Some English verbs can be used in the same form in both active and passive meaning. E.g.:

  • (active) I change the world - (passive) the world changes (i.e is being changed).
  • (active) I open the door - (passive) the door opens (i.e is being opened by me).
  • (active) I break a bone - (passive) a bone breaks.
  • etc

Not to be confused with passive voice though. It's not actually passive ('the door closes' is not same as 'the door is closed') but you definitely can feel the difference of meaning - 'I close the door' and 'the door closes' - it's like the opposite directions of actor and subject: in first form subject is actor, in the second the subject is the object being acting on.

In Russian, we have a special category for this - the reflexiveness. A reflexive verb is formed by adding a -ся postfix which literally means 'itself'. That is, if one closes (закрывает) the door, then the door closes (закрывается) - that is literally 'closes itself' which is nonsense but it means that the door doesn't close anything, but it is being closed itself.

I remember there is a general rule in English how to determine if a verb can be used in such way or not. It has something to do with transitiveness (intransitive cannot). But apparently, this rule has many exceptions, it's more kinda guess than a strict rule. I found it somewhere in the Internet long time ago but cannot find it now anymore.

Could you please explain more about this topic? How such verbs are called in English linguistics? What is the rule? What does transitiveness have to do with all this? etc

  • 1
    I think there might be some confusion here. When we refer to the passive voice, we mean something like "The door is opened." That would mean the door is being acted on by someone (who is not named). "The door opens" is not passive. It suggests that the door opens on its own, although it doesn't exclude the possibility that someone/something is causing it to open - it just omits that information. Some languages (e.g. German, and evidently, as you say, Russian) require a reflexive version of the verb to be used. English does not, at least in the case of "open" and "change" as you use them.
    – cruthers
    Aug 17, 2021 at 17:49
  • @cruthers yeah, as i mentioned, it's not actually passive. but the direction of action is reversed. not all verbs support this. e.g.: i hold you. you hold. - this reverse magic doesn't work for 'hold' verb. needa know more about this distinction
    – whyer
    Aug 17, 2021 at 18:12
  • Ok thanks for the update, but one point that continues to confuse is that we don't think of the action as being "reversed" when the door closes (as opposed to when someone closes it). The verb "closes" in that case just means the door goes through a movement. Someone else can provide the linguistic terminology - I think my point is mainly psychological - we think of a door "closing" akin to a rock "falling" or a man "running" - we don't necessarily think of an action being performed on the noun in any of these cases.
    – cruthers
    Aug 17, 2021 at 18:52
  • A list of such verbs, which can be used in the ergative/middle transformation, is given in this ELL thread. But StoneyB adds that English is fluid, and the list will grow. Aug 17, 2021 at 18:55

3 Answers 3


The thing is that some verbs, like "close", don't always have the same transitivity and the meaning changes depending on that. When you say "I closed the door" close is a transitive verb that means the action you take on the door of closing it. However, when you say "the door closed" that is an intransitive verb, and it's meaning is different, in this case it simply means the 'change in state' of becoming closed, not an action. That is why the 'feel' of the sentence is different from saying "the door was closed", which uses the passive voice and the transitive "close" and directly implies an action taken by someone (or something) even if not stated. I am afraid this (like many things in English) doesn't exactly have a rule, my intuition is that verbs that imply a 'change in state' usually work like that ("I boiled the water" vs "the water boiled"; "I froze the pizza" vs "the pizza froze") but my advice would be looking at a dictionary for the different definitions given to the transitive and intransitive forms.


You're confusing "active" and "passive" with a different phenomenon.
Passive is a rule of English, and sentences like these are not examples of Passive:

  • The world changes.
  • The door opens.
  • A bone breaks.

Passive requires an auxiliary verb and a past participle.
These sentences have no auxiliary verb and no past participle.

So this is not about Passive; rather, this is an example of the difference between
Inchoative and Causative verbs. Inchoative verbs refer to the change of a state or the beginning/continuation/ending of an action. They are intransitive, but they are not Passive. Causative verbs, on the other hand, are transitive, with causer as the subject and the result as the object. This is not Passive, either.

  • They changed the record. ~ The record changed.
  • They opened the door. ~ The door opened.
  • He breaks a bone. ~ A bone breaks.

In fact, the word "active" is usually reserved in English grammar for verbs that act syntactically active -- they take the progressive, they can be used in the imperative or with Action do, etc:

  • He is renting that house in Ypsilanti. (rent is an active verb)
  • *He is owning that house in Ypsilanti. (own is a stative verb)
  • yeah, i'd probably call it an object instead of passive. that is, the subject of the sentense is the object of the action - that's what i meant
    – whyer
    Aug 17, 2021 at 20:14
  • 1
    Probly nobody understood you because subject, object, action, and passive all have specific grammatical senses. That's why examples of what you're talking about are much better than attempts at grammatical descriptions. Aug 17, 2021 at 20:30
  • omg, you're right :) when i used these words i kinda meant their general meaning, 'cause i'm not a linguist. i definitely should've make a notice that they're used in general meaning :)
    – whyer
    Aug 17, 2021 at 21:04
  • No, it's better to give examples. Nobody uses grammatical terminology the same way, so examples are the way to go. Aug 17, 2021 at 22:11

Such verbs are called ergatives:

ergative is a verb that can be used in a construction in which the same noun phrase can serve as a subject when the verb is intransitive, and as a direct object when the verb is transitive.


Ergative verbs are both transitive and intransitive. The object when it is transitive is the same as the subject when it is intransitive:

Peter closed the door. Transitive: N + V + N

The door closed. Intransitive: N + V

I boiled some water. Transitive: N + V + N

The water boiled. Intransitive: N + V


Looks like there isn't any simple rule, but a bunch of guesses, e.g.

In general, ergative verbs tend to communicate a change of state, position, or movement.


So, it seems to me that to determine if a verb is ergative, you just open the dictionary and if you find there both transitive and intransitive meanings - that means the verb is ergative :) e.g:

Definition of close (Entry 1 of 6)

transitive verb

1a : to move so as to bar passage through something Close the gate.

intransitive verb

1a : to contract, fold, swing, or slide so as to leave no opening

The door closed quietly.


-- seems like 'close' is ergative :)

  • Thanks, whyer, but requests for lists are off-topic, and the rest has been covered before. Aug 17, 2021 at 18:57
  • @EdwinAshworth which lists? do you mean i requested for a list of ergatives? i don't think so. i requested for its name and a rule for them.
    – whyer
    Aug 17, 2021 at 19:28
  • 1
    There's no rule, just an increasing list of verbs that undergo the ergative alternation. Collins Cobuild have studied various semantic groups of these verbs. All this has been covered before. // 'John danced a tango.'' Jill dances too.' But *'The tango dances here after 8 pm.' 'Dance' is amphoteric (appears with or without a direct object) but does not undergo the ergative alternation. Many (and increasingly so) but not all amphoteric verbs undergo the ergative alternation. Aug 18, 2021 at 10:04

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