Talk:Ergative verb

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No longer redirecting to unaccusative verb[edit]

I have stopped this article from redirecting to unaccusative verb, as an ergative verb is not the same thing. I've also written an article (probably a stub) on ergative verbs. I'm still adding to it, and will comment further on this talk page later. Ann Heneghan (talk) 16:26, 23 October 2005 (UTC)

I think that some of the information for unaccusative verb and possibly also for ergative verb (in the Wikipedia article before it was redirected) was taken from the website for the University of Utrecht Faculty of Arts.
On that website, the article for Ergative Verbs simply redirects to the entry for Unaccusative Verbs.
It might seem a bit arrogant to disagree with the University of Utrecht, but they don't actually claim that an ergative verb is an unaccusative verb. They simply give no definition of ergative verb at all, and direct the reader to the entry for unaccusative verb – just as on Wikipedia, there is currently no article for Bob Schindler; the reader is instead directed to Terri Schiavo.
My BA in Language Studies with Open University included a wonderful course in grammar. In that course, I studied ergative verbs in detail; I hadn't heard of them before that. I have looked up several comprehensive, scholarly books on grammar, and they all agree with what I learned at Open University.
I decided, therefore, that it would be appropriate to get rid of the "redirect", and to write a new article on ergative verbs. Ann Heneghan (talk) 17:13, 23 October 2005 (UTC)
It would be nice to have crosslinguistic examples. As presented, it looks as if they were exclusive of English. Also, if you have references, please cite them in the article (as per Wikipedia:Cite sources; see also Wikipedia:No original research). --Pablo D. Flores (Talk) 10:29, 24 October 2005 (UTC)
Hi, Pablo! I saw in the history of the article page that it was you who redirected it, so I meant to leave a note on your talk page saying that I had undone the redirect. Anyway, you found it before I got round to doing that – maybe this page is on your watchlist. With regard to other languages, my (uninformed) guess would be that in the form in which I described the ergative verb, it's a feature of germanic languages. I'll ask a German and a Dutch Wikipedian to have a look at the article to see if they can add any examples. In French, the same effect is produced by using a reflexive verb – he parked the car well; the car parks itself easily; we eat bread with butter; bread eats itself with butter. So it's not produced in the same way. Do such verbs exist in Spanish?
With regard to WP:CITE and WP:NOR, I knew of those two policies, but hadn't actually read either of those pages from start to finish. I'll do so now. I don't think what I wrote could qualify as original research – I certainly didn't make any new discoveries myself. I don't think the actual definition requires any reference. I didn't copy the wording from any book; it was based on what I had absorbed from having read lots of course material and essays and articles that dealt with ergative verbs. I got the categories (change of state, baking, etc.) in Celce-Murchia, M. and Larsen-Freeman, D. (1999) The Grammar Book. Boston. Heinle & Heinle. (I'm sure these categories can be found in many other books, and could also be thought up by anyone who understood what this kind of verb is.) The examples (break, burst, melt, tear, etc.) weren't copied, though there is some overlap. Anyone who knows what an ergative verb is would be able to come up with some examples. The Grammar Book gives the first category – verbs that imply a change of state – with examples, and then says that three other categories are mentioned in Collins Cobuild English Grammar, which I don't have. It proceeds to give the three categories with examples, but gives the credit to Collins. There may well ergative verbs that don't fall into any of those four categories.
Personally, I don't feel there's any real need to give references for my knowledge of what an ergative verb is, since many grammar books explain it, and I wasn't relying on any in particular. Even though I didn't know about them until I took the OU course, it's not something that can be traced to any particular brain, as far as I know, and I used my own words for the definition. The same goes for the categories, but I'm open to disagreement on that. However, when it gets to what I wrote about the significance of ergative verbs – that they allow the text to represent the affected entities as in some way causing the things that happen to them – I do agree that it needs a source. It's probably not an idea that anyone who knew what this verb was would have automatically thought of. The main source is Stubbs, M. (1996) Text and Corpus Analysis. London. Blackwell. However, Stubbs was referring to Halliday, M.A.K. in particular (1985) An Introduction to Functional Grammar. London. Edward Arnold.
I'll read the two articles on Wikipedia policy, and have another think about how much reference needs to be supplied. Feel free to make suggestions. And thanks for adding the category of verbs. I didn't know that existed. Ann Heneghan (talk) 18:07, 24 October 2005 (UTC)

