For example:

I am cooking the chicken

The chicken is cooking in the oven


I am building a sandcastle

x The sandcastle is building on the beach

  • 1
    In his dissertation *Irregularity in Syntax", George Lakoff called such verbs "inchoative".
    – Greg Lee
    Dec 30, 2019 at 17:19

2 Answers 2


The chicken is cooking in the oven

Verbs such as these are called unaccusative verbs.

  • 2
    Synonyms are: labile verb, ambitransitive verb, ...
    – amegnunsen
    Dec 30, 2019 at 9:25
  • 1
    @amegnunsen I'm not familiar with labile. For ambitransitive I'd be thinking of a verb like eat which may or not have an object, but the subject remains an agent. But I see on Wikipedia that it also includes unaccusatives, so not a very specific term.
    – curiousdannii
    Dec 30, 2019 at 10:09
  • 1
    If I understand correctly, not all unaccusative verbs seem to fit the OP's question.
    – Nardog
    Dec 30, 2019 at 12:19
  • The OP only gives two examples, not really specific enough to pinpoint what exact syntactic feature they're thinking of.
    – curiousdannii
    Dec 30, 2019 at 12:36
  • @Nardog That's right - I was looking for verbs that can be used either way, and I think the term accusative relates only to the intransitive use. Whether there are any unaccusative verbs that cannot be used transitively with the patient as object, I don't know. Anyway the answer is a good way in so I'm going to accept it.
    – JD2000
    Jan 1, 2020 at 7:02

The term you are looking for is not unaccusative verb but ergative verb. Specifically, an ergative verb is an ambitransitive verb that behaves unaccusatively — the subject is a patient, when used intransitively, but accusatively — the object is the patient, when used transitively. Thus when used transitively, the semantic referent of the subject is promoted to object, and a new subject, typically the cause thereof, is introduced.

Examples of ergative verbs would be "to move", "to rot", and "to burn"; an example of unaccusative verbs that is not ergative would be "to fall" or "to explode" because "I fall the tree" or "I explode the tree" don't work.

More generally, an unergative verb is an intransitive verb whose subject corresponds to the agent, and an accusative verb is an ambitransitive verb where such a promotion of the patient to the subject does not occur when used intransitively.

Unaccusative and thus ergative verbs can be recognized by that their perfect participle corresponds to their subject, not their object. Thus "the fallen man" or "the exploded man" work, whereas with an unergative verb like "to sleep", or "to walk", "the slept man" and "the walked man" do not. Archaically in English, they would also form the active perfect in a way that was morphologically identical to how the passive perfect for accusative verbs was formed, using "to be" rather than "to have" as auxiliary, owing to how their perfect participle works as explained, as in "the man is fallen" rather than "the man has fallen"; this rule is still followed in Dutch or German.

  • "The term you are looking for is not unaccusative verb" Why?
    – curiousdannii
    Jan 25, 2020 at 11:48
  • Because an unaccusative verb is intransitive by definition. An ergative verb is an ambitransitive verb that behaves like an unaccusative verb when used intransitively, and as an accusative verb when used transitively, promoting the role of it's subject to object, when being made transitive. A normal accusative ambitransitive verb, when used intransitively keeps the subject as subject, rather than moving the object to the subject position, and thus is used unergatively when used intransitively.
    – Zorf
    Jan 25, 2020 at 21:08
  • I guess that makes sense. Personally I'm pretty opposed to calling these "ergative" verbs when they're so unlike actual ergativity in other languages.
    – curiousdannii
    Jan 25, 2020 at 22:47
  • The term 'ergative verb' was coined by Lyons (1968:352) – he also called it 'causative'. I think once the term 'ergative' came to be widely applied to a type of case-marking the term 'ergative verb' fell out of use. Jan 25, 2020 at 22:55
  • @curiousdannii it probably is unfortunate terminology and actually has the opposite meaning from ergative alignment; it should probably be caused "antiergative", but it is what it is, and an unaccusative verb by definition is always intransitive.
    – Zorf
    Jan 26, 2020 at 7:36

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