Two Good Reasons to Know About Ergative Verbs

When I first heard the term ergative verbs, I thought to myself, What?! I worried that perhaps I didn’t know something every other ESL/EFL teacher knew. Well, although I wasn’t a new teacher by the time I discovered ergative verbs, it turns out that I wasn’t alone in my lack of familiarity. Since then, I’ve met other ESL professionals who also had the Erga-what? reaction upon hearing this term.

I decided to be very open about my late discovery in a recent YouTube grammar lesson. I made ergative verbs the focus. I admitted that what I was teaching wasn’t a part of my knowledge when I first got certified to teach. But that raises the question, “Why learn this? Is this topic really necessary to study?”

As much as I love the subject of grammar, I believe there are times when too much terminology hinders learning. But I also believe that metalanguage is a very useful tool.  We should be able to talk about the language we use for daily communication, and there are students who want to have these discussions. As an online teacher, I’ve encountered some very knowledgeable ELLs who make use of various reference books and resources on the web. I consider terminology a part of my teacher vocabulary, and learning new terms better prepares me for questions that get sent my way week after week.

Reason 1: It’s useful to build your vocabulary, metalanguage included.

More important, terminology gives us names for concepts. As language teachers, we need to recognize and understand patterns used in speech. If there’s a category of verbs, then why not be familiar with the patterns those verbs follow? Then we can teach and practice these patterns in the classroom.

Reason 2: To teach grammar, we need to understand grammar, and that assumes strong familiarity with how language works.

A term like “ergative verbs” may be a mouthful to say, but stumbling over the pronunciation isn’t as bad as breaking the pattern these verbs follow.

If you’d like to study and practice ergative verbs with your students, please see my Ergative Verbs_handout.



Photo credit: Upset, Sad, Confused, Figurine by ErikaWittleib. Retrieved from the Public Domain at

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