Deeper into Jeopardy! XXVIII: Linguistics – $1200

Jeopardy! category: LINGUISTICS (9-10-2014)

$1200 clue: This linguistic term for the performer of a verbal action sounds like an actor’s representative

Correct response

The gist: I could make a Jerry Maguire joke, but that’s about athletes, not actors, and it would be terrible. 

A grammatical agent is the noun in a sentence that is the cause of or the reason behind the sentence’s “event” – that is, the verb. To many English speakers, that definition might sound a lot like what they learned in school was the subject of the sentence, but agent and subject are not at all the same thing, especially in English. Because English has rigid word-order rules, the subject can’t come after its verb, but an agent can. To take Monday’s example sentences again, in “the monkey rides the zebra,” the monkey is both agent and subject. However, in the passive formation of that same sentence, “the zebra is ridden by the monkey,” the zebra has become the subject, but the monkey is still the agent, since it’s still the monkey that is doing, or causing, or initiating, or however you want to express it, the riding. The agent of a sentence can also be a lot less obvious than the subject, for example in sentences expressing relationships of time; in “today precedes tomorrow,” which day is “causing” the action? It isn’t clear, and it may be neither or both – these are the things that keep linguists up at night.

Here, all five monkeys are agents, even though they appear to be doing a lot less than the zebra.

The clue: For a $1200 clue, it wouldn’t do just to write a clue looking for an obscure grammatical concept like this one, so the writers included that final bit about the actors. Not much else to say about this one.

In Jeopardy!: Well, since “agent” is in 335 clues in the J!Archive, with tons of different meanings and contexts, there’s not much for me to talk about in this section today, except to say that this appears to be the first time agent has been used in a clue about linguistics or grammar. Since there wasn’t even a real need to know what a grammatical agent was for this clue, don’t worry yourself about that particular definition of the word.

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