In the prior post, I postulated that verbs with a dative second argument (or a “dative (direct) object”) have lower transitivity. This analysis presumes a different view of transitivity than appears in traditional Greek grammars.

Transitivity as a scaler phenomenon

In traditional grammar, transitivity is an on/off feature of a verb (or clause). The clause is transitive if it has a direct object; the clause is intransitive if it has a no direct object. As an example, consider this note from the illustrious Smyth:

Transitive and Intransitive Verbs.—Verbs capable of taking a direct object are called transitive because their action passes over to an object. Other verbs are called intransitive.

Herbert Smyth, A Greek Grammar for Colleges, sec. 920.

By contrast, transitivity in newer theories of language is viewed as a scalar phenomenon.[1] In short, that means that clauses are viewed as being more or less transitive. This ranking of more or less transitive is based on a variety of different features that have been shown across the world’s languages too co-vary with one another in different situations of transitivity.

In an important paper, Hopper and Thompson lay out the following features of transitivity:[2]

 HighLow
Participants2 or more participants (Agent and Object)1 participant
Kinesisactionnon-action
Aspecttelicatelic
Punctualitypunctualnon-punctual
Volitionalityvolitionalnon-volitional
Affirmationaffirmativenegative
Moderealisirrealis
AgencyAgent high in potencyAgent low in potency
Affectedness of ObjectObject totally affectedObject not affected
Individuation of ObjectObject highly individuatedObject non-individuated

Naturally, this theory is not without its detractors and difficulties. For instance, it pulls together features from different levels of language as though they are all equal: features of verbs, features of mood, features of discourse, etc. However, it does have some real explanatory strength.

Basics of “scaler transitivity”

This table illustrates that there are a variety of features which are relevant for considering how transitive a clause is or is not. That transitivity is in fact a scaler phenomenon is intuitive, once we give it thought. Consider the following four sentences:

  1. She hits the ball.
  2. He likes her.
  3. They swim the channel.
  4. The ice cream is melting.

All of these sentences are active voice.[3] On traditional terminology, we say the first three are transitive and the last one is intransitive. A moments reflection, though, makes it clear that these sentences are all rather different in the slice of reality that they portray. In (1) the object, “ball,” is totally affected by the action of the actor. In (2) and (3), though, the object is not. “Her” is not inherently affected at all by the action of the verb. “She” is “liked” and the “channel” is “swum,” but in neither case does that necessarily affect the object. Lastly, in (4), the subject is affected by the action of the verb and there is no object. Considering these sentences in terms of scaler transitivity, we would say that (1) has high transitivity. (2) and (3) both have mid-to-low transitivity, with (3) being more transitive in that “swim” is more of an action than “like.” Finally, (4) has very low transitivity.

That is a crash course on transitivity as a scaler phenomenon. The interested reader would do well to check out Hopper and Thompson’s paper. The first few pages lay out the basic ideas in a straightforward way without having to slog through multi-lingual examples or tons of theoretical terminology (but for those who are used to that, the rest of the paper should feel right at home). The real point of this post is to set up for a further thought about a certain group of verbs.

Verbs with Dative arguments: a test spin

As an initial test to demonstrate the direction I am thinking, I will take two verbs which have obvious distinctions in transitivity: κλάω “I break” and πιστεύω “I believe.” Let’s compare the following two examples:

Acts 20:11 καὶ κλάσας τὸν ἄρτον “and having broken the bread”

Mat 21.32 καὶ αἱ πόρναι ἐπίστευσαν αὐτῷ “and the prostitutes believed him”

First, what we will see in applying these various considerations is that they are not equally relevant. In this case, I have selected two verbs which are both: (1) realis (ἐπίστευσεν is indicative mood and κλάσας, while a participle, is part of the narrative mainline of a historical text speaking of the actual state of affairs rather than a hypothetical one); (2) aorist, which is the aspect form profiling verbal event boundaries—that is, both are telic; (3) affirmative, meaning they are not negative sentences; and (4) they both have two participants, an Agent and an Object. These similarities limit some of the more complex aspects of the scaler transitivity approach and allow us to consider more clearly how the transitivity of these two verbs stacks up against each other.[4] Applying the various considerations to these two, we get something like the following:

Acts 20:11 καὶ κλάσας τὸν ἄρτον “and having broken the bread”

  • Kinesis: action
  • Punctuality: punctual
  • Volitionality: volitional
  • Agency: Agent high in potency
  • Affectedness of Object: O totally affected
  • Individuation of Object: O highly individuated

In short, κλάω in this above participial clause scores high on transitivity.

Let’s compare that now with πιστεύω in Mat 21.32:

Mat 21.32 καὶ αἱ πόρναι ἐπίστευσαν αὐτῷ “and the prostitutes believed him”

  • Kinesis: non-action
  • Punctuality: punctual
  • Volitionality: volitional
  • Agency: A high in potency
  • Affectedness of O: O not affected
  • Individuation of O: O highly individuated

While πιστεύω in this clause is clearly transitive, it does score lower than κλάω. There are two parameters where it displays features associated with low rather than high transitivity.

First, in the parameter of Kinesis πιστεύω is a non-action. Of course, believing is volitional, as covered in that category on the scaler transitivity schema, but it is not an action involving the transference of energy between entities in the real world. Metaphorically, we can understand believing as a transfer of energy between entities, but on the kinesis parameter it certainly differs from κλάω which involves an obvious transfer of energy (action) between entities in the real world.

Second, in the parameter of Affectedness of Object, in πιστεύω the object is not affected. This is most obvious by considering κλάω in terms of transfer of energy. In κλάω, the agent transfers energy into the object and the result is that the object is totally affected–it changes state from non-broken to broken. In πιστεύω, by contrast, nothing necessarily happens to the object of belief. In a commonsense view of the world, little to nothing changes in John the Baptist (the person “believed” in our example text from Matt.) when the tax collectors and prostitutes believe him.

Where we are

This short little exercise using just two easy examples shows the general idea I am working with. Verbs with a dative second argument are, by any definitive, transitive. However, the fact that at some point in the history of the language it was “decided” that they would have a dative rather than an accusative second argument is of significance. While far from a complete explanation, I am proposing that dative second argument verbs are low in transitivity. The preliminary example shows this is the case in at least one common dative second argument verb. More examples and more testing is in order. Stay tuned (but don’t hold your breath; out of all the things I currently have to do, I can’t say that analyzing transitivity patterns ranks exceptionally high on the list, even if it is interesting).


[1] The key work pointed to is that of Paul J. Hopper and Sandra A. Thompson, “Transitivity in Grammar and Discourse,” Language 56, no. 2 (June 1980): 251–99.

[2] Hopper and Thompson, “Transitivity in Grammar and Discourse,” 252.

[3] The passive voice is a de-transitivizied way of presenting a situation. This stems from the simple fact that passivizing a clause removes the agent argument (which can be added via a “by” phrase in English) to present a clause with one less participant. “She hits the ball” becomes “the ball is hit.” And, also noteworthy, the argument that is removed is the agent argument, that is, the active member of the equation is remove/moved, so that the syntactic subject becomes the recipient of the verbal action, rather than the initiator. In each case, the ball is totally affected by the action of the verb, but the passive version is less transitive in that it has one less participant. It profiles the recipient of the action, but does not profile the agent who carries out the action.

[4] Note that we are actually comparing how transitivity the clauses are. In practice, this often is a difference without a distinction, but it is worth mentioning because we are viewing transitivity here as something more complicated than just the argument structure of a verb (whether it takes a [direct] object or not).