I know what ergative verb is -

Consider the following sentences -

  1. I opened the door.

  2. The door was opened (by me).

  3. The door opened.

The verb open is a transitive verb in sentence #1, and sentence #1 is in active voice. The doer here is I, and what is affected by my action is door

Sentence #2 is in passive voice.

Sentence #3 is in middle voice. The verb open is used as intransitive way. And here the doer of the action (verb) is not important and is not mentioned. What is affected is the subject - door. So here the verb - open - is used in ergative form.

Consider sentence #1 and sentence #3. The object of the transitive verb in sentence #1 is the subject of the intransitive verb in sentence #3.

But all intransitive verbs can't be used in ergative form, nor all ergative verb can take everything as subject. For example -

He fired a gun.

The gun fired.

He fired a bullet.

A bullet fired (we can't use "bullet" as the subject of this ergative verb) - Incorrect sentence


  1. All ergative verbs are transitive verb in nature. But when they are used in ergative form they acts as intransitive. Am I right?

  2. How to decide which verb can be used in ergative form and which verb can not? Is there any technique - logical or grammatical or anything else?

  3. How to decide which subjects are appropriate for a particular ergative verb, and which are not?

  • 2
    I would suggest that you not use the terms "middle voice" and "ergative" when talking about English. These terms have a very precise meaning in linguistics, which is not the meaning that you are giving them.
    – fdb
    Jul 18, 2014 at 17:04
  • 1
    @fdb It's not so cut-and-dried as that. If you Google or Google-book 'English ergative verbs' or 'English "middle voice"' you will find the terms are often used in both scholarly and pedagogical contexts, alongside terms like 'mediopassive' and 'ambitransitive', to describe the English-language phenomena OP is concerned with. Jul 18, 2014 at 20:06
  • 1
    wrongly, I would maintain.
    – fdb
    Jul 18, 2014 at 21:00
  • 5
    To call any English verb "ergative" is to use a metaphor. Whatever else English is, it's not really "ergative". What's at issue here is a pattern of lexicalization of stative, inchoative, and causative predicates. There are several different patterns, and some people have called some of them "ergative". This does not mean they are ergative, just that they seem to those linguists to resemble the way real ergative languages like Mayan or Caucasian or Australian languages behave. In some ways.
    – jlawler
    Jul 19, 2014 at 0:42
  • 3
    @jlawler Since I believe I am the person who introduced OP to these uses of "ergative" and "middle voice" I owe some explanation. 1)There is at least a pedagogical need for a term embracing English verbs, like fire and open in OP's example, which appear with both agentive and non-agentive subjects. 2) I have employed the term "ergative verbs" since the early 1970s, relying on Lyons' Introduction to Theoretical Lingustics (1968), p.352: "The term that is generally employed by linguists for the syntactic relationship that holds between [The stone moved] and [John moved the stone] is... Jul 19, 2014 at 19:22

3 Answers 3


I do not have the linguistic competence of the users who commented the question. So I only took the question as asked, and looked also at wikipedia,

And the concept, as presented, looks very arbitrary to me.

Here are examples involving the verbs open and float.

1.a: The door opened,

1.b: He opened the door to a small garden,

2.a: The trunk floated,

2.b: He floated the trunks down the river,

2.c: The man floated near his capsized boat.

According to the analysis of a previous question, case 1.a is an ergative use of the verb open, used transitively in 1.b. But then the sentences 2.a and 2.b should be analyzed in the same way, which implies that 2.a is an ergative use of the verb float. But then, sentence 2.c should also be ergative. Is that the case?

And then, in successive variations, what of:

The man stood near his boat

The man walked near his boat

The dog walked near his boat

The man walked his dog near his boat

About question 1:

Wikipedia's answer is:

In linguistics, an ergative verb is a verb that can be either transitive or intransitive, and whose subject when intransitive corresponds to its direct object when transitive.

This seems to be illustrated by the question examples. But if you look at the second example:

He fired a gun.

You can also say:

The gun fired a bullet.

and that is transitive.

But what if the verb shoot is used.