Dutch examples[edit]

As Ann stated, there are Dutch examples as well. This site states a couple of examples: arriveren, barsten, gebeuren, groeien, kapseizen, ontstaan, ontwaken, rimpelen, sneuvelen, stagneren, sterven, struikelen, vallen, verdwijnen, verlopen, verschijnen, verwelken, voorkomen, zinken, zwellen. I think they could be categorised like what was done in the article, but I'm not sure the Dutch categories would be the same. If you need translations of these verbs, more examples, or examples of them in use, or even differences between English and Dutch in this regard, let me know, I'll see what I can find out! --JoanneB 19:05, 1 November 2005 (UTC)


Where is the notion of "ergative verb" exactly coming from (any references, sources, etc?)? It seems to me that this has not much in common with ergativity. Dixon, 1994: Ergativity calls these verbs ambitransitives (more exactly A=O-ambitransitives) which seems to be a good deal more accurate. —The preceding unsigned comment was added by (talkcontribs) 04:29, 11 June 2007 (UTC).

There's another term that's common in the lit, but I can't remember what it is. No one AFAIK calls them "ergative verbs". kwami (talk) 16:27, 23 January 2008 (UTC)
At the risk of saying this whole article is wrong, I don’t know if these are normally thought of as “ergative verbs”. As far as I can tell, they’re all intransitive verbs with lexically causative counterparts. At least that what it seems like for the French and English example (I don’t speak Dutch). In other words “John broke the window” is basically “John caused the window to break”. I'm not an expert on this by any means though. -Alan Trick (talk) 17:51, 20 October 2008 (UTC)
This term, though confusing (if you're familiar with the way ergative is used in regards to morphosyntactic alignment), is standard. See, for example, p. 115 of English Mediopassive Constructions. Also, I'm about to add a relevant link to the article. SgtSchumann (talk) 04:30, 22 October 2008 (UTC)

Though there is something right about saying that ergative verbs "are intransitive verbs with passive meanings", this is also confusing, since as the lead states, an ergative verb "can be either transitive or intransitive" (emphasis mine). An ergative verb is a kind of verb; it is not an inflection or a voice of a verb. Therefore I have removed everything to this effect from the article. I have, however, retained recently added examples. I have also removed links related to ergativity in regards to morphosyntactic alignment, as I think that this only further muddies the waters. (If someone wants to mention in the text that ergative verbs don't have much to do with ergative-absolutive languages and link to these articles within the body of the text, I wouldn't object.) SgtSchumann (talk) 03:54, 24 October 2008 (UTC)

Ergativity vs. Unaccusativity[edit]

I'm no linguist, so I don't know what causativity (or some other obscure linguistic term) is, or how it affects the classification of verbs as "this" or "that". But I'm having trouble seeing the difference between an ergative verb and an unaccusative verb. How is the ergative example of "I cook the pasta" vs. "The pasta cooks" any different from the unaccusative example of "The sun melted the ice" vs. "The ice melted"? Both articles compare "It broke the window" and "The window broke" in much the same fashion, and I am just not seeing the difference. I know their definitions are different, but I don't quite get how this applies in practice. Is there something I'm missing? Do these two categories sometimes overlap? When do they not overlap? (It would probably be useful to contrast the ambiguous examples in the two articles with very distinct, non-overlapping examples, to demonstrate a clear difference.) NoriMori (talk) 03:06, 25 October 2009 (UTC)

I don't think the problem is with you. As I understand it, break is an ergative verb and not an unaccusative verb. Considering that the page on unaccusative verbs defines an unaccusative verb "intransitive verb whose (syntactic) subject is not a (semantic) agent", this seems to be the consensus of the people who wrote that page as well. I suspect that at some point an editor got the mistaken impression that ergativity is a property of a verb's role, when it is a property of verbs themselves. However, since this entry is about ergative verbs, there's no reason why we shouldn't use break as an example here. -- SgtSchumann (talk) 05:59, 26 October 2009 (UTC)
These terms are restricted to particular theoretical schools. They're more-or-less the same, with slight differences in definition dependent on that theoretical approach. I don't know that any one person uses them both, or contrasts them. kwami (talk) 06:48, 26 October 2009 (UTC)

