Unaccusative verbs

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Watch out for these verbs!


The following verbs are a special subgroup of intransitive verbs. These verbs indicate that the subject is not actually doing the action of the verb, but rather, is undergoing or is affected by a change or action, or simply “undergoing” a state of existing. These verbs pose special difficulties for speakers and students from languages like Korean, namely, in passives, there sentences, and inversion. These verbs are technically known as unaccusative verbs, or more informally as change-of-state verbs. In the following examples, an asterisk (*) indicates an ungrammatical usage.

1 Linguistic properties

The following are linguistic characteristics of these verbs.

1. Passivization
These verbs cannot be used in the passive. It is not possible to say:
  • *it is existed, *it is vanished, *it is disappeared, *it is was fallen by the player, *he was died, *it was happened, *it is arisen, *it was appeared

Also, a sentence like the following is not possible with an intransitive meaning, but it is possible a transitive (xkehDtk) counterpart, where the by-phrase may or may not be expressed.

  1. *It was changed. (‘changed’ = intrans.: it changed by itself)
  2. The password was changed (by a hacker). (‘changed’ = trans.)


2. Morphological restrictions
They cannot take the suffix -er or -able (unless they also have a transitive counterpart).
  1. *fallable, *arrivable, *shinable, *snorable, *faller, *arriver, *departer
  2. He is a swimmer/boxer/dreamer/worker.
  3. *He is a faller/an arriver/a departer.


3. Result phrases
They cannot take a so-called result phrase, e.g., where the adjective hoarse is the result of the verb shout; a transitive verb or reflexive (wornlehDtk) expression must be used instead.
  1. *Bozo shouted hoarse.
  2. Bozo shouted himself hoarse.


4. There-insertion
Only state change verbs (and other verbs of existence like be) can be used with there expressions, that is, at the beginning of a sentence to introduce new items. Other intransitive verbs cannot be used in there expressions.
  1. There’s a unicorn in my garden.
  2. There appeared a unicorn in my garden
  3. *There was sinking a ship in the ocean.


5. Inversion
Only ergative verbs, a few verbs of existence (be, take place), and a few motion verbs (e.g., arrive, ascend, come, descend, drop, enter, fall, go, pass, rise), and a few transitive verbs in the passive (see below) can be used in inversion – where a prepositional or adverbial phrase occurs first in the sentence, followed by a verb, and then the subject (similar to there constructions or may be combined with there as above).
  1. From behind (there) appears a large dinosaur chasing you.
  2. In the field grew a large man-eating plant.


The transitives that are allowed with inversion consist of the following categories, whose passives can be used in inversion and there constructions.

  1. Verbs of perception: discern, discover, hear, see, understand, show, find
  2. Verbs of creation: engrave, imprint, inscribe, paint, write, add, build, display, enact, create
  3. Verbs of putting: hang, lay, mount, place, pile, scatter, stack, suspend, glue, pin, strap


2 List of typical verbs

Unaccusatives break down roughly into two major subclasses. The following list is not complete, but includes the more common examples. Note: the same word (e.g., 'sink') can exist as an unaccusative, and/or a regular intransitive, and/or transitive verb, with different meanings.

Verbs of existence
Indicate existence and appearance, including the mere existence or occurrence of an activity.
  1. appear, arise, awake, come, dawn, emanate, emerge, erupt, evolve, flow, grow, issue, materialize, result, rise, stem, stream, supervene, surge, wax (=become);
  2. die, disappear, expire, lapse, perish, vanish
  3. ensue, eventuate, happen, occur, recur, transpire


Verbs of change of state
The subject undergoes a change of state.
  1. abate, advance, age, air, alter, atrophy, awake, balance, blur, burn, burst, capsize, change, clog, close, collapse, collect, compress, condense, contract, corrode, crumble, decompose, decrease, deflate, defrost, degrade, diminish, dissolve, distend, divide, double, drain, ease, enlarge, expand, explode, fade, fill, flood, fray, freeze, fuse, grow, halt, heal, heat, hush, ignite, improve, increase, inflate, kindle, light, mature, melt, multiply, overturn, pop, rekindle, reproduce, rupture, scorch, sear, short(-circuit), shrink, shrivel, singe, sink, soak, spray, sprout, steep, stretch, submerge, subside, taper, thaw, tilt, tire, topple, triple, unfold, vary, warp
  2. clear, cool, dim, dry, dull, empty, even, level, loosen, mellow, narrow, pale, quiet, shut, slow, smooth, sober, sour, steady, tense, thin, triple, warm
  3. break, drift, float, glide, move, revolve, rotate, turn, break, crack, fracture, rip, shatter, splinter, split, tear
  4. close, evaporate, bend, increase, sink, shrink, drown, break, change, drop, fall, die


3 See also