Definition and Examples of Semantic Patients in Grammar

In this sentence, "Vanessa is Agent (and Patient) if she intentionally drowned herself, but only Patient if she accidentally drowned" (Laurel J. Brinton and Donna M. Brinton, The Linguistic Structure of Modern English. John Benjamins, 2010).

In grammar and morphology, the person or thing that is affected or acted upon by the action expressed by a verb. (Also called the semantic patient.) The controller of the action is called the agent.

Often in English (but not always), the patient fills the role of the direct object in a clause in the active voice. (See Examples and Observations, below.)

"In many ways," notes Michael Tomasello, "learning to syntactically mark agent-patient relations in different constructions is the backbone of syntactic development; it provides the basic 'who-did-what-to-whom' structure of the utterance" (Constructing a Language: A Usage-Based Theory of Language Acquisition, 2003).  

Examples and Observations:

  • "In the morning, my mother made a sandwich for my father and filled a thermos with strong black coffee, just the way he liked it."
    (Starling Lawrence, "Legacy." Legacies. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1996)
    "The sandwich was made by the boy's mother."
    The ice-cream sandwich melted onto her fingers.
  • Action Processes and Semantic Roles
    "A prototypical patient undergoes a visible, physical change in state. In the following clauses, Joaquin is the patient (though not always a prototypical one):
    (24a) Montezuma stabbed Joaquin.
    (24b) Joaquin fell from the third floor.
    (24c) Joaquin was stung by a wasp.
    (24d) Who washed Joaquin?
    (24e) It was Joaquin that the republicans believed. " . . .
    Action-processes are situations initiated by some conscious or unconscious force, and which affect a distinct patient, e.g., kill, hit, stab, shoot, spear (and other violent events), plus the transitive senses of break, melt, crash, change, and others. Verbs that express action-processes may occur in answer to both the questions 'What did X do?' and 'What happened to Y' . . ..
    "Every language has constructions that affect the alignment between semantic roles and grammatical relations in clauses. Such constructions are sometimes referred to as voices. For example, in a typical active voice construction in English, an agent is the subject of the clause and a patient is the object. The passive voice creates a different argument structure, one in which the patient bears the subject relation and the agent appears in an oblique role:
    (1a) ACTIVE: Orna baked these cookies.
    (subject = agent; object = patient)
    (1b) PASSIVE: These cookies were baked by Orna.
    (subject = patient; object = agent)" (Thomas Payne, Exploring Language Structure: A Student's Guide. Cambridge University Press, 2006)
  • Types and Subtypes of Verbs
    "Thematic grids provide a means for subcategorizing verbs. For example, using the set of arguments that particular verbs assign, [R.M.W.] Dixon ([A New Approach to English Grammar, on Semantic Principles,] 1991, pp. 102-113) sorts the verbs of English into eleven major classes. His AFFECT class includes verbs assigning an Agent, Patient, and Instrument role. Within this class, he identifies eight subtypes based on the way in which the Patient is affected: (a) TOUCH verbs (touch, stroke), (b) HIT verbs (strike, kick), (c) STAB verbs (saw, slice), (d) RUB verbs (polish, lick), (e) WRAP verbs (cover, butter), (f) STRETCH verbs (twist, burn), (g) BUILD verbs (knit, cook), and (h) BREAK verbs (crush, explode)."
    (Laurel J. Brinton and Donna M. Brinton, The Linguistic Structure of Modern English. John Benjamins, 2010)
  • Semantic Case-Role Assignment and Voice
    "One may now describe the strategy used by English hearers (or readers) in trying to decide the semantic case-role of the grammatical subject in active and BE-passive clauses as follows:
    (26a) If the verb is marked as active, then interpret the subject as agent;
    (26b) If the verb is marked as passive, then
    (i) interpret the subject as patient or dative-benefactive (pending on other considerations); and
    (ii) interpret the prepositional object marked with 'by,' if present, as the agent." (Thomas Givón, English Grammar: A Function-Based Introduction. John Benjamins, 1993)
  • Constructional Polysemy
    "[C]onstructions are pairings of form and meaning. Concerning the meaning of constructions, it has been argued that many constructions have polysemous senses. A case in point is the English ditransitive construction which, according to Goldberg (1995: 38), has (7a) as its central sense, and (7b-7c) as two of its related senses. Verbs motivating the various senses are given in (8).
    (7a) Agent successfully causes recipient to receive patient.
    (7b) Agent intends to cause recipient to receive patient.
    (7c) Agent acts to cause recipient to receive patient at some future point in time.
    (8a) Peter gave Mary a cake.
    (8b) Peter baked Mary a cake.
    (8c) Peter left Mary a letter.
    The fact that constructions are associated with several distinct, but systematically related senses are referred to as constructional polysemy. This is connected to the claim made within construction grammar that there is no substantial difference between words and constructions, cf. the following statement by Goldberg (1995: 32): '[S]ince constructions are treated as the same basic data type as morphemes, that they should have polysemous senses is expected.'"
    (Kristian Emil Kristoffersen, "Control and Transitivity: A Study of the Norwegian Verb Love 'Promise.'" A Cognitive Approach to the Verb: Morphological and Constructional Perspectives, ed. by Hanne Gram Simonsen and Rolf Theil Endresen. Mouton de Gruyter, 2000)  
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Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Semantic Patients in Grammar." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). Definition and Examples of Semantic Patients in Grammar. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Semantic Patients in Grammar." ThoughtCo. (accessed February 7, 2023).