Ergative verbs

Getting Familiar with Ergative verbs

In English, some verbs allow you to describe an action from the point of view of the actor (performer) of the action or from the point of view of something which is affected by the action. This means that the same verb can be used transitively, followed by the object, or intransitively, without the original actor being mentioned.

Before we go in deeper, let’s survey the following example sentences.

  • 1a)  When I opened the door, there was Laverne.
  • 1b)  Suddenly the door opened.

In 1a), ‘the door’ is the object of the verb ‘opened’, but in the 1b) example ‘the door’ is the subject of ‘opened’ and there is no mention of who opened the door.

VerbsOpens in new window which can have the same thing as their object, when transitive, or their subject, when intransitive, are called Ergative Verbs.

Important Hint!  

Note that the object of the transitive verb, which is the subject of the intransitive verb, usually refers to a thing, not a person.

The term Ergative (literally means“working”) was devised by grammarians, in the mid-20th century, to describe a verb that can be used:

    For example:
  • I broke the window.
    →In this sentence, there is focus on actor I.
    For example:
  • The window was broken by me.
    →In this sentence, there is focus on object window of the active voice.
    For example:
  • The window broke. [broke = ergative verb]
    →In this sentence, there is focus on action ‘broke’.

Changing your focus by changing the subject

Ergative Verbs have the special property that you can switch the subjectOpens in new window and objectOpens in new window without using passive voice, as the following examples show.

  • 2a)  The good news cheered us up.
  • 2b)  We cheered up.
  • 3a)  An explosion shook the whole room.
  • 3b)  The whole room shook.

Ergative Verbs show remarkable versatility. For example, you might say:

  • He is running the machine or The machine is running
  • She spun the top or The top spun
  • The crew decided to split the rail or The rail splits at that point

Not all verbs can be ergative: you couldn’t, for instance, change:

  • I cleaned the window to The window cleaned.

And verbs that are ergative with some nouns are not ergative with others. For instance, you couldn’t change:

  • I broke a bad habit into A bad habit broke.

The unfamiliar term ergative isn’t especially helpful to most people trying to understand these verbs and the idiomatic way they function. But in general, ergative verbs tend to communicate a change from one state to another, as the sets of examples below make clear.

  • He was slowing his pace.
  • She was aware that the aircraft’s taxing pace had slowed.
  • He should have closed the beaches.
  • The street markets have closed.
  • The Director of the Budge has changed his title but not his authority.
  • Over the next few months their work pattern changed.
  • The driver stopped the car.
  • A big car stopped.

Shown in the table is a list of ergative verbs which describe events which involve a change of some kind.

Ergative Verbs Involving a Change of State
Agecontinueemptyrot
stopbegincrackend
shatterstretchbenddarken
fadeshrinktearbleach
decreasefinishshutthicken
breakdiminishgrowslow
widenburndisperseimprove
splitworsenburstdouble
increasespreadchangedrown
openstartclosedry
quickenstick

There are many other ergative verbs which relate specifically to certain areas of meaning. For instance, there are a number which relate to food and cooking, as the examples below show.

  • I’ve boiled an egg.
  • The porridge is boiling.
  • I’m cooking spaghetti.
  • The rice is cooking.

There are others which describe physical movement:

  • The birds turned their heads sharply at the sound.
  • Vorster’s head turned.
  • She rested her head on his shoulder.
  • Her head rested on the edge of the table.

Again, there are others which involve a vehicle as the object of the transitive verb or the subject of the intransitive verb. Survey the following:

  • She had crashed the car twice.
  • Pollock’s car crashed into a clump of trees.

Here is a list of ergative verbs relating to food, physical movement, and vehicles.

FoodPhysical movementVehicle
bakebalanceback
boildropcrash
cookmovedrive
defrostrestfly
fryrockpark
meltshakereverse
roastspinrun
simmerstandsail
thickensteady
swing
turn

Note that some verbs are used ergatively with one or two nouns only. For example, you can say: ‘He fired a gun’ or ‘The gun fired. You can also say ‘He fired a bullet’, but you would not normally say ‘The bullet fired’.

Survey the following examples.

  • I rang the bell.
  • The bell rang.
  • A car was sounding its horn.
  • A horn sounded in the night.
  • He had caught his sleep on a splinter of wood.
  • The hat caught on a bolt and tore.

Here is a list of verbs which can be used ergatively with the noun, or kind of noun, that is given:

catch (an article of clothing)ring (a bell, the alarm)
fire (a gun, rifle, pistol)show (an emotion such as fear, anger)
play (music)sound (a horn, the alarm)

There are a small number of ergative verbs which usually have an adverb or other adjunct when they are used intransitively. This is because you choose this structure when you want to emphasize how something behaves when affected in some way, and so the person who does the action is not important. Survey these constructions:

  • I like the new Range Rover. It handles beautifully.
  • Wool washed well if you treat it carefully.

Here is a list of ergative verbs which usually have an adjunct when they are used intransitively:

cleanhandlepolishstain
freezemarksellwash
Important Hint!  

Note that ergative verbs perform a similar function to the passive because they allow you to avoid mentioning who or what does the action. For example,

  • you could say ‘Jane froze a lot of peas from the garden’.
  • If you were not interested in who froze them but in what she froze, you could say ‘A lot of peas were frozen’, using the passive voice.
  • If you were interested in how they froze, you could say ‘The peas from the garden froze really well’, making use of the fact that the verb is ergative.

Ergative verbs take some getting used to, so new coinages are likely to sound as jarring as nouns suddenly made into verbs, as ‘grow the business’.

They can give prose a voguish, trendy tone, as ‘that jacket wears nicely on you’ or else a tone of commercialese, as ‘the books shipped yesterday’, and ‘sorry, your flight canceled’.