Ambivalence About Ambitransitive Verbs

Having addressed ergative verbs for advanced learners, I feel it’s logical to follow-up with a discussion of verbs in general that have both transitive and intransitive meanings.  Life would be simpler if all sources used the same terminology and agreed on the definitions, but sadly that’s not the case. However, with a clear definition of ergative verbs in my head, I think it’s safe to view ambitransitive verbs as the umbrella term with ergative verbs being a subset. Recent discussions with a few colleagues on this topic have given me the confidence to move forward and present the information as I see it in my mind.

The tricky thing for learners isn’t really the terminology. It’s mastery of the patterns. (See handout for ergative verbs.) In fact, what prompted me to explore the topic of ambitransitive and ergative verbs was a question from a student who wanted to know how to remember all the uses of a verb like suffer. We commonly use the intransitive verb to talk about critically ill patients suffering or those in poverty suffering. The transitive verb is likely more common in the news, where sports teams or businesses can suffer a defeat or suffer a setback. Moving back into the context of health, we have the choice to use suffer + direct object (e.g., suffered a heart attack) or suffer from + indirect object (e.g., suffer from dizziness).  And so, I think the key to learning usage is becoming familiar with collocations and contexts.

Rather than present a long list of ambitransitive verbs for reference, I’d suggest we guide our students to discover the grammar.

1. Start with familiar verbs: read, write, sing.
Have students write sentences where each of these verbs has an object.
For example —
I read the news every day.
Roger is writing a book.
They sang songs around the campfire.

Ask students to remove the direct objects and decide if the sentences still make sense.
I read everyday.
Roger is writing.
They sang around the campfire.

Conclusion: These verbs can have transitive and intransitive meanings. The subject or doer can be the same, which is a different pattern from ergative verbs.

2. Model the use of language resources to teach students how to find collocations.
The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English notes whether a verb is transitive or intransitive. For example, the entry for the verb “whisper” notes that one can whisper about something, whisper something to somebody, or whisper that (+ noun clause).

Just the Word shows common clusters. In the case of “whisper,” we learn that whisper someone’s name and whisper the words are commonly used phrases with the transitive verb. Whispering in someone’s ear is a highly used phrase with the intransitive verb.

Search results on YouGlish would challenge students to distinguish the verb “whisper” from the noun and then note the grammar (e.g., whisper in an ancient language, whisper to people around you, whisper into your ear). Do any of the findings match the results in Just the Word?

3. A short list of ambitransitive verbs can be assigned to the students. If each student researched a verb, they’d all be in a good position to teach the others what they discovered and then create original examples of their own. Suggested verbs: suffer, shout, refuse, decline, perform, explore, negotiate, dust.

Photo credit: Road, Sign, Attention, District, Roung by Geralt. Retrieved from the Public Domain at

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s