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Ergative verbs

Level: intermediate

Ergative verbs are both transitive and intransitive. The object when it is transitive is the same as the subject when it is intransitive:

Peter closed the door.
The door
Transitive: N + V + N
Intransitive: N + V
I boiled some water.
The water
Transitive: N + V + N
Intransitive: N + V

Common ergative verbs are:



I broke the glass.
I dropped the glass and it broke.

The referee started the match.
The match
started at 2.30.

We grew some tasty potatoes.
The potatoes
were growing well.

The wind shook the trees.
The trees
shook in the wind.

Verbs to do with cooking are often ergative:


You should roast the meat at 200 degrees.
The meat
was roasting in a hot oven.

I always defrost meat before I cook it.
I am waiting for the meat
to defrost.

Melt the chocolate and pour it over the ice cream.
The chocolate
was melting in a pan.

Verbs to do with vehicles are often ergative:





I'm learning to fly a plane.
The plane
flew at twice the speed of sound.

He crashed his car into a tree.
His car
crashed into a tree.

Some verbs are ergative with only a few nouns:

catch: dress, coat, clothes, trousers, etc.
fire: gun, pistol, rifle, rocket, etc.
play: music, guitar, piano, CD, DVD, etc.
ring: bell, alarm, etc.

She caught her dress on a nail.
Her dress
caught on a nail.

He fired a pistol to start the race.
A pistol
fired to start the race.

Shall we play some music?
Some music
played in the background.

There's a fire! Ring the alarm!
The fire alarm
rang at 11.42 a.m.

Ergative verbs 1




Can an intransitive verb take reflexive pronoun as its object?

For example:
1. They sat them down.
2. Vaulting ambition which o'er leaps itself. --- Shakespeare

In the above examples, though the verbs are intransitive, they are taking objects with them.

Is there any exception under which an intransitive verb can have its object?

Hello arafatmgr,

The verb 'sit' can be both transitive and intransitive – see its entry in the Cambridge Dictionary – and in the sentence you ask about it, it is transitive. 'them' is not a reflexive pronoun, but rather an object pronoun. But even with the reflexive pronoun 'themselves', it would still be a transitive verb because it has 'themselves' as an object.

'leap' is an intransitive verb in modern English. I'm not completely sure, but I'd say that here it is as well. 'over itself' is adverbial rather than an object, I'd say, though I'd have to check with a specialist in syntax to confirm that.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

Hi Sir,
I have confusion about the Ergative verb when it's used without object. For example, 'a gun fired' what does it mean and is the verb in past tense and is it in active voice which means a gun fired by itself?
I always think that it should be rewritten as 'a gun is fired' which is a passive voice since obviously the gun cannot pull the trigger by itself but someone else. Also can I rewrite it as 'a gun fired by someone' and would this be grammatically correct? And what is the difference between 'a gun fired' and 'a gun is fired'

The second example i confused about is 'I'm waiting for the meat to defrost'. Again I would always say that 'I'm waiting for the meat to be defrosted' as I think that some action must be done to the meat for it to defrost which sounds more like passive.

Could you please point out my mistake above as I couldn't figure it out? Thank you very much

Hi Hugong,

Words are used in different ways to express ideas. It is quite correct to say both 'a gun was fired' (meaning a person did it) and 'a gun fired' (meaning that it happened, but without information about how). THe second formulation is particularly useful, for example, when someone drops a gun and the impact causes it to fire, but it can be used in 'normal' contexts too.

The key is that we often attribute agency to objects, even though they are really not capable of it. For example, if a person has problems with their car then they might say 'My car doesn't want to start' or 'My car refuses to start'. Obviously, the car is a machine which has no desires or feelings, but we describe it in this way. Language is colourful and creative, but not always entirely logical, I'm afraid.

Best wishes,



The LearnEnglish Team 

Hi Peter
Thanks for your quick response. Now I understand the logic - " language is colourful but not always logical" totally agree.

But just one more question. Is the form "a gun fired" is an ellipses form of "a gun is fired" where "is" is understood and is omitted? Or it's just a completely different sentence structure?

And is it correct to say "a gun fired by someone" to add in the agent part? (I know it can be done with passive voice)

Hi Hugong,

The form can be a shortened passive, as you say, but it can also be an intransitive verb. For example, we can say that 'a gun fired' when there is a malfunction in an empty room (and so nobody is involved). In other words, 'fire' is a true ergative verb.


Best wishes,


The LearnEnglish Team

Hi Peter,
Just another question. Can the Ergative verb be followed by a conjuction/subordinating conjunction with active/passive voice?

Eg 1)the window opened and was closed by the owner afterwards
2) the window opened and the owner closed it afterwards
3) the window opened and closed up afterwards
Which of theses sentences are correct?

Hello Hugong,

All of those sentences are possible, though the last sentence should be without 'up'.

Although we're happy to try to help users with various points of grammar, we really can't deal with multiple questions from single users on particular points like this. I hope you understand - we have many users with questions and it's hard to deal with all of them!


Best wishes,


The LearnEnglish Team

No worries. Thanks Peter.

Hi Peter
Thanks so much for your explanation. Now I understand.