For example we can have a sentences like:

The boat sank.

Your battleship sank.

No complement is required. There is no explicit object but clearly the boat or battleship is what sank in these sentences. So the subject is also the object of the verb, at least implicitly.

But is this verb peculiar? We can change its meaning by adding an object complement but not with an adverbial complement.

The boat sank in the harbor. - no difference in meaning.

Your battleship sank my destroyer. - big difference in meaning.

What kind of verb behaves this way?

  • verbs aren't the subject or the object, generally. Do you mean noun? Commented Jul 2, 2017 at 9:24
  • 1
    Sorry, I saw that and rephrased my question. Commented Jul 2, 2017 at 9:25
  • Are you looking for ergative verbs?
    – Phil Sweet
    Commented Jul 2, 2017 at 14:25
  • @Phil - That's a good question. My head is not completely around ergatives yet but I think this verb is doing something that is not defining of ergative verbs. Some but not all of them do this. Commented Jul 2, 2017 at 15:33
  • 2
    It's confusing to use the term "ergative" about English. It's a term of art in some theories, but you have to believe the theories to make use of them. If there is a difficulty with simple transitivity, introducing ergativity at all is usually overkill. State/Act/Accomplishment/Achievement, enhanced with Inchoative/Causative, does a much better job of explaining the phenomenon and situating it among others. Commented Jul 2, 2017 at 20:06

2 Answers 2


Intransitive verbs do not take an object. The subject is simply doing an action.

e.g. The bird sang.
"sang", used in this sentence, is an example of an intransitive verb.

Edit: I believe OP is looking for a term that describes a verb that, when changed from intransitive to transitive form, also changes its relationship with the subject.

Unfortunately, Oxford Dictionary does not define a unique category for this type of verb. Instead, they offer this explanation under transitive and intransitive verbs.

Some verbs can be used with or without an object, but the relationship between the verb and the subject is different in each case. When these verbs have an object, the subject does the action. When they have no object, the action or event happens to the subject.

sank is one of these verbs, whereas sang is not.

  • Sang is intransitive in your sentence because it has no complement. The bird sang a song. The bird sang to the other birds. The verb can be used both ways, but the meaning is the same. This answer does not address my question. Commented Jul 2, 2017 at 9:54
  • 1
    @UbuEnglish ah, my apologies. I misunderstood your question. Will update my answer accordingly.
    – as4s4hetic
    Commented Jul 2, 2017 at 10:36
  • That's a very useful page you referenced - thanks! You answer is also quite helpful now. Commented Jul 3, 2017 at 3:37
  • @UbuEnglish Glad to be of help ^^
    – as4s4hetic
    Commented Jul 3, 2017 at 3:44

The title of your question seems to clearly indicate reflexive verbs, while the body of your text simply refers to intransitivity.

To your explicitly stated question, a verb for which the subject and object are implicitly the same is reflexive (at least that is how it would be classed in other languages which show relevant verb morphology). You can think of these as situations in which you could add a reflexive pronoun: A) She washed before dinner. B) She washed (herself) before dinner. BUT this would not apply in the specific example you have chosen above, because while it is possible to say "the battleship sank itself" no one in their right mind would assume this- it would be assumed that the battleship sank due to circumstances outside its control, rather than that it might be the agent in that situation.

Also it is important to remember that both reflexivity and transitivity are unfixed (especially in English), which means that these properties are not inherent to the verbs (per se). We can take a verb like "wash," insert a DO, and it is no longer reflexive: C) She washed (the dishes) before dinner. Likewise we can take a verb like "give," which is traditionally a two-place transitive verb (meaning it requires both a direct object and an indirect object), and make it intransitive. D) All she ever did was give.

I will also note that since verbs in English do not show any morphology to indicate reflexivity, these situations should maybe be thought of as special cases of intransitivity, rather than as a separate verb category.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.