Ergative verbs Using the middle voice

As noted in the section on writing objectively, academic writing tends to use an impersonal tone. This is most often connected with the use of passive, which removes the actor from the sentence. It is generally preferrable in writing, including academic writing, to use active rather than passive voice, though this is not always possible in academic writing if the tone is to remain impersonal without use of I or other pronouns. There is, however, a special group of verbs in English called ergative verbs, which are used in the active voice without the actor of the sentence.

This page explains what ergative verbs are and gives a list of ergative verbs, referencing these against some common academic word lists to show which may be suitable for academic English.

What are ergative verbs?

In English, verbs can be transitive (taking an object), intransitive (not taking an object), or both. Only transitive verbs can be made passive, since the passive is constructed by making the object of the sentence the subject. For example:

passive passive

Ergative verbs are verbs which are both transitive and intransitive, with the additional quality that the object can become the subject without changing the verb to passive. In this intransitive use, there seems to be no agent of the action, since the original subject is missing, making their use objective and therefore more academic. For example:

  • I dissolved the white powder in the liquid. (transitive)
  • The white powder dissolved in the liquid. (intransitive)
  • The white powder was dissolved in the liquid. (passive)

  • The government increased the tax rate in 2010. (transitive)
  • The tax rate increased in 2010. (intransitive)
  • The tax rate was increased in 2010. (passive)

  • The workers started the building work six months ago. (transitive)
  • The building work started six months ago. (intransitive)
  • The building work was started six months ago. (passive)

Ergative verbs are often used to show a change of state (dissolve, form, increase, melt, start) and movement (move, navigate, sweep, turn), and verbs of this sense are common in academic writing. They can also be used for cooking (bake, boil, cook, marinate) and for action involving vehicles (crash, double-park, drive, rev up, slow down, speed up), and verbs with these senses would be less common in academic writing.

Ergative verbs list

The following is a list of ergative verbs. It is based on a list from Julia Miller of the University of Adelaide.

