Watch out for the theta roles!

Never mind passive voice — it’s all about your cast list

This article was originally published in NINK, the magazine of Novelists, Inc.

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We have all been taught to be leery of the passive voice – sorry, make that we have all learned to be leery of the passive voice – because passive voice focuses on the recipient of the action rather than the actor. But we often get it wrong – for example, when a news story or headline is criticized for using the “passive,” odds are high that it’s actually written in the active voice; it’s just evasive in some other way.

Consider a few real-world examples of active voice misidentified as passive. When Janet Jackson had her famous “wardrobe malfunction” at the Super Bowl, one writer tut-tutted another for using the passive by writing A snap unfastened and part of the bodice tore. But although that sentence doesn’t name Justin Timberlake, it isn’t passive voice either – to be passive, the sentence would need to say a snap was unfastened. Other typical examples of misidentified passives include An accidental discharge of the firearm occurred and Boy dies as troops fire on demonstration. In spite of writers inveighing against other writers for using “the passive,” these sentences have no is or was and no past participle – to be passive, they would have to be written as The firearm was accidentally discharged and Boy is killed as troops fire on demonstration.

So how did we get so far off base in telling the passive voice from the active voice? The answer is that we’re not off base at all; we’re asking the wrong question. It’s not really the passive we should be looking out for. It’s the theta roles. 

Does a theta role sound like something from science fiction? It’s better than that: it’s linguistics. Linguistics is that branch of the social sciences that consists mainly in discovering that almost everything you were ever taught in school about language is wrong, and what’s right mostly isn’t right for the reasons you thought.

Your teacher probably said that a verb is an action, and the subject of the verb is the one doing the action. But that’s often not true, as we’ll see. It’s better to look at a sentence as a theatre where every verb casts nouns in different kinds of role. These roles that the nouns play are called theta roles (coincidentally an anagram of lo, theatres). The catch is that different verbs cast for different roles. Even the star of the play – the subject – can portray several different kinds of roles. Change the verb and you can change the role of the subject.

In show biz, an actor needs an agent, but in theta roles, the actor is the agent. When your verb assigns this agent role to the subject, your subject is doing an act that changes something. In Justin unfastened a snap, Justin is the agent and the snap is what we call the patient. By unfastening, Justin has changed the state of the snap, causing a string of controversy and outcry. Not every agent has a patient – in Jill ran, Jill is an agent, but she’s not acting on anyone or anything else. She’s simply running. Some linguists also distinguish forces of nature as a different role: in An avalanche destroyed the house, the avalanche isn’t doing it on purpose; it’s just laws of physics operating automatically. We often use verbs such as happen to present a thing actually done by human agents as a force of nature: So this thing happened between us.

A patient, as described directly above, is a role that undergoes some change because of the verb. We usually think of this as the object of a verb, but some verbs can also cast the subject as the patient.

One set of verbs that can do this includes ones such as unfasten, tear, and break. When one of these verbs has both a subject and an object, the subject is the agent and the object is the patient: Justin unfastened a snap. But when the verb has no object, the subject is the patient, and the agent is nowhere to be seen: A snap unfastened.

Many other verbs that don’t take objects also cast their subjects as patients: The tree fell. Even verbs that may seem active can have a patient as the subject: The tree grew five inches. Growing is not like throwing; growing is a change of state you undergo while throwing is something you do. You can use a different verb to present the subject as an agent: The tree reached toward the sun and got five inches closer.

A theme is like a patient, but theme doesn’t undergo a change of state: The book sat on the pile of papers. This lack of state change is not always clear-cut, as in The candle burned all night. Figures of speech can change the role: The book rotted on top of a pile of papers makes the book a patient because it’s not acting but it’s changing; The book pushed a pile of papers earthward makes the book an agent (or a force of nature). In case you’re wondering, in the latter example the papers have the role of patient; in the former, they’re the location. (Location comes up below, don’t worry.)

What about a verb such as died? Died is a change of state, but it doesn’t receive an action (was killed does). There are many verbs that involve no action, just an experience: in I saw how you felt when you heard he had died, there are four verbs (saw, felt, heard, died) and every one of them assigns the role of experiencer to its subject. When you read, you’re an experiencer; when you lend me your eyes, you’re an agent. And when you learn you’re also an experiencer, just like when you are taught.

Some verbs assign different roles depending on how they’re used. If I say I felt cold or even The chair felt cold to me, I am the experiencer. But if I say I felt the seat of the chair with my hand, I’m an agent.

Instrument, location, goal, source
There are some roles that subjects only occasionally play. These roles are more often seen after prepositions. In The frying pan dented his head, the frying pan is the instrument; we could say She dented his head with the frying pan. In Paris hosted the games, Paris is the location; we could say The games took place in Paris. In A column of smoke guided me to your house, the column of smoke is the goal; we could say I went toward a column of smoke to find your house. And in The garden provided our salad, the garden is the source; we could say Your salad came from the garden. These verbs all normally assign other roles to their subjects, but in these examples the nouns are understudies standing in.

Experiences often have stimuli. So do some actions. If Miranda’s suit inspired you to throw out your entire wardrobe, you are the agent of throw out but the experiencer of inspired, and Miranda’s suit is the stimulus. A stimulus is not an agent. When you say Those speakers really moved me, unless the speakers physically displaced you, they are the stimulus. This can be a fine distinction to spot: in She led her team to great success, she is the stimulus; in She led her dog to the fire hydrant, she is the agent.

We usually think of the recipient as the indirect object of a verb, as in You sent me a letter. But when I say I got your letter – or, obviously, I received your letterI am the recipient and I am the subject of the verb. I accepted his swinging fist into my mouth also makes the subject the recipient, ostensibly (but probably not really) by choice.

There is a difference between beneficiary and recipient. You can receive something without it being of benefit to you (a fist, for instance), and you can benefit from something without receiving it (praise, for example). In I won the lottery, I am the beneficiary, while in I won the money I am the recipient. If your book garnered glowing reviews, it is the subject and the beneficiary.

So you see, it’s really about what theta roles the verbs you choose cast the nouns in. Linguists argue over the exact list of roles, but as a writer you don’t need to be technical, just aware. You’re the director of this theatre. You don’t want to star an action hero in every sentence, but you do want to be clear on who you’re really presenting as doing and receiving the action, and how.

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