In This Article Semantic Roles

  • Introduction
  • General Works
  • The Theoretical Notion
  • Approaches Antedating Fillmore’s “The Case for Case”
  • Thematic Relations
  • Feature-Based Approaches
  • Other Approaches
  • Sources of Semantic Roles
  • Thematic Hierarchies
  • Use in Computational Linguistics

Linguistics Semantic Roles
Beth Levin
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0141


The meaning of a predicate, especially a verb, may be characterized via the relations that its arguments bear to it. Semantic roles—also known as thematic relations, theta roles, participant roles, and deep cases—are labels for certain recurring predicate-argument relations. They have proved attractive because they provide a way of representing commonalities across different uses of the same predicate or across uses of distinct but semantically related predicates that may be obscured because arguments with certain semantic roles may have various syntactic realizations. Thus they provide a level of abstraction for the statement of generalizations concerning a variety of linguistic phenomena. In particular, argument realization generalizations are often stated over a thematic hierarchy, a ranking of semantic roles. However, semantic roles have not lived up to their initial promise. It has proved impossible to find a small set of roles that can be applied across all verbs in a language, let alone across languages. Yet this desideratum must be met if semantic roles are to figure effectively in accounts of linguistic phenomena. Further, some generalizations involving semantic roles seem to require reference to coarse-grained roles, whereas others require reference to fine-grained roles. Moreover, reliable diagnostics are difficult to identify even for the roles cited most often. Although these difficulties have led some researchers to reject semantic roles, others have taken alternative approaches, including the use of generalized semantic roles, which are inspired by the notion of prototype, with no single property being necessary or sufficient for an argument to bear such a role. Despite these drawbacks, semantic roles continue to be useful in stating linguistic generalizations, and so descriptive, if not theoretical, uses of semantic role labels persist across subfields, including language acquisition, psycholinguistics, and neurolinguistics. Furthermore, semantic roles are useful in natural language processing. Since semantic roles have been implicated in phenomena involving argument structure, the separate Oxford Bibliographies article Argument Structure should be consulted for additional relevant resources. Acknowledgments: For discussion of the material in this article, the author is grateful to Scott Grimm, Chris Manning, Malka Rappaport Hovav, and two reviewers, as well as the students in her autumn 2012 lexical semantics class.

General Works

There are a considerable number of handbook and encyclopedia articles devoted to semantic roles, and they also receive treatments in many introductory semantics textbooks, especially those aimed at undergraduates. Such textbook treatments typically present a particular inventory of semantic roles and show their applicability to the semantic representation of particular sentences; further, they usually include some discussion of the problems that face semantic roles as a semantic representation. In contrast, the handbook and encyclopedia treatments provide more sustained discussion of the notion of semantic role. They often trace the development of the notion, as well as its place within current linguistic theory. In addition, they may introduce several approaches to semantic role inventories, highlighting the similarities and differences among them, and they may discuss the limitations both of particular approaches and of semantic role approaches in general. Due to this added depth, representative handbook chapters and encyclopedia articles are the focus of this section. Bruce and Moser 1992 provides the most basic treatment of semantic roles, while Van Valin 1994 provides a more extensive introduction encompassing both traditional and generalized semantic roles. Wechsler 2006 complements these by also providing an overview of the development of semantic role approaches. Davis 2011 is the most extensive of the handbook chapters, introducing semantic roles from a formal semantic perspective. Butt 2006 introduces semantic roles in the context of a discussion of morphological case, thus drawing attention to the relation between the two notions. Levin and Rappaport Hovav 2005, a survey of argument realization, provides a detailed introduction to both traditional and generalized semantic roles, as well as a thorough discussion of thematic hierarchies. More specialized encyclopedia articles and handbook chapters are mentioned elsewhere in this article, including Fillmore’s own retrospective view on case grammar, Fillmore 2003 (cited under Case Grammar: Development). Campe 1994 includes an extensive list of references, written in several languages, on various topics that fall under the notion of “semantic role.”

  • Bruce, Bertram, and Margaret G. Moser. 1992. Grammar, case. In Encyclopedia of artificial intelligence. 2d ed. Edited by Stuart C. Shapiro, 563–570. New York: Wiley.

    E-mail Citation »

    This brief introduction, written for researchers in artificial intelligence, provides a good starting point for anyone with little previous background. It explains the motivation for semantic roles and reviews several approaches current in the late 1960s and early 1970s, including case grammar.

  • Butt, Miriam. 2006. Theories of case. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139164696E-mail Citation »

    A textbook providing a comprehensive introduction to morphological case, which also includes a discussion of semantic roles, introduced in the work of Fillmore as deep cases (see various works of Fillmore cited under Case Grammar: Development). Reviews the place of semantic roles in several linguistic theories, especially as they figure in argument realization.

  • Campe, Petra. 1994. Case, semantic roles, and grammatical relations: A comprehensive bibliography. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

    E-mail Citation »

    Despite its publication date, this bibliography still offers entry points to work on various approaches to semantic roles, work on specific semantic roles, and work on linguistic phenomena whose description apparently involves semantic roles.

  • Davis, Anthony R. 2011. Thematic roles. In Semantics: An international handbook of natural language meaning. Vol. 1. Edited by Claudia Maienborn, Klaus von Heusinger, and Paul H. Portner, 399–420. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

    E-mail Citation »

    An introduction to semantic roles and related notions from a formal semantic perspective. Probably best appreciated by those with some background in semantics and syntax. Reviews basic issues confronting any attempt to define a set of semantic roles that figures in the explanation of linguistic phenomena, particularly argument realization.

  • Levin, Beth, and Malka Rappaport Hovav. 2005. Argument realization. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511610479E-mail Citation »

    Chapters 2, 3, 5, and 6 provide detailed discussions of semantic roles, generalized semantic roles, the place of semantic roles in approaches to argument realization, and the thematic hierarchy.

  • Van Valin, Robert D., Jr. 1994. Functional relations. In The encyclopedia of language and linguistics. Edited by R. E. Asher, 1327–1338. Oxford: Pergamon.

    E-mail Citation »

    The first part of this introduction to the syntactic, pragmatic, and semantic relations that arguments can bear to predicates is devoted to semantic roles. It motivates and describes both traditional and generalized semantic roles and reviews the treatment of semantic roles in several linguistic theories. Reprinted in second edition of The Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, edited by Keith Brown (Oxford: Elsevier, 2006), 683–696.

  • Wechsler, Stephen. 2006. Thematic structure. In Encyclopedia of language and linguistics. 2d ed. Edited by Keith Brown, 645–653. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

    E-mail Citation »

    An introduction to semantic roles, as well as other forms of lexical semantic representation of verb meaning as they bear on argument realization. Provides some historical perspective on the development of the notion.

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