Appendix:English ergative verbs

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An ergative verb in English is an intransitive verb with a passive meaning that alternates with a transitive verb with active meaning.

A normal transitive verb like destroy in active form takes an ACTOR (the doer of an action) subject and an UNDERGOER (the person/thing having something done to it) object:

The man destroyed the car. (transitive, active)
the man (subject) = ACTOR
the car (object) = UNDERGOER

In the passive counterpart to this sentence, the UNDERGOER becomes the subject:

The car was destroyed. (transitive, passive)
the car (subject) = UNDERGOER

An ergative verb can have a subject that is an UNDERGOER but without being in the passive form. This is the case with sink/sank/sunk.

The man sank the boat. (transitive, active)
the man (subject) = ACTOR
the boat (object) = UNDERGOER
The boat was sunk. (intransitive, passive)
the boat (subject) = UNDERGOER
The boat sank. (intransitive, active) ≈ ergative
the boat (subject) = PATIENT

Many but not all English verbs can have ergative syntax. This list is not exhaustive.

Ergative verbs should be distinguished from middle verbs (Category:English middle verbs) which require the support of some adverbial (e.g. The baggage transfers easily but not *The baggage transfers.)