Friday, August 19, 2011

Ergative verbs? What on earth are they?

In Advanced grammar books you occasionally come across the term 'Ergative verbs'. So what are they when they're at home? They are a special group of verbs which can be used both transitively and intransitively, and where the object of the transitive verb becomes the subject of the intransitive verb.
  • Mary was cooking some lasagna for supper.
  • While the lasagna was cooking, Mary listened to some music.
Most of them are related to four types of activity:
  • Change of some kind
  • General movement
  • Movement in vehicles
  • Cooking
So as well as looking at the grammar of ergative verbs, which is pretty straightforward, we can revise some verbs connected with these activities, especially cooking verbs.

There are quite a lot of verbs in English which can be both transitive and intransitive without changing their meaning (known as ambitransitive verbs), for example: read, follow, understand
  • I've read three books this week. (transitive)
  • I've been reading all afternoon. (intransitive)
But as I said at the beginning, there's a special group of verbs, known as ergative verbs, where the object of the transitive verb can become the subject of the intransitive verb. Look at these sentences:
  • Little Johnny broke the window when playing with his ball.
  • The window was broken when little Johnny was playing with his ball.
  • The window broke when little Johnny was playing with his ball.
The first sentence is active and little Johnny is the agent - he did it.
In the second sentence, the object of the first sentence is now the subject of a passive construction. We don't definitely know who broke the window, but it 'was broken', so we know there was an agent; somebody or something did it.
In both these first two sentences the verb break is transitive.
But in the third sentence, the object of the first sentence is again the subject, but in an active construction. Here the verb break is intransitive, and there is not even an implied agent. Moreover, it almost disconnects the window breaking from little Johnny and his ball. It just happened to break while he was playing. Which perhaps explains why these verbs are popular with children:
  • Mummy, my toy broke.
  • Mummy, my drink spilt all over the table.
  • Mummy, my cup dropped on the floor and shattered.
The child, of course, had absolutely nothing to do with it!

Avoiding blame, or how to lose the agent altogether.

These verbs can be useful when you want to avoid mentioning the agent, as we have just seen with the children's examples. And you can do it without using the Passive. Let's imagine you're a journalist on a local newspaper. Acme Electronics is one of your larger advertisers. You start writing:
Acme Electronics has closed five factories in the last six months.
Well we know who's responsible for all those job losses, don't we? It's that nasty Acme Electronics. But the advertising department aren't going to be too happy at this negative publicity for one of their larger clients. So let's distance it a bit by putting it into the Passive:
Five Acme Electronic factories have been closed in the last six months.
OK, so we don't say who did it, but they 'have been closed', so somebody must have done it. What's more, the newspaper has a policy of not using the Passive (some do, but that's another story).
Five Acme Electronics factories have closed in the last six months.
That's better. All blame has now been removed, so the advertising department are happy, and we're not using the Passive, so the copy editors are also happy.

How can you tell whether a verb is ergative?

I found this test to see whether a verb is ergative, but you need to have a very good 'feel' for English for it to work. First you make a transitive sentence with the verb in question:
Little Johnny broke the window
then you add 'so' and a clause with the same verb used intransitively, with the object of the original sentence now the subject of the new clause.
Little Johnny broke the window, so the window broke.
If it makes sense and sounds natural, as it does here, then you have an ergative verb. Now compare:
Little Johnny threw the ball, so the ball threw.
A window can break, but a ball can't throw, so throw is not an ergative verb. Hat tip for that one goes to (link below)

Verbs expressing change

1a. Beginning and ending, increasing and decreasing.

If you want to check the meaning of any of the verbs in the box, copy and paste it into this box and click on enter

Exercise 1a - One verb is used with each pair of sentences, once transitively, and once intransitively. Complete the sentences using the verb in the correct form.

finish   ·   grow   ·   stretch   ·   open   ·   decrease   ·   fade   ·   expand   ·   begin
1. a) According to the paper, tonight's concert at six.
b) At six she preparing that night's supper.
2. a) When water freezes it .
b) He does weightlifting and exercises his chest.
3. a) When you supper, you can watch TV.
b) When the programme , he turned off the TV and went to bed.
4. a) She yawned and her arms - 'Time for bed, I think.'
b) Lycra to fit your body.
5. a) You need the amount of fat you consume.
b) The number of species gradually over the last few years.
6. a) When one door shuts, another door .
b) They a new shop here tomorrow.
7. a) Her hobby is prize roses.
b) These plants best in a slightly sandy soil.
8. a) As the sunlight over the lake, the bats began to appear.
b) Over the years the sun the colours of the curtains..

