Thematic Roles


As we will see in this entry, Thematic Roles express the role that a noun phrase plays with respect to the action or state described by a governing verb.
  • THEMATIC ROLES basically indicate the semantic (i.e., meaning) relationship between the noun phrase and the verb in a sentence.

In other words, Thematic Roles tell us what “role” the NP plays in the action described by the verb in a sentence. The concept will, no doubt, become clearer as we consider several examples of thematic roles.

Some of the different thematic roles that seem to hold in many, if not all, language are shown in series 1) through 6). The NP that illustrates each thematic role is in italics. (Note that NP as used in this entry refers to “noun phrase”. See Noun PhraseOpens in new window)

  • 1a)  The goalie caught the ball.
  • 1b)  The ball was caught by the goalie.
  • 2a)  The basketball player bounced the ball.
  • 2b)  The ball was bounced by the basketball player.
  • 2c)  The ball bounced several times before rolling under the bench, where it came to a stop.
  • 3a)  He sliced the salami with a knife.
  • 3b)  The scarf was knitted by hand.
  • 4a)  I took the book from the library.
  • 4b)  He got the book off the shelf.
  • 4c)  Fire gives off heat.
  • 5a)  He sent a birthday card to his wife.
  • 5b)  He went upstairs.
  • 5c)  We finally reached the coast.
  • 6a)  The Wallet was under the bed.
  • 6b)  Your application is next to those papers.
  • 6c)  He came at ten o’clock.
  • 6d)  He left on Wednesday.

Notice that the bolded NP is the object of a preposition in 1b), 3a) and 3b), 4a) and 4b), 5a), and 6a) through 6d). These sentences illustrate that the relationships indicated by thematic roles can often be captured by prepositions.

For instance, in 4a) the library fills the thematic role of source; that is, it is the source from which the book is taken. We know it is the source because of the preposition from, used before it. If we were to change the preposition to to, the role of the library would change from source to goal.

This tells us that the meanings of from and to may be understood in terms of the thematic roles of source and goal, respectively. It also illustrates that the meaning of a preposition can often be understood in terms of the thematic roles with which it is associated. For in-depth knowledge in preposition and thematic relationships, see Prepositions and Thematic RolesOpens in new window