Agent (linguistics)

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In linguistics, the agent ( Latin agere 'act') denotes the semantic role of the actant of a sentence who exercises control over or causes the action expressed by the verb of the sentence . The opposite pole to the agent is the patient .

Agent vs. subject

The agent is a semantic role , but not a syntactic function , which is why a clear distinction must be made between agent and subject .


„Der Professor quält den Studenten.“ (Aktiv)
„Der Student wird gequält.“ (Passiv)

In the first example, the professor is the agent (and also the subject). In the second example, however, the student is the subject but not the agent. Since the student does not act actively in both cases, but suffers something , he occupies the semantic role of the patient .

Forms of the agent

The relationship between semantic categories such as agent and grammatical ( syntactic ) categories such as subject are regulated by the so-called diatheses , i.e. above all active and passive .

Agent in active diathesis

In active, the normal case, the agent is at the top of the hierarchy of “subject-worthy” actants, i. that is, whenever an agent is present, it is realized as a subject in the nominative . In the case of verbs that do not assign an agent role, the subject role is assigned to the next higher actant from the set of semantic roles available.

Agent in passive diathesis

The diathesis of the passive, on the other hand, suppresses the role of the agent, whereby a non-agent also comes into the subject position. (The description just given only characterizes the so-called accusative languages , such as German, but not the type of ergative languages .)

In German and in other Germanic languages , the agent can only be supplemented in passive diathesis with a prepositional phrase .


Deutsch: Dieses Haus wird von einem Hund / durch einen Hund bewacht.
Englisch: This house is watched by a dog.
Niederländisch: Dit huis wordt bewaakt door een hond.

In some Slavic languages , however, in this case the agent is expressed by a noun in the instrumental case :

Slowakisch: Tento dom je strážený psom.
Tschechisch: Tento dům je střežen psem.

Psom and psem are instrumental forms of pes 'dog'.


Individual evidence

  1. Thomas Stolz: Ergativ for the bloodiest beginners. University of Bremen, pp. 1–12