1b. Transformation and destruction.

If you want to check the meaning of any of the verbs in the box, copy and paste it into this box and click on enter

Exercise 1b - One verb is used with each pair of sentences, once transitively, and once intransitively. Complete the sentences using the verb in the correct form.

crack   ·   transform   ·   change   ·   smash   ·   burst   ·   tear   ·   vary   ·   form
1. a) She the pizza dough into a ball and then started to knead it.
b) We could see that dark thunder clouds in the distance.
2. a) The chrysalis becomes a caterpillar and then into a butterfly.
b) He his dollars into euros at the bank before travelling.
3. a) The little boy ran round the room all the balloons.
b) Like all bubbles, the housing bubble had sooner or later.
4. a) That new colour has our sitting room beyond recognition.
b) Glaciers were formed when snow into ice.
5. a) She carefully a piece of paper out of the book.
b) Be careful with that dress! The material very easily.
6. a) When he dropped the vase it into little pieces.
b) The shop window , but nothing seemed to have been taken.
7. a) As she stepped out onto the ice it began noisily.
b) We saw that the baking sun the dry earth in several places.
8. a) We should try and our diet more. We always eat the same things.
b) Customs and traditions from country to country.

Verbs expressing movement.

2a. General movement

If you want to check the meaning of any of the verbs in the box, copy and paste it into this box and click on enter

Exercise 2a.

spin   ·   shake   ·   move   ·   bounce   ·   sweep   ·   tip
1. a) The tent nearly over in the strong wind.
b) She the rubbish into the bin.
2. a) Take your partner and her around.
b) He tossed the coin and it high in the air.
3. a) The ball out of court before he could reach it.
b) Let me some ideas off you.
4. a) With every step, they felt the footbridge disconcertingly.
b) She the sleeping boy gently, to wake him.
5. a) Look! Something in the bushes over there.
b) If I just the sofa back a bit, we'll have more space to dance.
6. a) The Duchess imperiously into the room.
b) He the children up in his arms and carried them to safety.

2b The movement of vehicles.

If you want to check the meaning of any of the verbs in the box, copy and paste it into this box and click on enter

Exercise 2b - Enter the appropriate verbs into the gaps in the correct form. All the verbs are used in Past simple, in -ing form participles or the infinitive. There is one verb with two past forms: I have used the regular one.

circle   ·   crash   ·   sweep   ·   skid   ·   land   ·   spin   ·   stop   ·   hit   ·   brake   ·   speed   ·   start   ·   sail   ·   reverse   ·   shift   ·   turn

The plane slowly (1) over the Bay Area before (2) it's descent to San Francisco International airport. In the bay, you could make out some yachts and a ferry (3) over from Sausalito.
Just as the plane (4) , there was the screeching sound of a car (5) , and a large car (6) the corner of the terminus. It speedily (7) over to where the plane was, and (8) .
Suddenly, for no apparent reason, the car (9) again and the driver began to (10) it away from the plane. But the car must have (11) a patch of oil, because then it (12) and (13) completely out of control, before (14) into one of the emergency vehicles that had (15) out towards the plane. And that was the end of that.
By my reckoning we have one transitive verb, one intransitive verb, two ergative verbs being used transitively, and eleven ergative verbs being used intransitively. What do you think? Read my explanation after you have done the exercise - Show explanation

Verbs to do with cooking.

Try the exercises first, but if it's just not happening there are some links below where you can revise your cooking verbs. Click and Drop - Where you see this sign, mouse over for instructions

3a Basic cooking verbs - the verbs in this first exercise are all ergative, for example:

  • You boil some water.
  • The water boils.

Exercise 3a - Use the verbs in the box to complete the sentences.

steam   ·   boil   ·   bake   ·   burn   ·   freeze   ·   poach   ·   thaw   ·   brown   ·   cool down   ·   fry   ·   warm   ·   roast
1.You a pizza in the oven.
2.You some potatoes in water.
3.You bacon and eggs in some oil.
4.You can fish or eggs in gently simmering water.
5.You some cheese under the grill.
6.You try not to the toast.
7.You some fruit to eat later in the year.
8.You must completely a frozen chicken before cooking it.
9.You some beef and potatoes in some oil in the oven.
10.You some vegetables over boiling water.
11.You should the soup plates before serving the soup.
12.Let apple pies a bit, as the sugar can get very hot.
My all time favourite breakfast is Eggs Benedict, but that's a bit fiddly to make at home as it involves Holandaise sauce, so this makes for an easier alternative.

