Ambitransitive verb

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An ambitransitive verb is a verb that can be intransitive or transitive without requiring a morphological change.[1]:4 That is, the same verb form may or may not require a direct object. English has a large number of ambitransitive verbs. Examples include read, break, and understand (e.g., "I read the book," saying what was read, or just "I read all afternoon").

Ambitransitive verbs are common in some languages, and much less so in other languages, where valency tends to be fixed, and there are explicit valency-changing operations (such as passive voice, antipassive voice, applicatives, causatives, etc.).

Agentive and patientive

Generally speaking, there are two types of ambitransitive verbs, distinguished by the alignment of the semantic roles of their arguments with their syntactic roles.[1]:5


Agentive (S = A) ambitransitives are those where the single argument of the intransitive (S) is agentive[2]:87 and it corresponds to the agent (A) of the transitive. In Mary (S) is knitting, and Mary (A) is knitting a scarf (O), the person doing the knitting in both sentences is Mary.[3]:38 Likely candidates for this type of ambitransitive include those where an action can be described in general terms or with respect to a specific patient. English examples include eat, follow, help, knit, read, try, watch, win, know, and many others.[4]:18 These transitive versions have been called unergative verbs, but this term is not fully accepted since it is used for many other senses.[3]:20


Patientive (S = O) ambitransitives are those where the single argument of the intransitive (S) corresponds to the object (O) of the transitive.[2]:88 For example, in the sentence John (S) tripped and John (A) tripped Mary (O), John is not the person doing the falling in both sentences. Likely candidates for this type of ambitransitive are verbs that affect an agent spontaneously, or those that can be engineered by an agent.[1]:20 English has bend, break, burn, burst, change, cool, enter, extend, fall, frighten, grow, hurry, melt, move, open, spill, stretch, trip, turn, twist, walk, and many other verbs.[4]:19

Verbs of this class have been called unaccusative verbs, middle voice, or anticausative verbs in the literature, but again, these term is not universally defined.[1]:20 In fact, Dixon flat out rejects the use of the word ergative to describe such words, which was originated by Halladay's 1967 paper[5] and propagated by Lyons' 1968 textbook,[6] because the "ergativity" is contained entirely in the lexical unit and has no influence on a language's overall morphological or syntactic ergativity.[4]:19

For some of these verbs, native speakers' intuition tells us these words are primarily transitive and secondarily intransitive (such as smash or extend). For other words, the opposite is true (trip, explode, melt, dissolve, walk, march). This latter group can be said to undergo change into a causative verb.[3]:38


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Alternating ambitransitives are not uncommon in English. In the Romance languages, such verbs are rarely found, since the same semantic concept is covered by pseudo-reflexive verbs. These verbs behave like ambitransitives, but the intransitive form requires a clitic pronoun that usually serves also for reflexive constructions. See for example, in Spanish (which uses the pronoun se in the third person):

  • La ventana se rompió. "The window broke."
  • Este barco se está hundiendo. "This boat is sinking."
  • Se derritió todo el helado. "All of the ice cream melted."

In the example, the verbs romper, hundir and derretir are all transitive; they become intransitive by using the pseudo-reflexive clitic, and the direct object becomes the intransitive subject.

Ambiguity may arise between these and true reflexive forms, especially when the intransitive subject is animate (and therefore a possible agent). Me estoy hundiendo usually means "I'm sinking" (patientive first person), but it could also mean "I'm sinking myself", "I'm getting myself sunk" (agentive).


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 Dixon, R.M.W. & Aikhenvald, Alexendra Y. Changing Valency: Case Studies in Transitivity. Cambridge University Press.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Mithun, Marianne. (2000). "Valency-changing derivation in Central Alaskan Yup'ik". In Dixon & Aikhenvald (2000)[1] pp. 84–114.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Dixon, R.M.W. (2000). "A Typology of Causatives: Form, Syntax, and Meaning". In Dixon & Aikhenvald (2000)[1] pp. 30–83
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Dixon, R.M.W. Ergativity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  5. Halladay, M. A. K. (1967) "Notes on transitivity and theme in English, part 1". JL 3.37–81
  6. Lyons, J. (1968). Introduction to theoretical linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

External links

fr:Transitivité (grammaire)#Verbes labiles