Shape-Shifters

Order something online, and soon thereafter you receive an email like this: Your order has shipped. You understand the sentence, but what does the grammar mean? Taking a look at this construction will give us a chance to review some of the basics and add—guardedly—a new design to our repertoire.

We know that sentences are composed of clauses, and that a clause is a group of words with a subject and a predicate (the predicate comprising the verb and all the other words it needs to complete its meaning). If the subject of a clause is acting on something else (We have shipped your order), then the verb is said to be transitive. Transitive verbs train their action on a direct object (your order), and if the subject of a transitive verb is actually what is undertaking the action (We), then the subject is said to be an agent, and the verb is said to be in the active voice. Being aware of these few technicalities can have a marked effect on our writing, because a transitive verb in the active voice is the most energetic and full-blooded shape our sentences can take on.

Verbs that do not fix their action on a direct object are called intransitive, and here is where our original sentence (Your order has shipped) turns curious. The verb has shipped is clearly intransitive, because there is no direct object, and order has assumed the responsibility of an agent, the subject that is doing something. But who expected the order to do anything in the first place? As the customer, we are expecting just the opposite: someone to do something to our order, namely, ship it. So what logically and grammatically (and ethically) should take on the form of a subject doing something actively with a transitive verb to a direct object (We have shipped your order), has reorganized itself in an unexpected way: what logically is the direct object (your order) has now become the agent, and what logically was a transitive verb (has shipped) has now become an intransitive verb. We seem to be in the vicinity of Alice’s wonderland.

When transitive verbs twist themselves into intransitives like this, transforming their direct objects into subjects, they are called ergative verbs. The term derives (there’s another instance of it!) from the classical Greek meaning work, perhaps alluding to the fact that something that was at first passively acted upon (the direct object) now takes on the work of acting as an agent doing something (the subject). The construction is increasingly common, particularly in commercial contexts; some other examples are: five copies sold last week and test scores increased. And although it is true that we regularly attribute agency to inanimate objects (The documents revealed the extent of his corruption), it seems to be all the twisting and turning of the ergative construction—particularly the elimination of a real subject—that rings the alarm for some.

And this last point, the absence of an actual subject, is why we should, I think, employ the construction guardedly. Subjects, by acting, take on responsibility, and when we get in the habit of writing (and therefore thinking) in such a way that we transfer responsibility implicitly to inanimate objects, then we might just come to believe that all circumstances are inevitable, and that no one is really responsible for anything. And that would be a very curious world, indeed.

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2 Comments

  1. Wouldn’t “Your order has been shipped” be more grammatically correct than “your order has shipped?”

    1. The passive construction you suggest would be another option, but it too eliminates the agent. I do not mean to suggest that the ergative construction (Your order has shipped) is incorrect, just that we should be cautious about employing it in contexts where a subject should in fact be named. My own opinion is that it is better restricted to commercial language (another example would be: five of the new alarm clocks sold yesterday), where naming the agent is not usually relevant. The construction becomes problematic, though, when the purpose is to deflect responsibility: the car drove into a crowd of protesters. Assuming the car was not an autonomous vehicle, this ergative construction might very well be merely an attempt to turn the reader’s attention away from the fact that someone willfully drove the car in such a way.

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