The Internet TESL Journal

Ideas for Teaching Ergative Verbs to ESL Students

Alice Y. W. Chan
City University of Hong Kong (Hong Kong, China)
enalice {at}
This article discusses some practical techniques that ESL teachers can use in the teaching of English ergative verbs. It is suggested that teachers should expose students to a situation which will elicit different responses in different voices (active, middle and passive) authentically and spontaneously.


In English, there is a category of verbs known as Ergative Verbs. They are verbs which allow the three-voice option of active, middle or passive (Lock, 1996). Examples include close, evaporate, bend, increase, sink, shrink, drown, break, change, drop, etc.
  1. The sun evaporates water.  (Active Voice)
  2. Water is evaporated (by the sun).  (Passive Voice)
  3. Water evaporates. (Middle Voice)
  4. Someone dropped a pen. (Active Voice)
  5. A pen was dropped (by someone). (Passive Voice)
  6. A pen dropped. (Middle Voice)

What is the middle voice? The middle voice can be seen as in the middle of active voice and passive voice. When it is used, the object of a transitive clause (e.g. water in sentences 1 and a pen in sentence 4) becomes the subject of an intransitive clause (see sentences 3 and 6). These subjects can be argued as the doers of the actions represented by the ergative verbs (e.g. evaporate in sentence 3 and drop in sentence 6) and act upon themselves, but the actions involved normally come about more or less spontaneously. There may be no doers at all, and even if there are doers, the actions are often not done deliberately or intentionally by the doers.

Some Useful Teaching Techniques

It has been suggested that the differences between ergative and non-ergative verbs can be highlighted by a comparison between two texts, one eliciting non-ergative verbs in the active or passive voice and one eliciting ergative verbs in the middle voice. Students will need to use dictionaries that give sufficient examples and/or grammatical information to allow them to do the comparisons (Lock, 1995). It is also useful to introduce tasks requiring students to select appropriate verb forms in context by deciding whether the events should be represented as implying a doer or not and ask students to formulate a rule about when to use the active voice and when to use the passive voice (Jones, 1995). I found these suggestions practical and I often use them in my own lessons. However, before working on these exercises, I introduce the characteristics of ergative verbs using a pen, like this:


The rationale behind this teaching technique is that it is best to show students the characteristics of ergative verbs by exposing them to a situation which will elicit different responses in different voices authentically and spontaneously. Although it is useful to explain the three-voice option of active, middle or passive verbally using written examples and/or text comparisons, I think it is more effective if students can see, using both their eyes and their brains, that things may happen without an intentional doer, and that there is a need for using the middle voice in situations where a doer is not necessarily implied (or that using the passive voice is not precise enough). The possibility of using the three-voice option for ergative verbs is better discovered by students themselves. I have tried this technique several times with my own students and found it very successful. This technique is also entertaining because it will create some laughter in the classroom. We teachers are not just educators -- sometimes we have to be good actors as well.


The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. XIV, No. 1, January 2008