In some grammar books, I see the term "ambitransitive" used to describe verbs that have two arguments in some contexts and one argument in others.

From what I've read on Wikipedia, there are generally two types of ambitransitive verb:

First, we have those whose intransitive senses have sole arguments that stand for patients. One such verb is "cook" as in "The turnips cooked in the pot,' vs. "We cooked the turnips"?

Second, we have verbs whose intransitive senses have sole arguments that stand for agents. One such verb is "eat," as in "We ate," and "We ate turnips."

So I'm asking whether the term "ambitransitive" is a generally accepted term among linguists? (I'm afraid I can't rely on Wikipedia for the answer.)

1 Answer 1


Ambitransitive is likely to have a meaning only in certain theories that make certain assumptions, like the assumption that transitivity is a property of verbs (instead of constructions), for instance.

In fact transitivity is a very complex property, in that the details of the verb - direct object relation are very dependent on the semantics of the verb (or adjective or noun -- not all transitive constructions have verbal predicates).

Normally we would consider walk prototypically intransitive, and eat prototypically transitive. But consider:

  • (1a) He walked the dog. (2a) He ate the steak.
  • (1b) He walked ten miles/a lot. (2b) He ate ten ounces/a lot.
  • (1c) He walked too much. (2c) He ate too much.
  • (1d) He walked today. (2d) He ate today.
  • (1e) Did he walk? (2e) Did he eat?

So which one is "transitive"? Or are all verbs "ambitransitive"?

For some other varieties of transitivity:

  • (3a) He sells the books fast. (4a) He opened the store early.
  • (3b) The books sell fast. (4b) The store opened early.
  • (3c) He sells fast. (4c) He opened early.

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