He shot the gun

He shot a man

The gun shot a bullet

The gun shot a man

Though I am not sure one would say intransitively

The gun shot

So it all seems a bit more complicated that the simple rule of Wikipedia and your first question,


"The door opened"

One could derive this from "The door opened itself" with drop of "itself".

Of course, one can explain this with the linguistic term ergative. But the traditional grammar has no problem to explain such verb use with traditional terms (reflexive with drop of the ref. pronoun).

  • 1
    One could. But there is absolutely no reason to, in English (I know that some other languages use reflexives in such constructions). And while the reflexive may make some sort of sense in this case, it's hard to justify in an example like The chicken is roasting.
    – Colin Fine
    Sep 16, 2015 at 17:15
  • @ColinFine Other languages do use reflexives for "The chicken is roasting". Sep 10, 2018 at 17:45
  • @VladimirF: they do. I said so in my comment.
    – Colin Fine
    Sep 10, 2018 at 23:22

In order to understand what is meant by 'ergative verb' in English, it may be important to understand the concept of ergativity in the first place. Ergative (or ergative case) generally refers to the marking of agent in transitive constructions while the agent in in-transitive constructions is not marked or is marked in the same way as the patient of a transitive construction (this is called absolutive). Languages where the ergative construction dominates are called 'ergative languages' (although there are no pure languages and there is great variation in the alignment of intransitive Subject, transitive Subject [called Agent] and Object [sometimes called Patient] across languages).

This is in contrast to the accusative languages where the dominant way of marking the X Yed Z construction is like in the English: 'She killed him.' (Xnom Yed Zacc).

In this context, it makes no sense to talk about ergative verbs. Just ergative constructions or ergative case marking on the Agent (and/or absolutive on the Patient).

The ergative verb in English refers to verbs that are normally transitive but that can be used without specifying the object because the object is also the subject.

So compare the verb open when use as in

  1. John opened the window. / John baked the cake.
  2. John opened for Mary. / John baked all morning.
  3. The window opened. / The cake baked in 20 minutes.
  4. ?The windows opened itself. / ?The caked baked itself.

Only the examples in 3 are ergative because the unexpressed object (patient) and subject (agent) are the same.

An easy test of this is whether the sentence can be passivised with the indirect object marking the agent.

  1. The window was opened by John.
  2. (The door/it/something) was opened by John for Mary.
  3. *The window was opened. / *The window opened by John.
  4. The window was opened by itself. (in some sort of cartoon universe)

To answer your questions directly:

  1. All English ergative verbs are transitive (although some may also have intransitive variants). Ergativity is about expressions of transitivity.

  2. The decision on whether a verb can be used as ergative is largely semantic. Can the agent and the patient be the same and are they both expressed in the subject position? So for example, 'cut' or 'kicked' cannot be ergative because if you take away the subject you end up with either an ellipsis or an intransitive verb. E.g. The knife cut deep. or The mule kicks. You could imagine some metaphorical meanings to include ergativity such as 'The engine kicked into gear.' But it's not clear in this case.

  3. The decision about the subject is also semantic. Can the subject be an agent and patient at the same time? Contrast: 'Mary baked in the kitchen all afternoon.' vs. 'Mary baked in the sun all afternoon.' The first is intransitive use of bake and the second is ergative.

  • In (3), I would say that Mary baked in the kitchen all afternoon was a transitive active bake meaning 'produce baked goods', while Mary baked in the sun all afternoon was an intransitive stative/inchoative bake meaning 'rise in internal temperature via conduction from ambient environment'. English already has transitives and intransitives, statives and actives. But no ergative systems.
    – jlawler
    Aug 17, 2015 at 17:32
  • 1
    Sure. But this is all debate over terminology. These verbs happen to be called 'ergative verbs' by some people (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ergative_verb; also see Dixon). As you know, this is annoyingly quite common - the same terms don't refer to the same things in different languages. Even, languages that have the more traditional 'ergative' don't always exactly correspond to each other. Calling these verbs 'ergative' make some sense because of the S/O alignment - but I agree, it is more confusing than helpful. Aug 18, 2015 at 4:30

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