accelerate      3k 
accumulate  tick  tick   tick  tick 3kAWL 8
adjust  tick    tick  tick 3kAWL 5
age tick    tick  tick  1k 
amalgamate      8k 
assimilate      5k 
average out tick    tick  tick  2k 
awake tick      2k 
bake tick      2k 
balance tick    tick  tick  2k 
beat tick     tick  1k 
begin tick     tick  1k 
belch out      9k 
bend tick     tick  2k 
blacken tick      1k 
blare      9k 
blister      6k 
blow tick     tick  1k 
blow up tick     tick  1k 
blur      4k 
boil tick     tick  2k 
boil away tick     tick  2k 
boil down tick     tick  2k 
boil down to tick     tick  2k 
bond  tick    tick  tick 2kAWL 6
break tick     tick  1k 
break off tick     tick  1k 
break up tick     tick  1k 
brighten tick      1k 
bruise      4k 
buckle      5k 
budge      8k 
build up tick     tick  1k 
bulk up  tick     4kAWL 9
bulk out  tick     4kAWL 9
burn tick     tick  1k 
burn down tick     tick  1k 
burn up tick     tick  1k 
burst tick      2k 
capsize      11k 
catapult      8k 
centre tick    tick  tick  1k 
change tick   tick  tick  tick  1k 
cheer up tick      2k 
clear tick    tick  tick  1k 
click      4k 
clink      9k 
clip      2k 
clog up      6k 
close tick      1k 
close up tick      1k 
close down tick      1k 
coil      5k 
combine tick    tick  tick  2k 
commence  tick     5kAWL 9
compress      4k 
conflate      10k 
conflict  tick  tick  tick  tick  tick 3kAWL 5
connect tick    tick  tick  2k 
contort      9k 
contract  tick     tick 2kAWL 1
contribute  tick  tick  tick   tick 2kAWL 3
convene  tick     tick 5kAWL 3
convert  tick  tick  tick  tick  tick 3kAWL 7
convulse      7k 
cook tick      1k 
cool tick     tick  1k 
condense      5k 
coordinate  tick  tick   tick  tick 3kAWL 3
correlate      3k 
crack tick     tick  2k 
crash tick     tick  2k 
crash land tick     tick  2k 
crease      6k 
crisp      2k 
crumple up      6k 
crystallise      3k 
curl tick      2k 
darken      1k 
decompose      7k 
decrease tick     tick  3k 
deepen tick     tick  1k 
deflate      7k 
demobilise      / 
derail      9k 
derive  tick  tick  tick  tick  tick 3kAWL 1
detach      4k 
develop tick   tick  tick  tick  2k 
devolve      7k 
dig tick      1k 
dilute      5k 
dim      4k 
diminish  tick  tick  tick  tick  4kAWL 9
disband      8k 
disengage      8k 
disperse      4k 
dissipate      7k 
dissolve      4k 
divide tick    tick  tick  2k 
dock      4k 
double tick     tick  1k 
double-park      / 
drain      3k 
dress up tick     tick  1k 
dribble      7k 
drip      4k 
drive tick     tick  1k 
drop tick      1k 
drown tick      4k 
dry off tick     tick  1k 
dry out tick     tick  1k 
dry up tick     tick  1k 
ease tick     tick  2k 
edge tick     tick  1k 
emanate      6k 
empty tick      1k 
end tick     tick  1k 
engage      2k 
enrol      4k 
erode  tick  tick   tick  tick 5kAWL 9
evaporate      5k 
even out tick     tick  1k 
expand  tick   tick  tick  tick 3kAWL 5
fade tick      3k 
fasten tick      5k 
fatten tick      1k 
fill tick      1k 
finish tick     tick  1k 
flatten tick     tick  1k 
float tick     tick  2k 
flutter      5k 
focus  tick  tick  tick  tick  tick 3kAWL 2
fold up tick     tick  2k 
form tick   tick  tick  tick  1k 
fray      6k 
freak (out)      6k 
funnel      7k 
fuse      4k 
graze      4k 
grill      4k 
group tick   tick  tick  tick  1k 
grow tick     tick  1k 
grow out tick     tick  1k 
gush      7k 
halt      3k 
hang tick     tick  1k 
harden tick     tick  1k 
heal tick      3k 
hush      6k 
ignite      5k 
inch tick      2k 
incline  tick    tick  tick 4kAWL 10
increase tick   tick  tick  tick  2k 
industrialise      2k 
inflate      3k 
integrate  tick  tick  tick  tick  tick 3kAWL 4
interlink      3k 
interlock      8k 
interweave      9k 
jam      2k 
jerk      4k 
kick off tick      1k 
knot tick      4k 
land tick     tick  1k 
leak      3k 
lengthen tick     tick  2k 
lessen tick   tick    1k 
lighten tick      2k 
line up tick     tick  1k 
liven up      12k 
lower tick   tick    2k 
march tick     tick  2k 
marinate      10k 
mark (=stain) tick      1k 
marry tick     tick  1k 
mass tick     tick  2k 
match tick      2k 
match up tick      2k 
meet (with) tick     tick  1k 
melt tick     tick  2k 
mesh      6k 
mist (over)      4k 
mix tick     tick  2k 
move tick     tick  1k 
move along tick     tick  1k 
multiply tick   tick   tick  4k 
muster      6k 
mutate      5k 
narrow tick      2k 
naturalise      8k 
navigate      4k 
nestle      7k 
nose tick     tick  1k 