Thanks, guys! I mean, neither of your responses really clarified anything for me, but they helped me decide something that I was having trouble with before, which is that I can pretty much use "ergative" and "unaccusative" to mean the same thing. I'll stop stressing about it now. (XD Don't mind me, I'm just conlanging). " unaccusative verb is an intransitive verb whose (syntactic) subject is not a (semantic) agent; that is, it does not actively initiate, or is not actively responsible for, the action of the verb." Still not quite seeing how this is practiceably different from an ergative verb... Oh! I guess the major difference is that an unaccusative verb is intransitive, while an ergative verb can be transitive or intransitive. (Oh, so I can't pretend they're the same...? Darn!) Now that I think of it, I'm actually having trouble seeing the difference between accusativity vs. unergativity... >.< ...Oh. Does the ergativity stuff only apply to ergative-absolutive languages? Could one say that in practice, they're the same, but that their definitions are different because the languages to which they apply have different morphology? P.S. Oh yeah: SgtSchumann, I'm not saying that we shouldn't use "break" as an example; I'm saying that this example, as it appears in both articles, is very ambiguous; and that, if possible, we should add examples that show a more clear difference between ergative verbs and unaccusative verbs. NoriMori (talk) 18:35, 26 October 2009 (UTC)

If ergativity and unaccusativity are the same thing, why do we still have separate articles for them? I'm confused. - furrykef (Talk at me) 02:37, 10 May 2010 (UTC)
I am very confused as well. Most sources about Dutch use "ergatief" and "inergatief" to refer to what Wikipedia calls unaccusative verbs and unergative verbs. Defining an ergative verb as a verb that is either unaccusative or transitive seems rather contrived, and doesn't seem to reflect actual usage or at least a consensus in usage. If there is no agreement among linguists on which terms to use for which kind of verb, then it seems to me that Wikipedia is endorsing a particular point of view by treating the terms the way it does. I therefore think that Ergative verb and Unaccusative verb should be merged, as should Accusative verb and Unergative verb. CodeCat (talk) 00:02, 25 March 2013 (UTC)

I love ergative verbs![edit]

I love ergative verbs. I'm actually the main creator of the Wiktionary category (put almost all of its entries in there) (on Wiktionary my name is Language Lover). I just wrote an article about ergative verbs on my blog. Ergative Verbs. Hope you all like it :) Glowing Face Man (talk) 18:17, 26 October 2008 (UTC)

Dutch, "ergative verbs" taking "zijn" rather than "hebben"[edit]

Dutch is fairly similar to German, and while not having studied Dutch nearly as much as German, intransitive verbs take "sein"/"zijn" automatically. It's hardly surprising that these verbs that can be used intransitively or transitively take "zijn" in the intransitive use. So, I'm not really sure why the article goes out of the way to draw attention to this, like it's something more significant than application of proper Dutch grammar with intransitive verbs. Sure, it looks interesting and significant to English speakers where we lost the use of "be" in intransitive words, but we used to do it as well. "I am come," rather than "I have come." --Puellanivis (talk) 02:40, 28 July 2011 (UTC)

Increasing use of ergative verbs in English?[edit]

I'm interested in what seems to me to be the increasing use of ergative verbs in English, primarily in American English, using verbs that used to be simply transitive. For example, Amazon tells its customers that their order has shipped, and printer software tells users that the document is printing. The traditional structure for these meanings would be that the order has been shipped, and that the document is being printed, which are passive structures. The same meaning could also be conveyed more simply with a subject and a transitive verb by saying that 'we have shipped your order' and that 'the printer is printing your document'.

So is this simply economy of phrase, is it laziness, or is it the influence of other languages on English? It certainly seems to be the creation of new ergative verbs, and the original transitive verb is still very much in use.

