Ergative Verbs – Examples

Verbs play an important role in English grammar. They are a core unit that helps us make sense of the sentences we use and convey a complete thought because verbs are the words that describe actions. They are used to express what someone or something does.

There are different types of verbs. While all types have a similar aim of describing actions, they differ in their functions and usage. In fact, some verbs allow us to express an action from the perception of both the performer and the object being acted upon. This type of verb is known as ergative verbs. This type is different from that of a normal action verb or any other type.

So, today we will discuss ergative verbs and understand their meaning and uses.

What are Ergative verbs?

Verbs help us describe an action performed by someone on something. However, some verbs allow us to describe an action from the perception of the performer of the action as well as the object or the thing that is being acted upon. This type of verbs is generally called the ergative verb. This means ergative verbs are the verbs that can be used to express an action both transitively and intransitively.

When used in a transitive form, the ergative verb is followed by an object, and in the intransitive form, we use the same ergative verb without the original actor. In a simple sense, ergative verbs allow the object of the transitive verb to be the same as the subject of the intransitive verb.

To be clear, let us look at an example.

He opened the door for me.

Here, the verb “open” has an object “door” that is acted upon by him. It is a transitive verb.

The door suddenly opened.

Here, “the door” becomes the “subject” of the verb “open” because the actor of the action is not mentioned. It is an intransitive verb sentence.

We can see the verb “open” has the same thing as the object as well as the subject. Therefore, it is called an ergative verb.

Use of ergative verbs

Ergative verbs literally mean “working” and were developed by grammarians to express a verb in active and passive voice.

In active voice, the verb acts with a usual subject who performs the action and the object who receives the action.

And in passive voice, with the receiver of the action as the subject and the actor as the object.

And finally, ergative verbs have the ability to swap the subject and the object without using passive voice.

For example:

  • I broke the window.
  • The window broke.

However, it is important to learn that all verbs cannot be ergative.

For example:

  • I cleaned the door.
  • The door cleaned.

This does not make sense. Also, even if some verbs are ergative with some nouns, they will not be the same for others.

For example:

  • I broke the glass.
  • The glass broke.

The above sentences are correct.

  • I broke a practice. (Correct)
  • The practice broke. (Incorrect)

It does not have any meaning to it.

So, we see, ergative verbs are versatile and can switch a subject and object of a sentence. However, they are tricky, so it might be confusing to grasp the concept at first.

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