3b - A recipe for eggs in a Mornay sauce.

Exercise 3b - Look at the underlined verbs and decide whether they are ergative verbs in the sense that they are used here. For example, in the first sentence ask yourself - Can something melt? And the answer is Yes. In the second sentence can something take (in this sense)? And the answer is No.

1.Melt some butter in a small pan.
2.Take some Gruyère and some Parmesan cheese.
3.First grate the cheese.
4.Add some flour and then some milk to the butter
5.Blend the mixture well
6.Thicken the mixture slightly
7.Add the cheese and mix well to dissolve it
8.Freshly grind some nutmeg
9.Stir the ground nutmeg into the mixture
10.Add a little cayenne pepper
11.Meanwhile boil some water in another pan
12.When it is ready, turn it down to a simmer
13.Now start toasting two slices of bread
14.Break an egg into a small bowl
15.Now slide it gently into the water
16.Repeat the process with the other egg
17.Poach the eggs for about one to two minutes
18.Remove them from the water and drain the water off them
19.Place them on the slices of toast
20.Pour the cheese sauce over them
21.Sprinkle some paprika over the top and serve.
Read my explanation after you have done the exercise - Show explanation

3c Non-ergative cooking activity verbs

Verbs relating to food preparation activities, especially those involving knives or other tools, are not usually ergative.

Exercise 3c - Fill the gaps with the words in the box

grate   ·   mash   ·   stuff   ·   mince   ·   coat   ·   sprinkle   ·   grind   ·   slice   ·   peel   ·   season   ·   beat   ·   stir   ·   shell   ·   chop   ·   whip
1.The first thing you do with carrots is them to remove the skin.
2.You can then the carrots into a series of small rounds.
3.Or you can them with a special tool, for example for coleslaw.
4.Things like onions and parsley, you usually into small pieces.
5.To potatoes, use a fork or special tool to break the potatoes up.
6.When making meringue you egg whites until they form 'soft peaks'
7.We often Parmesan cheese on top of something, like soup.
8.To make an omelette you first the eggs in a bowl.
9.For Bolognese sauce you need to some meat (or buy it ready done)
10.When you something, like nuts or peas, you remove them from their outer covering.
11.It's traditional to the Christmas turkey - you put an onion and sage mixture inside it.
12.Very often people use a wooden spoon to something, like a mixture.
13.When you food, you add salt and pepper to it.
14.You can coffee, pepper and other spices at home for a fresher taste.
15.To make croquettes, you the mixture with egg yolk and then breadcrumbs.
Note - In British English we talk about minced meat for hamburger, Bolognese, shepherd's pie and of course mince; whereas in American English this is called ground meat (from grind)

Other ergative verbs.

There are some ergative verbs which don't fit into the categories we've already looked at.

Exercise 4 - Each verb in the box is used twice, once transitively and once intransitively. Complete the sentences using the verbs in a suitable form.

photograph   ·   do up   ·   sell   ·   download   ·   brighten up   ·   blow
1.Her new book very well, isn't it? She must be pleased!
2.When the whistle the match starts.
3.It's a big file so it might take some time .
4.Suddenly the wind all the leaves into one corner of the courtyard.
5.This article tells you how a dark room.
6.Can you the zip of my dress please, Darling?
7.Young people most of their music nowadays.
8.He's some models at the moment.
9.She had been feeling a bit down, but she soon when she heard the good news.
10.We these boots at half price this week.
11.Look at these pictures of our daughter, doesn't she well?
12.This blouse at the back.

Ergative -en verbs from adjectives

There is series of ergative verbs made from adjectives with -en added, meaning to make something more of that quality the adjective describes. We've already met thicken (to make thicker) and brighten (to make brighter). These verbs fall into certain categories:
  • Dimensions and shape - lengthen, shorten, straighten etc
  • Light and colour - brighten, darken, whiten etc
  • Density and composition - harden, soften, thicken etc
  • Others - freshen, ripen, sweeten etc
I think we've had enough exercises for today, so I'll make these the subject of a separate post which you can see here.
This has not been an exhaustive look at ergative verbs, there are about 300 listed at Wiktionary, but I think we've covered most of the most important ones.

