How acceptable is it to say things like:

This word spells differently in my book.

By analogy to other examples of ergative use, such as:

The glass broke.

  • 1
    It is not idiomatic in the US, but is understood. It's more normal to say "is spelled". (And it should be "word", not "words".)
    – Hot Licks
    Oct 5, 2016 at 12:34
  • "ergative" is a cool term I did not know! An example (I believe) is the saying about different forms of money "It all spends the same..." Good one.
    – Fattie
    Oct 5, 2016 at 12:41
  • 1
    The phenomenon you're referring to isn't usually called ergative in the context of English, but unaccusative verbs. But no, spell is not usually unaccusative in English. Oct 5, 2016 at 12:53

1 Answer 1


Ergativization of standard transitive verbs is somewhat productive, meaning that many transitive verbs can be used in an ergative way on the fly.

For example, even a verb like "to eat", which is normally used intransitively with an agentive subject can undergo ergativization, as in:

  1. John eats the soup.
  2. The soup eats good. ["Eating the soup is easy or nice"]

In your example of

  1. John spells the word.
  2. The word spells differently in my book.

the ergativization is also rather easy to comprehend, in my opinion. I suspect many others will also find it easy.

So, while it is not very standard to use "spell" as an ergative, it can be done pretty easily without confusion. Most speakers of English will understand what you mean. Furthermore, I actually find the ergative construction colorful and refreshing.

  • 2
    I would quibble with that a little. I’ve never heard or seen the usage “This word spells differently …” before.  When I saw it just now, I thought, “Well, that’s not English. But I guess it means ‘This word is spelled differently …’ — what else could it possibly mean?” By contrast, I understand “The soup eats good.” readily (although I find it highly non-standard — maybe one notch less bad than “ain’t”, for example). For some reason, however, I find “The car drives well.” to be fairly natural. Oct 6, 2016 at 2:23

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