  • I wonder if this is partly due to the relatively recent idea that passive constructions should be (see what I did there? :) ) avoided. I work as a technical writer, and the examples you cite were probably written by trained technical writers. All the technical writing guides urge avoidance of the passive voice (e.g. "The document is being printed"). I understand the reasoning behind this rule: passive constructions can be ambiguous because they don't specify an agent. For example, "When the OK button is clicked" is definitely less clear than, "When you click the OK button." However, sometimes you don't need an agent, and I am quite happy to use the passive voice in such circumstances. Rules are for the obedience of the ignorant, and the guidance of the wise :) That said, I read somewhere that until the 18th Century, the "middle voice" was commonly used where now one would generally use the passive voice - e.g. "The house was building" would have sounded natural to an 18th-century reader, whereas now "The house was being built" is what most people would say. So there appears to be historical precedent for phrases like "The order has shipped."

— Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 20:28, 27 May 2016 (UTC)

Does this deserve a section within the Wikipedia article? I'd be interested in others' views. Christiandbartlett (talk) 13:28, 12 July 2012 (UTC)

I'm not sure this would be considered ergative. It could be a lexicalized passive, but it seems to be a patientive ambitransitive verb. Joeystanley (talk) 14:07, 5 December 2013 (UTC)

Switching order of examples[edit]

Hi All! This is my first time editing a WP page ever, so it's exciting! :)

I suggest that in the first section of the article ("In English"), these two examples be switched in order so that they'll match the order in which they're named in the preceding sentence.

So, switching

"[…] to break the window […]" or "[…] for the burglar to break the window […]" <-- (infinitive) "[…] the breaking of the window […]" or "[…] the breaking of the window by the burglar […]" <-- (nominalization)


"[…] the breaking of the window […]" or "[…] the breaking of the window by the burglar […]" <-- (nominalization) "[…] to break the window […]" or "[…] for the burglar to break the window […]" <-- (infinitive)

in order to match the order of the labels that are given for these examples in this sentence:

"Unlike a passive verb, a nominalization, an infinitive, or a gerund, which would allow the agent to be deleted but would also allow it to be included, the intransitive version of an ergative verb requires the agent to be deleted:"

(And, out of curiosity, what happens now? If the proposed change is generally accepted, who actually makes the change in the article? Is it expected to be me, since I proposed it, or is there a designated admin that is in charge of making the changes?) Marybee3 (talk) 16:33, 2 January 2013 (UTC)

You. I doubt anyone will object, since you're making a reasonable stylistic edit. And if they do, they can always revert you. (See the essay at WP:BOLD.) — kwami (talk) 16:42, 2 January 2013 (UTC)

Merge with Unaccusative verb[edit]

The following discussion is closed. Please do not modify it. Subsequent comments should be made in a new section. A summary of the conclusions reached follows.
No consensus for merge. Further, it's been so long that the articles have likely changed substantially and a new discussion would be required. Wugapodes (talk) 05:13, 29 September 2015 (UTC)

As has been noted in the discussions above, there doesn't really seem to be a clear-cut definition between "ergative" and "unaccusative", and "ergative" seems to be used to refer to both concepts. The current definition given on this page seems to mix ergativity (the property of aligning patient with subject) with ambitransitivity (the property of having an optional object). However, I don't think that there is really such a sharp distinction in terminology, or at least I do not believe that this distinction reflects a majority view or common usage. In Dutch linguistics, for example, the standard term for a verb whose intransitive subject is a patient is "ergative", regardless of whether it may also be used transitively. I therefore propose that the two pages be merged and that less WP:UNDUE weight be given to the distinction of having an optional object or not, unless it can be clearly established that this distinction reflects common linguistic usage and not just one particular point of view. CodeCat (talk) 00:13, 25 March 2013 (UTC)

An addition: I was originally considering also proposing a parallel merger of Unergative verb into Accusative verb, but those two articles don't have much content, and may seem like a good idea to merge all four articles into a single one named Accusative and ergative verb(s). If you agree to this four-way merger, please say so in your reply. CodeCat (talk) 00:20, 25 March 2013 (UTC)

please don't merge these articles[edit]

The syntactic structures of ergative vs unaccusative sentences in Minimalist syntax are very different. Regardless of the theory, the theta roles involved with each type of verb are very different. See "Core Syntax" by Adger. Aside from unergative verbs like "run", many verbs come in ergative/unergative pairs. e.g. unergative - "The door closed." ergative - "I closed the door." Verbs with ergativity can have agents, but unaccusatives cannot. E.g. the unaccusative verb "fall" in "Mary fell", "Mary" is the theme, not the agent, I also can't say "I fall Mary" to mean that I made Mary fall. When I have time I will try to return to these pages and make the distinction more clear. Rue-chan (talk) 23:33, 16 November 2014 (UTC)

The above discussion is closed. Please do not modify it. Subsequent comments should be made in a new section.

