She drives well on a highway.

This sentence makes sense to me, but so does the next one:

This car drives well on a highway.

I'm not sure why. The car can't drive on its own but second sentence isn't saying that it's simply saying a driver can drive the car well on a highway.

Let's say if I want to say "Drivers are not allowed to drive tow trucks on a highway". Can I rephrase it and say "Tow trucks are not allowed to drive on a highway"?

2 Answers 2


English has is a zero-marked valency transformation which allows the object of many verbs to be used as a subject, with the object unspecified.

He burned down the house.

The house burned down.


The sun melted the ice.

The ice melted.

Note that this is not the passive! The passive voice in English is formed with be + PP, eg:

The car was driven on the highway [by her].

So your are correct in noting that drive can take two different kinds of subjects, but this is by no means unique to the verb drive, nor is it an example of anthropomorphization as mentioned elsewhere. This is instead a regular feature of English syntax, albeit one that is seldom explicitly taught.

In linguistics literature these verbs are sometimes called ergative verbs, which are similar to to unaccusative verbs.

  • I'm not convinced that this is an instance of ergativity. My understanding is that in a transitive use of the ergative verb the subject causes the object to perform the intransitive sense of the verb. In this case, the intransitive derives from the transitive sense and denotes the object's capacity to accept the transitive sense. "This car drives well" = "This car is easy to drive". Dec 5, 2012 at 5:07
  • This is neither ergativity nor unergativity. There are a number of constructions (like Middle -- This brand is selling fast ~ [indef] is selling this brand fast; or Flip -- He scares me ~ I'm scared of him) that have the effect of putting some non-agent participant in subject position. Most of these are governed by individual verbs or semantic classes of verbs (see Levin 1993), but they're quite distinct and have different properties, functions, and tests. Dec 5, 2012 at 17:47
  • (too late to edit the above to add) Levin 1993 verb classes link. Dec 5, 2012 at 17:59

These are two very different sentences with different meanings.

When you say she in the first sentence, you are referring to her (a person's) capability to drive well in highway conditions.

And, when you say this car in the second sentence, you are referring to the car's (a machine's) capability to be driven well in highway conditions, due to perhaps of its make and features.

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