A few idioms with ergative verbs

Click on the idiom to see a definition from Cambridge Dictionary of Idioms

Links - Ergative verbs

Links - Cooking and food preparation verbs

Discussion 1

  1. ergative - the pilot circled the plane; the plane circled
  2. ergative (tr) - the plane began its descent; the descent began
  3. ergative - he sailed the boat; the ferry is sailing
  4. ergative - the pilot landed the plane; the plane landed
  5. ergative - the driver braked the car; the car braked
  6. ergative - he turned the car; the car turned
  7. ergative - she swept up the children; the car swept over to somewhere
  8. ergative - he stopped the car; the car stopped
  9. ergative - he started the car; the car started
  10. ergative (tr) - he reversed the car; the car reversed
  11. transitive - he/she/it hit something - in this meaning we need an object
  12. intransitive? - the car skidded We don't usually say that a driver skids a car
  13. ergative - he spun the ball; the car spun out of control
  14. ergative - he crashed the car into something; the car crashed into something
  15. ergative - the cab speeded them into town; the car speeded (or sped) across the tarmac

Discussion 2

  1. melt some butter; the butter melts
  2. take some cheese; the cheese takes
  3. grate the cheese; the cheese grates
  4. add some flour; the flour adds
  5. blend the mixture; the mixture blends
  6. thicken the mixture; as the mixture thickens
  7. add the cheese - see above
  8. grind the nutmeg; the nutmeg grinds
  9. stir the nutmeg into the mixture; the nutmeg stirs
  10. add some cayenne pepper - see above
  11. boil some water; the water boils
  12. turn it down; it turns down
  13. toast the bread; the bread is toasting
  14. break an egg; the egg broke
  15. slide it into the water; it slid into the water
  16. repeat the process; the process repeats (itself) every hour
  17. poach the eggs; while the eggs are poaching
  18. drain the water off them; the water drains into a lake
  19. place the eggs on the toast; the eggs place
  20. pour the sauce over them; this sauce pours very easily
  21. sprinkle some paprika; the paprika sprinkles
Notes - Some of the transitive verbs in this list can also be used intransitively, but with a different meaning, for example:
  • The 'facts' simply don't add up.
  • These spices blend well with Mornay sauce.
  • Parts of the machine ground against each other.
  • The music grated on her ears.
  • When he heard a sound at the door he stirred.


Ex 1a 1a. begins, 1b. began, 2a. expands, 2b. to expand, 3a. have finished, 3b. finished, 4a. stretched, 4b. stretches, 5a. to decrease, 5b. has been decreasing, 6a. opens, 6b. are opening
Ex 1b 1a. formed, 1b. were forming, 2a. changes, 2b. changed, 3a. bursting, 3b. to burst, 4a. transformed, 4b. transformed, 5a. tore, 6b. tears, 6a. mashed, 6b. had been smashed, 7a. to crack,7b. had cracked, 8a. vary, 8b. vary
Ex 2a 1a. tipped, 1b. tipped, 2a. spin, 2b. spun, 3a. bounced, 3b. bounce, 4a. shake, 4b. shook, 5a. is moving, 5b. move, 6a. swept, 6b. swept
Ex 2b 1. circled, 2. starting, 3. sailing, 4. landed, 5. breaking, 6. turned, 7. swept, 8. stopped, 9. shifted, 10. reverse, 11. hit, 12. skidded, 13. spun, 14. crashing, 15. speeded
Ex 3a 1. bake, 2. boil, 3. fry, 4. poach, 5. brown, 6. burn, 7. freeze, 8. thaw, 9. roast, 10. steam, 11. warm, 12. cool down
Ex 3b 1. Yes, 2. No, 3. No, 4. No, 5. No, 6. Yes, 7. No, 8. No, 9. No, 10. No, 11. Yes, 12. No, 13. Yes, 14. Yes, 15. Yes, 16. Yes, 17. Yes, 18. Yes, 19. No, 20/. Yes, 21. No
Ex 3c 1. peel, 2. slice, 3. grate, 4. chop, 5. mash, 6. whip, 7. sprinkle, 8. beat, 9. mince, 10. shell, 11. stuff, 12. stir, 13. season, 14. grind, 15. coat
Ex 4 1. is selling, 2. blows, 3. to download, 4. blew, 5. to brighten, 6. do up, 7. download, 8. photographing, 9. brightened, 10. are selling, 11. photograph, 12. does up

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You can make a teacher copy with answers by clicking on 'Show All'. Make sure you 'Clear All' before printing student copies. Or you can print normally and the answers will appear on a separate page (Page 13). The lesson is on Pages 1-2. The exercises on Pages 3-10 and the two discussions on Page 11-12. I strongly recommend doing a Print Preview first. You might want to change your margins and you certainly won't want to print every page.

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