Flawed article[edit]

This article is almost entirely unsourced.

Moreover, some of its foundational reasoning is flawed.

  • Using a transitive verb without stating the object does not make that verb intransitive.
Transitivity is a semantic property of a verb, and does not necessarily depend on other words in the sentence. The example sentences "He ate the soup" and "He ate" both use the verb "to eat". The action described by this verb is inherently transitive: one cannot "eat" without eating something, even if that something is left unstated. The example sentence "He ate" is still transitive -- just with the object unstated.

Given this fundamental confusion in the basis for describing ergative verbs, the rest of the article is somewhat less than clear.

I'd like to request that someone get their hands on decent source material and rewrite this whole article. -- Eiríkr ÚtlendiTala við mig 18:44, 5 April 2013 (UTC)

I agree that the article should be redone so that it is sourced, but my guess is that your point about what qualifies as transitive/intransitive will not hold up to scrutiny. My guess is that the terms are used inconsistently from author to author. Crystal (1997:397), for instance, states that many verbs can be used both transitively and intransitively, citing the example We went a mile vs. We went. But if you're concerned about the article, why don't you revise it? Why don't you investigate a few sources to see how they use the terms transtive, intransitive, and ergative and then revise the article according to what you find? --Tjo3ya (talk) 19:59, 5 April 2013 (UTC)
I think "a mile" is an adverbial phrase in that example (compare "I waited an hour" or "it lasted long"), so I don't think that really counts as evidence of transitivity... CodeCat (talk) 20:59, 5 April 2013 (UTC)
Yes, Crystal's example is not good, but the point he is making seems valid to me. Many verbs can be used transitively and intransitively, e.g. He ate vs. He ate the meat. If we define "transitivity" in terms of semantics, difficulties immediately arise, since it is possible to construe most any verb as semantically transitive. A verb like live could be construed as transitive, e.g. He lived a long life, or a verb like die, e.g. He died a terrible death. If one is living, one can always argue that one is living a life, and if one is dieing, one can always argue that one is dying a certain death. Consider further that when an object-deletion verb is used without the object, the information conveyed is focusing on the action, not on the object, e.g. He has eaten vs. He has not eaten; the object is not important to the message that the speaker wants to convey. In this regard, the verb is indeed intransitive. Furthermore, a semantic definition of transitivity would have to construe all ergative verbs as transitive. In a sentence like The water is boiling, we'd have to classify boiling as transitive since there is always some heat that causes water to boil, e.g. The fire is boiling the water. That doesn't seem write. I think a purely syntatic definition of "transitivity" is going to provide a basis for the an understanding of "transitivity" that generates less confusion in these areas. If an object is present, the verb is transitive; if no object is present, the verb is intransitive. Verbs can then be classified based upon the frequency of how they are used. One can classify live and die as intransitive because they are usually used without an object. --Tjo3ya (talk) 21:25, 5 April 2013 (UTC)
  • @Tjo3ya,
    • Ditto CodeCat's comment about adverbial phrases.
    • Yes, plenty of verbs can be used both transitively and intransitively. When one grows, one does not necessarily grow something. However, eat is not one of those verbs. Some verbs describe actions that are inherently transitive, that semantically require an object. When one eats, one eats something, even if that something is left unstated. One cannot ingest, consume, read, watch, choose, etc., without there being some object of the verb's action, even if that object is left unstated. Some languages, like Navajo, even require specific verb forms for transitive verbs used in general senses with no stated objects. English is analytic enough that such morphological changes aren't required. (See Ambitransitive verb, for instance.)
      • Tjo3ya's point was that transitivity is a syntactic and not a semantic concept. "He was hungry and the fridge was full of food. So he ate." Whatever object you added to "So he ate," it would change the sentence's meaning - the writer doesn't want to tell us whether he ate a sausage, a piece of cheese, or everything in the fridge, because the emphasis is on his hunger. "Ate" in this sentence works analogously to "grazed" in "The cows grazed." Your argument - that transitivity is a semantic rather than a syntactic concept - would imply that "graze" has an implicit object, namely grass. Yet you would never say, "The cows grazed the grass." It's syntactically incorrect. Just because "eat" can be transitive, and normally is transitive, that doesn't mean it can't be used intransitively. — Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 16:43, 27 May 2016 (UTC)
Granted, there is semantic transitivity, and syntactic transitivity. My underlying point is that this application of the term "ergative" to any English verb that can be used syntactically both transitively and intransitively is not useful. The conflation of syntactic and semantic transitivity just deepens the confusion (and I acknowledge my own part in that confusion in this discussion, and I shall endeavor to be clearer going forward).
If we say "the clock broke", this is not ergative -- the clock broke all on its own; the clock is the agent. This is just a plain intransitive use of a semantically ambitransitive verb. Whether a given instance of "break" is semantically transitive or intransitive depends on context. By way of example, if we say, "I broke", the initial impression is that the speaker is now broken -- that's because this verb is semantically ambitransitive, and usage without an object inherently suggests intransitive usage.
If we say "this stew eats well", this is ergative -- the stew clearly isn't eating anything (unless this is a very strange context), and instead there is some other unspecified agent acting upon the stew. This is an ergative use of a semantically transitive verb. The underlying action of "eating" semantically requires an object; the verb is semantically always transitive. If we say, "I ate", we know that something was eaten, even if we don't know what -- that's because this verb is semantically transitive, and usage without an object still inherently suggests the existence of an object.
Ergativity does exist in English, but its application is much narrower than this article suggests. ‑‑ Eiríkr Útlendi │Tala við mig 01:43, 24 September 2016 (UTC)
    • As for revising the article, I don't have the source materials to hand, nor the time to read them and gain the requisite expertise, to do so at this time. And looking at my foreseeable schedule, I won't have such resources any time soon. -- Eiríkr ÚtlendiTala við mig 21:33, 5 April 2013 (UTC)
      • "grow" is different in that it is active or causative with an object, but middle voice without one. When you say "the plant grows" it's not being made to grow except through its own internal process. It grows by itself. CodeCat (talk) 01:32, 26 September 2013 (UTC)

