What does the verb to change mean when there is no object (not even implicit) as opposed to simply omitting the reflexive pronoun?

For example:

Do you want to change? vs Do you want to change yourself?

It was said that

He is not asking if you want to change an object, but if you want to change. (This distinction applies whether you say you want to change your wife, your habits, your mind or yourself — they are all 'objects' in terms of this question - objects, as opposed to subjects).

and that

‘Do you want to change?’ is by no means the same as ‘Do you want to change yourself?’ - which is very like to ‘Do you want to change your wife?’.

A wish to change is an holistic qualitative state of mind, and the reply ‘how much?’ and ‘in what respect?’ are quantitative, and analytic respectively, answering quite different inquiries, whatever the linguistics we can summon to dispute it.

I am not actually understanding the difference in meaning. I was always presuming that the reflexive pronoun was left implicit and was ommited.

  • 'I change at Crewe' is shorthand for 'I change trains at Crewe', with the implied DO 'trains'. This is another sense of 'change', where 'I change trains at Crewe' means 'I get off the train I'm on when it arrives in Crewe, and get on a different one to continue my journey'. DOs are restricted with certain senses of verbs; 'change trains / buses / planes, perhaps'; 'change the baby / Jimmy' but not 'Mr Smith'. May 7, 2021 at 14:46
  • @EdwinAshworth What's a DO? May 22, 2021 at 10:44
  • 1
    DO = direct object. May 22, 2021 at 11:16

1 Answer 1


As a quick aside: "to change", with or without a person as an object, can mean "to take off clothing and put on new clothes". You can change a baby (remove and replace its nappy). When you come home from work, you might change (take off your work clothes and put on casual clothes). But in this case that's not what's being referred to.

"To change", with no object, means "to become different". Maybe you used to have a short temper, but now you are very patient. You changed. The weather last week was warm; this week, it's snowing. The weather changed. In these situations, we would not say "I changed myself" or "the weather changed itself". If we supply an object to the verb, it gives an active sense to the subject: that you, or the weather, put some effort into changing. But, without an object, "I changed" merely says that you were previously one way, and now you're another. It doesn't say anything about the cause. I painted the black wall with red paint. The wall changed (from black to red). The wall didn't change itself, but nonetheless it changed.

It's worth looking into labile verbs, which are related to ergative/absolutive alignment.

Consider: I burned the cakes. The cakes burned. But the cakes did not burn themselves.

Wiktionary gives the intransitive sense as the first meaning of the verb "change", although it refers to "becoming something different", rather than just "taking on a new state"

You could even say "if you want to change [ie, be different], then you must change yourself [ie you must put in the effort to make this change happen]".

  • What is the difference between a Labile Verb, an Unaccusative Verb, a Reflexive Verb and an Anticausative Verb? If someone asks me If I want to change why wouldn't they mean If I want to change myself? They are acknowledging my agency by acknowledging my desires. The window that broke, the ice that melted, the problem that was solved, the door that opened, the ship that sunk, the weather and the wall that changed all of these subjects have no agency. An agent that wants to change puts some effort. May 7, 2021 at 13:13
  • The Wikipedia links explain the different verb types and voices much better than I can. But your last assertion is just not necessarily true. Consider a person who wants to lose weight, but lacks motivation. A harsh fitness trainer might ask them: "do you want to change [lose weight]?" The answer might be yes, but the trainer might claim that the client doesn't want to put in the effort to change themselves, rather they want to be changed. A calm, friendly soldier went away to war, and he came back short-tempered. He changed. War changed him. He didn't change himself. May 7, 2021 at 13:28
  • Look on it in this very simple way. If I want to change, I want to become different from how I currently am. This is making no statement at all about the cause of the change. I may intend to change myself, or I may hope that the change comes entirely from some external source. If I am depressed, I may want to change to a non-depressed state. But I may have no volition to try to change myself. But I would still want to change. May 7, 2021 at 13:32

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