My definition of a destructive verb is one that describes a change to the object, such that once the action is completed, it can't be repeated on exactly the same object.


I am cutting up an apple

I am eating an apple

If I want to repeat this tomorrow, I have to start with a different apple, since the original apple was destroyed.

Counter examples:

I am feeding my dog

I am walking my dog

I can feed and walk the same dog tomorrow.

Is there a technical term to describe the difference?

  • In these sentences, "apple" can be considered a kind of patient, but that isn't specific enough to lead to an answer to your question because the dog is also a patient in "feed the dog" and, arguably, in "walk the dog" ("dog" could also be called the theme in that phrase)
    – herisson
    Commented Oct 19, 2017 at 22:09
  • 1
    What if you didn't finish cutting up the apple in one session; but, continued the following day? Are there degrees of destruction? Are smaller pieces more destroyed than larger?
    – Stan
    Commented Oct 19, 2017 at 22:12
  • @Stan Obviously, these shouldn't be considered as absolutes. However, I challenge you to continue eating something that has already been completely eaten! Generally speaking, the action can't be repeated. Once the apple is partially cut, is it still an apple or merely a piece or pieces of an apple?
    – CJ Dennis
    Commented Oct 19, 2017 at 22:35
  • 3
    Or consider the pronoun reference in a sentence like Albert's tail was cut off, but it grew back. Precisely what does it refer to? Commented Oct 20, 2017 at 3:04
  • 2
    Or I scraped the mold off, but it grew back. and The heat melted the ice, but it refroze. Verbs seem not to have the quality in themselves of being destructive. However, "nondestructive testing" is a well-known concept; but not a quality of a verb.
    – Xanne
    Commented Oct 20, 2017 at 4:06

4 Answers 4


I am not aware that such thing exists in English grammar. The concept of destructive operator (aka "verb") does, however, exist in the theory of programming languages and describes exactly that.

In layman's terms, the following would be destructive:

Pass (to me) the top element of this stack of plates.

(since the stack is now no longer the same, with one plate less).

Whereas this statement would be non-destructive:

Show (to me) the top element of this stack of plates.

(since the stack is left unchanged)

You may find an exemple in https://stackoverflow.com/questions/17039756/lisp-destructive-and-non-destructive-constructs .

I imagine that if that distinction was not translated into human grammars (at least to my knowledge, I may be wrong) then it is because the need was not felt. But it that serves a purpose, I do not see any problem in borrowing from the theory of computer languages.


There are no inherently destructive verbs, therefore no term for them. While there are destructive phrases, it is only in context that the verb [in your example above] takes on a destructive intent. "I am cutting up" may also mean I am clowning around. Again, the verb has no destructive inference of itself - it is the context that makes it so (or not).

While I cannot surely assert there are NO verbs which do not assert some inherit destructive property, I can think of none. Even "destroy" does not meet an absolute definition - to destroy hope could only have a limited scope - even though the definition (Merriam-Webster) includes: "to put out of existence".


I have just found an article on Wikipedia about grammatical patients.

It says:

Sometimes, "theme" and "patient" are used to mean the same thing.

When used to mean different things, "patient" describes a receiver that changes state ("I crushed the car") and "theme" describes something that does not change state ("I have the car"). By that definition, stative verbs act on themes, and dynamic verbs act on patients.

This seems to fit what I was looking for in the question. A dynamic verb changes the object, often in a destructive way, e.g. the car crushing example, and a stative verb causes no change to the object.

  • All it says in that quote is that a dynamic verb changes the patient. It doesn't say it has to destroy it or prevent the same action occurring to it again. It just happens that the example it used for dynamic verb seems to have destroyed the patient (the car). But even then I would say you could probably crush it again, even more, with more force. Although you would be crushing a wreck, I don't know if it's still the same car. Functionally it's not a car (you can't drive it), but compositionally it is (made up of same parts).
    – Zebrafish
    Commented Mar 19, 2019 at 3:18
  • @Zebrafish I'm the OP. Are you going to argue with me that I haven't found the answer to my question?
    – CJ Dennis
    Commented Mar 19, 2019 at 3:20
  • The question you've asked is not answered by the Wikipedia source or the terms used in that article, ie., stative and dynamic verbs. The distinction between dynamic and stative verbs is not the distinction you asked about in your question, that of destruction or the impossibility or inability to perform the verb again on the same patient. This doesn't answer your question as it's expressed on this page. Maybe it answers another question and you're happy with it. I can't argue what you believe isn't really what you believe, if that's what you mean by your question in the comment.
    – Zebrafish
    Commented Mar 19, 2019 at 4:06
  • @Zebrafish We should always strive to answer what the OP intends, not always literally what they asked. If some asks "Does anyone know a word that means X?", it shouldn't be literally answered by just "Yes". Communication is a two way process, and often some digging is required to find out what someone actually meant. If a question doesn't have a literal answer but has a "best fit" answer, (e.g. "I think you're really asking ..."), that answer can often be much more helpful than "you asked a bad/confusing/unanswerable question".
    – CJ Dennis
    Commented Mar 19, 2019 at 4:45
  • I initially gave my thoughts on the matter, and then it seemed as if you implied that because you're the OP that any answer you personally find satisfactory is an answer to the question posted. However if you're happy, I'm happy. I'm glad you found the term you were after.
    – Zebrafish
    Commented Mar 19, 2019 at 5:02

A dare-devil neologist might be so bold as to propose that a destructive verb involves the use of the entropic transitive.

  • Amusing, true, but a neologism, as you recognize, rather than something existing! Otherwise, I would vote it up.
    – Mark G B
    Commented Dec 6, 2017 at 18:48

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.