Grammar Ergative Verbs: Usage and Examples |
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

Ergative Verbs: Usage and Examples

We know that verbs are words that describe a mental or physical action, a state of being, or an occurrence. We also understand that they relate to a subject that is performing the action.


Riva writes stories.

Pietro mows the lawn.

Ijo laughed.

The rain fell.

In each example, we have a subject noun (Riva, Pietro, Ijo, rain) with a verb (writes, mows, laughed, fell). Each verb also is either transitive (takes a direct object: writes, mows) or intransitive (does not take an indirect object: laughed, fell).

The subjects and objects in the examples are distinct in their function and order. In other words, we would not write sentences such as:

Stories write Riva. (transitive)

The lawn mows. (intransitive)

What Are Ergative Pairs in English Grammar?

What if we have a verb that is both transitive and intransitive, and the object when the verb is transitive is the same as the subject when the verb is intransitive?


He dropped the ball. (transitive; ball is the object)

The ball dropped. (intransitive; ball is the subject)

The same verb functions with the same meaning for both a transitive object and an intransitive subject. Both sentences make sense.

When a verb can operate in this way, it is known as an ergative verb. Ergative verbs allow us to depict an action from the perspective of both the actor and the thing being acted upon. This ability places ergative verbs in their own particular category.

Here are more examples of ergative verbs:

Yoshiro dried the leaves. (transitive)
The leaves dried. (intransitive)

Shane roasted the potatoes in the oven. (transitive)
The potatoes roasted in the oven. (intransitive)

Other ergative verbs include words such as:

boil drive improve ring
break end increase run
catch fire melt sail
change freeze open shake
crack grow play tear

Ergative verbs also can appear in passive constructions:

Yoshiro dried the leaves.
The leaves dried.
The leaves were dried by Yoshiro.

Shane roasted the potatoes.
The potatoes roasted.
The potatoes were roasted by Shane.

The same verb means the same thing in each form of expression.

When to Use (and Not Use) Ergative Verbs

Some of these verbs can be ergative only with certain nouns. Consider the following sentence pairs:

Pietro played baseball.
The baseball played.

They fired their guns.
Their guns fired.

You can see that one pair works with an ergative verb, and one does not.

Let’s look at more examples:

I broke my arm.
My arm broke. 

Shania broke her promise.
Her promise broke.

Once again, we have one pair that works with an ergative verb and one that does not.

The verbs catch and ring are two others that can be ergative only with certain nouns.

Example Ergative
Seth caught his trousers on the nail. (transitive)
His trousers caught on the nail. (intransitive)

Example Not Ergative
Eshana caught a cold.
The cold caught.

Example Ergative
The headmaster rang the bell.
The bell rang.

Example Not Ergative
The dirt rang the tub.
The tub rang.

If you use or come across a verb that can function clearly in an ergative way, you have discovered a distinctive word indeed.

Related Topics

Finding Nouns, Verbs, and Subjects
Subject-Verb Agreement
Linking Verbs: What Is a Linking Verb?

Pop Quiz

Determine if the verb in each sentence can be ergative. If so, write its alternate active form.

1. The buzzer ended the wrestling match. [Yes / No]

2. Stanley has melted the plastic. [Yes / No]

3. Joanka cleaned the table. [Yes / No]

4. The frigid air froze the water. [Yes / No]

5. Robby plays chess. [Yes / No]


Pop Quiz Answers

1. The buzzer ended the wrestling match. Yes
Alternate: The wrestling match ended.

2. Stanley has melted the plastic. Yes
Alternate: The plastic has melted.

3. Joanka cleaned the table. No

4. The frigid air froze the water. Yes
Alternate: The water froze.

5. Robby plays chess. No

If the article or the existing discussions do not address a thought or question you have on the subject, please use the "Comment" box at the bottom of this page.

5 responses to “Ergative Verbs: Usage and Examples”

  1. Kevin Caldwell says:

    Surely the dirt ringed the tub (as in “formed a ring around it”).

  2. Jon says:

    Extremely well presented; thank you for sharing.

  3. Kevin Kolack says:

    The transitive/intransitive argument here reminds me of a disturbing trend I’ve noticed with folks putting adjectives in the wrong place, but I’m not sure what it’s called. I think it’s objective vs. subjective adjectives.
    For example, “put your answer in the provided box” (awkward) instead of “put your answer in the box provided” (much better as it is simply leaving out “box [which is] provided”). You can have a blue box but you can’t have a provided box… it’s just awkward. When you read it, it’s too tempting to put the emPHAsis on the wrong sylLABle.

  4. Janet Walker says:

    Thank you! I am 57 and a lover of grammar, but I am only JUST understanding, because of your article on ergative verbs, the meaning of “transitive” and “intransitive” verbs. I am ashamed to admit this, but I am also grateful for the clear explanation.

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