Wordplay is a regular column by editor and language writer James Harbeck in which he tastes and plays with English words and usages.
We’ve all learned that there are two kinds of verbs: transitive and intransitive. Transitives take a direct object—“I fry an egg”—and intransitives don’t—“My stomach aches.” But that’s not the whole story. In fact, it’s not actually quite right.
For one thing, there are also impersonal verbs (“It seems to me,” “It rained”), which don’t even have proper subjects, just empty pro forma its.
For another thing, there are different kinds of intransitive verbs. Linguists divide them into unergative, where the subject really is the one doing the thing, and unaccusative, where the subject is treated as being on the receiving end of the action and can be modified by the past participle. We see from the guests are departed and the departed guests that depart is unaccusative; run, on the other hand, is unergative—you can’t say the run horse.
There are also verbs that change from intransitive to transitive or vice versa—several kinds of them. We don’t always think about them. In fact, some details of them are still being argued about by linguists.
I think it’s time for a quick field guide to these changeable verbs, complete with their overstuffed technical names.
Some verbs can name the object of the action or not, but they always say who or what is doing the action (i.e., what is the agent). Read is one of these: “What are you doing?” “I’m reading.” “Reading what?” “I’m reading this article on grammar.” These are the nice, simple ones, and we don’t need to worry about them. But worry, now… yes, that verb can worry us a bit more, or we can worry it.
With worry, the object when it’s transitive—“That worries me”—is the subject when it’s intransitive—“I worry about that.” Another one of these is break: “I broke the window,” but “The window broke” and “The window is broken.” And if “I fry an egg,” then “The egg is frying.” Do those look like the unaccusatives I just mentioned? Some say that’s what these are. But some linguists argue that these aren’t true unaccusatives, precisely because they have transitive variants. True unaccusatives, like come and arrive, can’t be used this way. So what do we call these ones? Ergatives (from a Greek root for work). Well, some of us call them that, anyway.
Some people call some of these middle voice. Take for example shave: “The barber shaved me” or “I shaved myself”; “I shaved” means “I shaved myself” and “The barber shaved” means “The barber shaved himself.” Why middle voice? Because it’s not exactly active and it’s not exactly passive—or, we could say, it’s both at the same time.
Our real favourites, though (if by “favourites” we mean “favourites to get exercised about”) are a set of verbs that express transitive causation by using the past tense of the intransitive form. We don’t make new preterite causatives anymore, but we have some lying around… not laying around.
Yes, lay is one of these. “I lie down today,” “I lay down yesterday”; “Now I lay me down to sleep” (reflexive), and “I lay down the law of grammar” (transitive). We wanted something to express “cause another thing to lie down,” and we just used our past tense of the intransitive for the present of the transitive (and then made a new double past from that: lay gets a d to be laid). I’m sure many of you wish we hadn’t.
Another one like this is fell. This isn’t an ergative—if it were, you could have “I am felling the tree; the tree is felling.” Nope. “The tree falls,” “The tree fell”; “I fell the tree today,” and “I felled the tree yesterday.”
Cognate object constructions
There’s one more especially fun case: verbs that are intransitive—and in some cases always and everywhere intransitive and never taking an object—except when the object is a nominalization of the verb. You die, and you don’t die something, but you can die a death. You can die the death of a hero; you can die a happy death or a sad death. Likewise, you can smile, and you can’t smile me and I can’t smile you and neither of us can smile our faces (not in standard English, anyway), but we can smile a smile. I can smile an aimless smile that hovers in the air and vanishes along the level of the roofs (to steal from T.S. Eliot). And then perhaps you can smile that same smile.
What do we call these? What we probably should call them is a term Iva Cheung made up for them: self-transitives. But in case you haven’t noticed, linguists sometimes like ugly terms a bit too much, and so it turns out that the technical term for this sort of thing is cognate object construction, because the object has to be cognate (coming from the same source) with the verb. I wouldn’t blame you for preferring Iva’s term, though.
This article was copy edited by Robin Marwick.