“Prices increased” or “Prices were increased”? (Ergative Verbs & Passive Voice)

Special Note: Ergative Verbs (Increase)

Did prices increase or were they increased?

Did prices increase or were they increased?

Firstly, in English, generally sentences are in the active voice or passive voice. However, there is a class of verbs that do not follow this pattern. To explain, let’s look at these three sentences:

Active Voice: The manager increased the prices.

= An active sentence where subject is the ‘actor/agent’ who is doing the verb.

Passive Voice: The prices were increased (by the manager).

= A passive sentence where the subject is the object/patient of the verb.

Middle Voice: The prices increased.

= A ‘middle voice’ in which the subject is the object/patient of the verb, but there is no passive form used (no BE + Past Participle).

Verbs that use this middle voice are called ergative verbs. Examples of ergative verbs include increase, decrease, begin, continue, fly, boil, drop, break. The most common verbs are increase and decrease.

Note that they are different from intransitive verbs. Intransitive verbs do not have an object. They include verbs found in the below sentences:

  • It happened/occurred.
  • He will fall/rise.
  • He died/passed away.
  • She existed.

In contrast, ergative verbs can have an object and be used passively. And surprisingly, they have a similar meaning when no passive form is used even though the object is the sentence subject.

So what’s the difference between the ergative and passive form? Take our example:

  1. The prices were increased. (passive)
  2. The prices increased. (ergative, ‘middle voice’)

In 1, the passive voice, clearly someone increased the prices. We are saying that they were manipulated; they were the object of someone’s action. We could ask, ‘By who?’ and we would expect an answer.

In 2, there may be no identifiable agent/actor who increased the prices or it may be something that happened naturally. We could ask, “Why?” and there may or may not be an answer. Its meaning would be similar if we used an intransitive verb (go up): you are saying ‘prices went up’ and are not suggesting that an agent/actor was the cause. Similarly, when ‘prices decrease’ (ergative) it is the same as saying, ‘prices fell’ (intransitive).

In Summary

  • An intransitive verb does not have an object. E.g. The flower died.
  • A transitive verb has an object. E.g. The boy killed the flower.
  • An ergative verb can be transitive (The chef boiled the water) or intransitive (The water boiled). When is it used intransitively, the subject of the sentence is actually the object of the verb (although there is no passive form (BE + Past Participle).

This is a special case in English.

If you are a student, these differences will become more familiar as you get more exposure and practice with English. I hope this has been helpful. If you have a question, please leave it below in the comments area.

– Matthew Barton / Creator of Englishcurrent.com

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