There are, I believe, genuine Unakkusativ verbs, such as seem, happen. These cannot take an 'object', yet the 'subject' doing the 'verbing' is completely inaktiv. The examples used in the article are however clearly ergative. — Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 23:48, 25 September 2013 (UTC)

Not standard usage in linguistics[edit]

I've been puzzled for some time about this article as it describes a usage of 'ergative' that I've never come across in any linguistic work. I work with Australian languages so i'm pretty familiar with ergativity as argument structure and case of subject of a transitive verb. I've just found that the Oxford concise dictionary of linguistics does mention the term 'ergative verb' as is used in this article, says it is a sporadic usage that arose in the 1960s, and claims that it appears to have arisen (at least partly) from a misunderstanding of the more standard usage of 'ergative'. The entry finishes with the suggestion that the usage as in this article '...could perhaps with benefit be avoided.' I'm not sure what that means for this article though, but perhaps it should state that it 'ergative verb' is not a term used in mainstream linguistics? Dougg (talk) 04:46, 17 December 2014 (UTC)

The term ergative verb appears in both of my dictionaries of linguistics (Crystal 1997 and Matthews 1997), as defined and explained in this article. I like the term, since it efficiently denotes a type of verb that is in desparate need of a specific designation. --Tjo3ya (talk) 03:36, 18 December 2014 (UTC)

Ok, interesting, I'll have to check more linguistics dictionaries. I don't see the need for the term as the usual specific designation for this type of verb (if treated as single words) would be 'ambitransitive verb'. But usually pairs of verbs of this kind are considered to be two different words that are formally identical, so each would have their own dictionary entry (of course, not unusual in English with so much zero-derivation). Either way it seems confusing that 'ergative' be used in this way, and I see little evidence that many linguists use this terminology, although I grant that it seems to have be more common in ESL. Dougg (talk)