One of the most interest things about any language is the language’s verbs. A verb, as you remember, is an “action word”, like “run”, “walk”, “talk”, “think”, and so on. Generally, verbs are the source of the most rich structure in languages. They conjugate, they combine, they modify, the possibilities are endless. One particular class of verbs which is very interesting is the class of “ergative verbs”.

What Is An Ergative Verb?

When a sentence has a verb, the verb typically has an “actor”, and sometimes it has a “target”. Or as linguists would say, the verb has a “subject” and sometimes an “object”. For example, in the sentence, “cats eat fish”, the actor or subject is “cats” and there’s an object, “fish”. In the sentence, “cats eat”, the subject is still “cats” but there is no object. So there are really two types of sentences. Sentences with targets or “objects”, and sentences without. The example, “cats eat”, really means “cats eat something”. The meaning of the verb “eat” stays the same in the sentences “cats eat fish” and “cats eat”. That’s because “eat” is not an ergative verb.

An example of an ergative verb is “break” (like, breaking a window). If I say, “the hammer broke the glass”, the meaning of the verb “break” is very different than if I say, “the hammer broke”. When I say “the hammer broke”, it is NOT the same as saying, “the hammer broke something”. In fact, it actually means instead, “something broke the hammer”.

Formally, an ergative verb is “a verb that can be either transitive or intransitive, and whose subject when intransitive corresponds to its direct object when transitive.” (Wikipedia)

Look at the examples, “the teacher started the class”, vs. “the class started”. In the second example, there’s nothing which the class is starting; the class is not “a start agent”.

For an example of a non-ergative verb, look at “paint” (the verb, not the noun). It’s perfectly normal to say, “the painter painted the wall”. But if someone says, “the wall painted”, it sounds very strange and you’re liable to ask, “Really? How did the wall paint, when the wall has no arms or brain? And what on earth did the wall paint?” On the other hand, if someone says, “the color of the wall changed”, then it’s perfectly natural sounding, and the only questions you might ask would be “how did it change?” or “who changed it?” “Change” is an ergative verb, but “paint” is not.

How to tell whether a verb is ergative

Here’s a straightforward test to check whether a verb is ergative, assuming you’re a fluent native speaker. Say the following sentence: “The (actor) (verb)ed the (object), therefore the (object) (verbed)”. If the sentence sounds natural and logical, and the conclusion is obvious, then the verb is ergative. If the sentence sounds strange, or the conclusion seems really bizarre, then the verb is not ergative.

Example 1. Paint. The sentence is: “The painter painted the wall, therefore the wall painted.” The conclusion sounds extremely bizarre. Walls aren’t known for their painting ability, after all. This verb is not ergative.

Example 2. Shatter. Sentence: “The rock shattered the window, therefore the window shattered.” The sentence sounds natural, and the conclusion is so obvious it doesn’t even need stating. This verb is ergative.

Example 3. Bake. “I baked the bread, so the bread baked.” Ergative.

Example 4. Swallow. “The spy swallowed the poison, so the poison swallowed.” Huh?! Not ergative.

Of course, this method assumes you are fluent in the language; it basically assumes that deep down in your subconscious language processing center, you already know whether the verb is ergative or not. The method wouldn’t work for someone learning the language as a second language, because in order to judge whether the sentence works, they’d need to know in advance whether the verb was ergative. Native speakers know the ergativeness/non-ergativeness of verbs just by virtue of having heard the verbs in use millions of times throughout life.

Sometimes, you may need to be careful, because…

Some Verbs Have Both Ergative and Non-Ergative Senses

Let’s look at the example of “cook”. Is “cook” ergative? Actually, it’s a very strange verb, as you can see by comparing these two sentences:

  1. Dinner is cooking.
  2. Mom is cooking.

Unless the house is on fire, the verbs in these sentences have very different meanings! Even though, structurally, the sentences are identical. So what’s going on? Cook actually has two senses which seem almost identical. Each sense might be defined as, “to heat food up to prepare it”, but in the first example above, the sense is transitive (admits an object) and ergative, and in the second sense, the verb is intransitive (doesn’t admit an object).