open tick     tick  1k 
open up tick     tick  1k 
open out tick     tick  1k 
operate tick    tick  tick  2k 
organise tick   tick   tick  2k 
originate      4k 
ossify      14k 
overheat      8k 
pair off tick     tick  1k 
pair up tick     tick  1k 
pan tick      2k 
parachute      6k 
pass tick      1k 
peel      4k 
percolate      10k 
petrify      9k 
pile up tick      2k 
play tick     tick  1k 
plop      10k 
plunge      4k 
pour tick      2k 
prick up      7k 
puff      5k 
put up tick      1k 
quadruple      8k 
qualify tick      2k 
quieten      1k 
quieten down      1k 
radiate      3k 
rain down tick     tick  1k 
rank tick     tick  3k 
rate tick   tick  tick  tick  1k 
rattle      4k 
rearm      11k 
redouble      1k 
reflect tick   tick  tick  tick  3k 
reform      3k 
refuel      9k 
register  tick    tick  tick 2kAWL 3
relate tick   tick  tick   1k 
relax  tick     tick 2kAWL 9
reopen      1k 
reorganise      2k 
resettle      1k 
rest tick     tick  1k 
restart      1k 
return tick     tick  1k 
reunite      2k 
rev      6k 
rev up      6k 
revive      3k 
rewind      10k 
rhyme      6k 
ring tick      1k 
ripen      5k 
rock tick     tick  1k 
roll tick      1k 
rotate      4k 
ruffle      7k 
run tick     tick  1k 
rupture      7k 
rush (into) tick      2k 
scuff      10k 
sell tick     tick  1k 
separate tick   tick  tick  tick  2k 
settle tick     tick  1k 
sharpen up tick      2k 
shatter      4k 
shear off      6k 
shorten tick     tick  1k 
shrivel      11k 
shut tick      1k 
shut down tick      1k 
shut up tick      1k 
shuttle      5k 
sign up tick     tick  1k 
sink tick     tick  2k 
slacken      5k 
slam      4k 
slew      9k 
slide tick     tick  2k 
slim down      4k 
slop      6k 
slot      4k 
slow tick      1k 
slow up tick      1k 
slow down tick      1k 
slur      8k 
snap      2k 
sober up      5k 
soften tick     tick  1k 
solidify tick     tick  2k 
sound tick   tick   tick  1k 
speed up tick     tick  2k 
spew      9k 
spill tick     tick  3k 
spill out tick     tick  3k 
spin tick      2k 
splash      4k 
splinter      6k 
split tick      2k 
split up tick      2k 
spray      2k 
spread tick    tick  tick  2k 
sprout      5k 
square with tick     tick  1k 
squeeze      3k 
stall      4k 
stampede      11k 
start tick      1k 
stick tick      1k 
stiffen (up) tick      2k 
still tick      1k 
stir tick     tick  2k 
stop tick      1k 
straighten      1k 
strengthen tick   tick  tick  tick  2k 
stretch tick     tick  2k 
strike up tick     tick  1k 
submerge      6k 
suckle      10k 
suffocate      7k 
sweep tick      2k 
swell tick      3k 
swerve      7k 
swill      12k 
swing tick     tick  2k 
swirl      5k 
swivel      7k 
tack      5k 
tan      5k 
tangle      4k 
taper      7k 
tarnish      8k 
taxi tick     tick  2k 
tear tick      1k 
tense (up)  tick    tick  tick 2kAWL 8
terminate  tick     tick 4kAWL 8
thaw      7k 
thaw out      7k 
thicken      1k 
thin tick     tick  2k 
thrash about      6k 
thump      5k 
tie in with tick      1k 
tie up with tick      1k 
tighten tick      1k 
tilt      4k 
toll      5k 
toot      12k 
topple      6k 
touch tick     tick  1k 
train tick     tick  1k 
transfer  tick    tick  tick 2kAWL 2
translate tick     tick  3k 
transmute      11k 
treble      8k 
trickle      5k 
triple      5k 
turn tick     tick  1k 
twang      11k 
twine      6k 
twirl      8k 
twist tick      2k 
unfold      2k 
unfurl      10k 
unravel      6k 
unroll      1k 
unzip      5k 
vaporise      11k 
vibrate      4k 
waft      8k 
waggle      11k 
wake (up) tick     tick  1k 
waken tick      1k 
warm up tick     tick  1k 
wash tick      1k 
weaken tick     tick  2k 
wear away tick     tick  1k 
wear down tick     tick  1k 
wear out tick     tick  1k 
whirl      6k 
widen      1k 
wind down tick     tick  1k 
winter tick     tick  1k 
withdraw      3k 
worsen tick      1k 
wrinkle      5k 


Miller, J. (n.d.). Ergative verbs. Available from: (Accessed 10 April, 2023).


Like the website? Try the books. Enter your email to receive a free sample from Academic Writing Genres.


Previous section

Go back to the previous section about writing objectively.


Sheldon Smith

Author: Sheldon Smith    ‖    Last modified: 05 February 2024.

Sheldon Smith is the founder and editor of He has been teaching English for Academic Purposes since 2004. Find out more about him in the about section and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

Popular pages in the writing sectionMost viewed pages