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I have asked the same question in ELL Stackexchange forum. There all the answers and comments I received was really helpful, but still I was looking for something more. So I have decided to ask this same question here also.

I have seen some sentences like this -

  1. The film was announced to be released on this coming Friday.
  2. The film was announced to release on this coming Friday.

Both the sentences are used, and I know they are interchangeable and does bear the same meaning. But I have some doubt about the second sentence - why is it "to release", when the film cant release itself.

Some other sentences of similar structure that arises my confusion -

  1. The product sells well.
  2. The book reads well.
  3. The glass broke.

The sentences are understandable, but in each of the sentences the subjects can't perform any job, as they all are inanimate object. The verbs are active, but they acts like they are used as passive.

Now my question is how to decide which verb to use this way and which not?

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Verbs such as break, sell, and read are examples of what are commonly called ergative verbs. Wikipedia's article on this topic defines an ergative verb as:

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

There is a comprehensive list of ergative verbs on Wiktionary.


Note, however, that the designation of such verbs as ergative is somewhat problematic. The Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar, for example, states: "Some linguists caution against the use of this term". The Oxford Dictionary of Linguistics is more forthright, stating: "The term could perhaps with benefit be avoided". A related Wikipedia article about ergative-absolute languages refers to such verbs in English as "so-called ergative verbs".

Nevertheless, it is important for English language learners to know that many common verbs behave in this way in English, that this is the term they should search for on the internet, and that pedagogic grammars also use the term. For example, here is what the Collins Cobuild English Grammar (p156) says:

Verbs which can have the same thing as their object, when transitive, or their subject when intransitive, are called ergative verbs. For many students of English, the ergative verb is a new idea, and may take a little time to learn. However, it is an important type of verb, as the common examples below make clear. There are several hundred ergative verbs in regular use in current English.

  • I am one of the linguists who caution against use of "ergative" for this phenomenon; the name does not help, since ergative already has another meaning in a different context, and that's even newer and stranger to "many students of English". This phenomenon is called the "Middle Alternation", and it appears at position 1.1.1 in Levin's English Verb Classes and Alternations. – John Lawler Apr 29 '14 at 14:40
  • In here I have a doubt. The answer implies that almost any verb that can be used as intransitively as well as transitively with the same meaning, and the object of the transitive is the subject of the intransitive verb then we can use that verb as ergatively. Right? Of course the subject of the ergative verb will be affected by the act of ergative verb. Now consider the sentence - 1. He eats a banana. 2. The banana eats. Is senetnce #2 correct? Because the verb "eat" satisfies all the criteria of becoming an ergative verb. – Man_From_India Apr 29 '14 at 16:48
  • @Man_From_India (a)'Several hundred' is a lot less than the estimate of 25 000 English verbs I've seen. (b)Though we use eat 'ergatively', it is only in a very few contexts. 'These apples eat well' is fine in a conversational register, but 'These apples eat.'/'This apple eats.'/'These apples eat quickly.'/'These apples are eating quickly.' are very unnatural sounding to unacceptable. Your 'satisfies all the criteria of becoming an ergative verb' gives a false impression. // cf 'He lived a good life.' is fine and shows that live can be transitive. But 'He lived a life.' is unacceptable. – Edwin Ashworth Aug 16 '16 at 23:03
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The sentences in question are not passive in form, they use transitive verbs with specific meaning that fit the context. See below:

To read (tr.) To have a specified character or quality for the reader: Your poems read well.

To sell (tr.) To attract prospective buyers; be popular on the market: an item that sells well.

To break (tr.) To become cracked or split. To become fractured: His arm broke from the fall.

Source: Collins Dictionary

  • But transitive verb should take object!!! – Man_From_India Apr 29 '14 at 7:50

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