematic role of the agent because this is an active role. The something of the predicate ate is referred to as, or given the thematic role of, Theme. However, the names or titles of these themes is not the most important part to remember here. Rather, that different predicates select for, or require, different types and number of themes. To contrast the predicate ate, there are other predicates such as, appeared, fell, etc., which only require one theme, or thematic role, that must be assigned in order to be a complete proposition, i.e., Jane appeared, Jane fell. So we have determined that certain lexical items (words) have thematic roles that they must assign. The items and or constituents that are assigned to the predicate are referred to as its arguments. The type and number of roles/arguments will differ depending on the predicate (lexical item/word assigning thematic roles).

The above paragraph refers mostly to verbs. However, other words require additional elements. For example, the definite article the. One cannot simply utter the and convey a complete thought. The what? ‘The’ therefore requires the addition of a noun. We can say it selects , or requires that a noun merge with it. So, similar to how a verb/predicate selects certain thematic roles to merge with it, other elements, as we can see with ‘the’, do the same.

So in this blog we have embarked on the concept of thematic roles of predicates. We saw that different predicates select for different number and types of arguments, specifically, ate assigns (at least) two thematic roles; the eater (the Agent) and, the eaten (the Theme). But, fell must assign (at least) one thematic role; the one who undergoes the fall (the Experiencer).

Can you think of predicates which assign more than two roles? That is, verbs that have more than two arguments? Or, can you assign additional arguments to these predicates: ate and fell?

Topics: Language Learning and Culture

Kimberly Cortes

Written by Kimberly Cortes

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