I am confused with "paired ergative verbs" and "unpaired ergative verbs".

  1. He knocked the vase off the table and it broke.

    Is [broke] in this sentence a paired ergative verb, because we can make the transitive counterpart as "He broke the vase"?

  2. He died with his boots on, like any good cowboy.

    Then, is [died] in this sentence an unpaired ergative verb, because we can't make any other counterpart?

  3. The black horse ran faster than the other ones.

    Now, what kind of verb is this [ran]? Is this sentence below correct? "He ran the black horse." If correct, is the verb [ran] also a paired ergative verb?

  4. As I knew, the verb [die] and [run] are intransitive verbs. What is different between an "ergative verb" and "intransitive verb"? I mean, is there a method to divide the verbs?

  • "Run" is not always intransitive. In "he ran the restaurant well" it's transitive, and in "the restaurant ran well", it's intransitive. (And this example shows that this meaning of "run" is ergative). I've never heard of "paired" and "unpaired" ergative verbs, so I can't help you there. Aug 31, 2013 at 12:38
  • Where did you get the term "paired ergative verbs"? It must have come from a syntax textbook. And the teacher didn't, won't, or can't explain what it means. Without some better context, we won't either. FYI, ergativity is a feature of many languages, but not of English. "Ergative" is not a term used to categorize English verbs except by a few migratory sects of grammarians. Aug 31, 2013 at 12:45
  • I googled, and it looks like it's a completely meaningless term. My interpretation (I could be wrong) is that a "paired ergative verb" is something which we would call an "ergative verb". An "unpaired ergative verb" is a verb in which the subject is something a native Chinese speaker would expect to be the object. So for English speakers, the verb "valoir" in French would be an "unpaired ergative" verb, because we would say "the jewels are valued at ...", but the French say "les bijoux valent ...". (My French not guaranteed correct.) Aug 31, 2013 at 12:59
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    That sounds right. On John's point, what other than ergative do you call an English verb that allows its object in a transitive clause to be its subject in an intransitive clause? Aug 31, 2013 at 13:59

1 Answer 1


I [ergative] broke them [absolutive].

Them [absolutive] broke.

This would be how ergativity works in those languages that have an ergative case: if you remove the subject/agent ("I") from what would be a transitive verb, so you only have the patient/theme/etc. ("them") left, resulting in what we would consider an intransitive verb, then the single argument will be in the same case as the secondary argument in a transitive sentence ("them"), as above. The case by which the agent of a transitive verb is marked is called the ergative case, and the case of the object is called the absolutive case, which is the same case as the subject of an intransitive verb. I believe this normally applies to any intransitive verb, so not only to intransitive verbs with a transitive counterpart:

Them [absolutive] arrived.

Them [absolutive] cried.

This system does not exist in languages like English, which use the accusative and the nominative case, where the subject of an intransitive verb will be in the nominative, just like the subject of a transitive verb. We don't have an ergative case or ergative verbs. So you could call break paired and die unpaired, but only in an ergative-absolutive language: it doesn't make much sense to use those terms for English.

What you describe is mainly intransitive verbs in English where the subject fulfils the semantic role of theme or patient, or at least anything but agent; and some of those verbs have a transitive counterpart, where the subject will be the agent and the object theme or patient, like run and break, while others haven't any, like die.

  • Exactly. There are a number of kinds of constructions here, and calling them all "ergative" does not seem to be a denotational strategy that leads to enlightenment in all cases. As the question demonstrates, I think. Oh, a handout on real Ergativity, the kind that Cerberus is talking about. There are a couple of minor ergative phenomena in English. Aug 31, 2013 at 14:46
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    @JohnLawler: The genitive is an interesting example. I think in most Indo-European languages, with "gerunds", it fulfils the thematic role of whichever argument/satellite has primary focus: the shooting of January 6. It could be argued that shooting has ossified into a real noun here: the shootings of January and February; then perhaps "primary verbal argument" can be maintained instead of "primary focus". However, I feel that all this is not essentially a verbal phenomenon. I rather think it originates in the general semantic ambiguity of cases/prepositions. Aug 31, 2013 at 16:36
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    The genitive in many languages can often express whichever modifier is most relevant: the sacrifice of Agamemnon (agent), of Iphigenia (patient), of January 1 (time), of Aulis (place). This can be seen in how many names classicists have made up for its various uses in Latin. There it often expresses a patient/theme, as in amor patris, where patris is usually theme. In English, love of one's father is somewhat ambiguous. In Dutch, liefde van vader is always agent (theme is expressed with voor), but with infinitives it is as ambiguous as in English (het schieten van jagers). Aug 31, 2013 at 16:39
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    In Mayan languages, which are thoroughly ergative and highly inflected, there's an absolutive agreement prefix attached to every verb, but there's only an ergative prefix on transitive verbs (which also have absolutives, often combined with ergatives in idiomatic ways). So ergative prefixes don't get used as much; which makes them available for possessive prefixes on nouns. Hence ergative is formally identified with possession in, say, Pocomchí. Aug 31, 2013 at 17:33
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    @JohnLawler, I don’t know the first thing about Pocomchí, but in Ch’olan, the absolutive markers are suffixes, not prefixes—I rather thought this was more or less universal in Mayan languages? (E.g., imek’ety ‘he hugs you’, with i- being the ergative 3sg prefix and -ety the absolutive 2sg suffix.) Aug 31, 2013 at 18:02

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