Thayer Watkins
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The Ergative Case

Ergative Case

The ergative case is hard to understand because it refers to something not found in English. Generally it has to do with a language having a special indication that the subject in a sentence which has a transitive verb and direct object. If the subject is the agent of the action involved for the transitive verb then then there is special marker attached to the noun which is the subject. This puts the noun into the ergative case. For sentences with intransitive verbs the subject is treated grammatically the same as direct objects are treated in sentences with transitive verbs.

Few languages have the ergative case feature. The most notable are Basque, Sumerian and Greenlandic.

English is not an ergative language and furthermore it does not distinguish between the use of a noun for a subject and for an object. However, personal pronouns in English are generally so distinguished. We say, He kissed her and She kissed him. In English we say He puckered up, but if English were an ergative language we would say Him puckered up. There is a certain logic to this construction in that the phrase Puckered him up, sounds right although unusual. (Somewhat like Star Wars' Yoda's syntax.)

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