Agents in English Grammar

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Quote by Allen Ginsburg demonstrating agents
In this sentence (the opening line of Allen Ginsberg's poem "Howl"), the pronoun I and the noun madness function as agents.

In contemporary English grammar, the agent is the noun phrase or pronoun that identifies the person or thing which initiates or performs an action in a sentence. Adjective: agentive. Also called actor.

In a sentence in the active voice, the agent is usually (but not always) the subject ("Omar selected the winners"). In a sentence in the passive voice, the agent—if identified at all—is usually the object of the preposition by ("The winners were selected by Omar").

The relationship of the subject and verb is called agency. The person or thing that receives an action in a sentence is called the recipient or patient (roughly equivalent to the traditional concept of object).


From the Latin agere, "to set in motion, drive forward; to do"

Example and Observations

  • "Broadly the term [agent] can be used in relation to both transitive and intransitive verbs. . . . Thus the old lady is the agent both in The old lady swallowed a fly (which can be described in terms of actor-action-goal), and in The fly was swallowed by the old lady. The term can also be applied to the subject of an intransitive verb (e.g. Little Tommy Tucker sings for his supper).
    "The term clearly makes more sense when restricted to a 'doer' who, in a real sense, initiates an action, than when applied to the subject of some 'mental process' verb (e.g. She didn't like it) or of a verb of 'being' (e.g. She was old). Some analysts, therefore, restrict the term, and would not apply it to the noun phrase the old lady if her action was unintentional and involuntary."
    (Bas Aarts, Sylvia Chalker, and Edmund Weiner, The Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar, 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, 2014) 

The Semantic Roles of Agents and Patients

"Though semantic roles influence the grammar profoundly, they are not primarily grammatical categories. . . . [F]or example, if in some imagined world (which may or may not correspond to objective reality), someone named Waldo paints a barn, then Waldo is acting as the AGENT (the initiator and controller) and the barn is the PATIENT (the affected participant) of the painting event, regardless of whether any observer ever utters a clause like Waldo painted the barn to describe that event."
(Thomas E. Payne, Understanding English Grammar. Cambridge University Press, 2011)

Subject and Agents

"Sentences in which the grammatical subject is not the agent are common. For instance, in the following examples the subjects are not agents because the verbs do not describe an action: My son has a very good memory for songs; This lecture was a bit special; It belongs to her mum and dad."
(Michael Pearce, The Routledge Dictionary of English Language Studies. Routledge, 2007)

  • "Some weasel took the cork out of my lunch."
    (W. C. Fields, You Can't Cheat an Honest Man, 1939)
  • "Man serves the interests of no creature except himself."
    (George Orwell, Animal Farm, 1945)
  • "I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means."
    (Joan Didion, "Why I Write." The New York Times Book Review, December 6, 1976)
  • "Mr. Slump hit the horses twice with a willow branch."
    (Grace Stone Coates, "Wild Plums." Frontier, 1929)
  • "Henry Dobbins, who was a big man, carried extra rations; he was especially fond of canned peaches in heavy syrup over pound cake."
    (Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried. Houghton Mifflin, 1990)
  • "When I was two years old my father took me down to the beach in New Jersey, carried me into the surf until the waves were crashing onto his chest, and then threw me in like a dog, to see, I suppose, whether I would sink or float."
    (Pam Houston, Waltzing the Cat. Norton, 1997) 
  • "Early in the 20th century, parasols of lace lined with chiffon or silk, or in chiffon and moiré silk often matching the dress, with exquisite handles of gold, silver, carved ivory or wood with jeweled knobs, were carried by women."
    (Joan Nunn, Fashion in Costume, 1200-2000, 2nd ed. New Amsterdam Books, 2000) 
  • Walter was kicked by a mule.

The Invisible Agent in Passive Constructions

  • "In many situations, . . . the purpose of the passive is simply to avoid mentioning the agent:
    It was reported today that the federal funds to be allocated for the power plant would not be forthcoming as early as had been anticipated. Some contracts on the preliminary work have been canceled and others renegotiated.
    Such 'officialese' or 'bureaucratese' takes on a nonhuman quality because the agent role has completely disappeared from the sentences. In the foregoing example, the reader does not know who is reporting, allocating, anticipating, canceling, or renegotiating."  (Martha Kolln and Robert Funk, Understanding English Grammar. Allyn and Bacon, 1998)
  • "The function served by a passive—that of defocusing an agent (Shibatani 1985)—is useful in a variety of circumstances. The agent's identity my be unknown, irrelevant, or best concealed (as when Floyd merely says The glass was broken). Often the agent is generalized or undifferentiated (e.g. The environment is being seriously degraded). Whatever the reason, defocusing the agent leaves the theme as the only, and thus the primary, focal participant." (Ronald W. Langacker, Cognitive Grammar: A Basic Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2008)

Pronunciation: A-jent

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Agents in English Grammar." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). Agents in English Grammar. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Agents in English Grammar." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 28, 2023).

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