So in the example, “Does your mom cook, and if so, what does she cook?” the two uses of “cook” are actually different senses. That might seem weird, since they seem at first glance like very similar senses, but they can’t be the same– one is ergative and one is not. Similarly, saying “I want a wife who can cook” vs. “I want a wife who can cook Italian food”, the senses of “cook” are very subtly different. After all, most people don’t care whether their wives are cookable… Man, English is hard!

Another interesting example is “walk”. The common sense of “walk”, as in, “to walk around the city”, is not ergative. But a more obscure sense as in, “to walk the dog”, is ergative. “I walked the dog, therefore the dog walked.”

A List of Ergative Verbs

For English, there’s a pretty comprehensive list of ergative verbs at the English Wiktionary here: Category:English ergative verbs. Of course, some verbs on the list are only ergative in certain senses and not in others. And, there’s no guarantee that the list is absolutely exhaustive. But I personally can’t think of any ergative verbs not on the list… and I’ve been studying English passionately since the day I was born ;)

Ergative Verbs in Japanese

In Japanese, there do not seem to be any ergative verbs. Instead, verbs seem to come in pairs, called “transitive/intransitive pairs”, where one member of the pair uses an object (maybe just by context), and the other does the whole ergative thing and makes the subject the object.

Some examples…
治す “naosu“: to heal something or repair something.
治る “naoru“: to be healed or be repaired.
残す “nokosu“: to leave something behind.
残る “nokoru“: to remain behind.
閉める “shimeru“: to close.
閉まる “shimaru“: to be closed.

Lots of other Japanese examples can be found at Tae Kim’s Guide to Japanese.

Which Verbs are Ergative?

Although a fluent native speaker can use the test I described above, that test assumes a subconscious knowledge of ergativeness already exists beforehand. It’s just an example of letting the conscious mind communicate with the subconscious mind. Generally the subconscious mind is a million times smarter than the conscious mind, and the conscious solution to a problem often just amounts to figuring out how to get a grasp on the subconscious solution. But if, in this example, the speaker is not a fluent native speaker, what can you do? Not much; there doesn’t seem to be any reasonable “rule” for figuring out which verbs are ergative or not, short of knowing hundreds of thousands of example sentences from real life language learning.

But, I can at least give some broad classes of verbs where ergative verbs are common. Some of these I took from Wikipedia, others I added on my own. Not all the verbs in these classes are ergative, but most ergative verbs seem to fall into one of these classes. They are:

  • change-of-state verbs (like “break”, “burst”, “transform”, “change”)
  • cooking verbs (like “bake”, “fry”, “boil”)
  • movement verbs (like “move”, “shift”, “teleport”)
  • vehicle verbs (like “fly”, “sail”, “reverse”)
  • file-manipulation verbs (like “download”, “upload”, “run”, “load”)
  • harming verbs (“starve”, “bleed”, “drown”, “strangle”, “wilt”)
  • healing verbs (“heal”, “rouse”, “wake”, “resuscitate”, “strengthen”)

A big source of ergative verbs is the (adjective)-en series: “quicken”, “whiten”, “blacken”, “brighten”, and so on. But, I’m not sure whether this always works when an adjective has an -en form.

Here are some other articles I’ve written. Some of them might even use ergative verbs!
The Evolution of Penmanship/Handwriting/Shorthand
Researching English on Books.google.com
10 Reasons Why English Is A Hard Language
Will The Languages Of The World Ever Merge?

4 Comments

  1. Edmund says:

    i reaLLy Love this article!
    this saves my probLem.
    Thank you SAM ALEXANDER!
    i finaLLy got my research topic!

  2. Mehranoosh says:

    I have a question about clauses. Is it ok if i mention it?

  3. Mehranoosh says:

    The study consisted of 63 infants aged three months or smaller with prolonged cholestatic jaundice (direct bilirubin greater than 20% of total bilirubin for more than two weeks) who were referred to All Saints Hospital from January 2007 to February 2008.

    Are the above sentences correct? My problem is whether clauses have to be mentioned exactly after the word they are referred to, i.e. infants. Although i think as the explanations after infants are a part of it, maybe it is ok the way i wrote it. Am i right?