Ergative and Unaccusative Verbs

Linguistics 322

Different verbs take different types of complements and assign them to various positions. Two that we will consider here are ergative and unaccusative verbs. The basic one each assign a single argument. Given the binary V -- VP1 -- VP2 hypothesis, an unaccusative verb assigns its argument to the complement of V -- the VP1 position. An ergative verb assigns its argument to the external position: VP2. The agent seems to be universally assigned to the external position. There is a theoretical reason for this, but it lies beyond scope of this class. Ergative verbs include: go, walk, run, swim, work, crawl, sleep (all of these verbs must be intransitive to be ergative). Unaccusative verbs assign theme or patient to the internal position; there are a large number of unaccusative verbs: break, crack, melt, cook, thaw, shine, fall, grow *(all of these verbs must be intransitive to be unaccusative). Many of these verbs have a transitive counterpart which are transitive verbs, often called causative verbs:

the window broke (unacc.) -- John broke the window (causative)

the pot cracked (unacc.) -- Mary cracked the pot (causative)

the ice melted (unacc.) -- The sun melted the ice (causative).

Unaccusative verbs assign the theta role theme or patient to their complement--the sister to the head:

Ergative verbs assign the theta role agent, experiencer, or instrument to their

indirect complement, the sister of VP1:

If an unaccusative verb is reformed into a causative verb, the agent is assigned to the external argument:

Note that the sun is an instrument here, since the sun, as far as I know, has no central processing unit.

The evidence differentiating ergative verbs from unaccusative ones is not very strong in English. Ergative verbs cannot take a resultative clause, but some unaccusative ones may:

  1. The ice melted into water.
  2. The cake burned to a crisp.
  3. The ugly duckling grew into a beautiful swan.

The final PPs in each sentence are resultatives--they describe what the subject has turned into.

  1. *The ugly duckling walked into a beauftiful swan. (i.e. became one).
  2. *John ran into a prof of syntax (i.e. became one).

Another property that helps to distinguish them is that the argument of a verb of motion (ergative) may remain unraised under certain conditions, but this does not appear to be the case with the argument of an unaccusative verb:

  1. Here comes Mary, and there goes John.
  2. On the bench is sitting a poor beggar.
  3. There is a unicorn in the east garden.

This page last updated 16 NO 99

Go to top

To return to course outline Click here.