I've seen kind of transitive verbs which can be intransitive verbs.

For example,

  • The book sells well.
  • The pencil writes well.
  • The door opens well.

They all mean to be a general state.

Based on this thinking, I suppose that 'bully' can be used like them, in that weak students commonly are bullied by bullies, although I haven't seen it is used as an intransitive verb on any dictionary.

In this way, I've made this sentence :

Weak students bully easily by bullies.

Is this sentence acceptable ?

  • 1
    I find it barely acceptable in this case, where the "by bullies" makes it explicit. But I would always understand "They bully easily" to mean that they were doing the bullying (though 'easily' is odd in that context). Unaccusative forms like this are mostly restricted to verbs that express a change of state in the object, or making use of the object for something else, not something where the action itself is the point.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 12:02
  • @ColinFine You mean only by 'by bullies' the sentence meaning is pinned down in that way ?
    – GKK
    Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 12:13
  • 1
    Yes. I mean that I would not understand "bully" used in an intransitive way unless the agent is expressed - and even then, I would regard it as strange.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 12:19
  • @ColinFine Your explaining is very helpful.
    – GKK
    Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 12:21
  • Here's the definition of "bully" from thefreedictionary.com/bully (intransitive) 1. To behave like a bully. 2. To force one's way aggressively or by intimidation: "They bully into line at the gas pump" (Martin Gottfried).
    – Nick
    Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 15:27

1 Answer 1


You're looking at two different kinds of verbs, each with it's own behavior. 


The book sells. 
The door opens. 

These verbs are ergative.  When transitive, their subjects represent semantic actors or agents, and their objects represent semantic patients.  When intransitive, the subjects represent patients. 

Ergative clauses carry semantics similar to reflexive or passive clauses:

Ergative   --->   Reflexive   /   Pasive
The book sells.   --->   The book sells itself.   /   The book is sold.
The door opens.   --->   The door opens itself.   /   The door is opened.


The pencil writes.
Some students bully.

These verbs are not ergative. The absence of an object here does not make these subjects into patients.

Non-ergative clauses have different semantics than reflexive or passive clauses:

Non-Ergative   -X->   Reflexive   /   Pasive
The pencil writes.   -X->   The pencil writes itself.   /   The pencil is written. 
Some students bully.   -X->   Some students bully themselves.   /   Some students are bullied. 


An ergative clause neither requires nor allows an agent.&nbsp meant;

The book sells by that shop.  -X->  That shop sells the book. 
The door opens by John.  -X->  John opens the door. 

Even if "bully" were ergative, your example sentence would still contain an error.  You'd have a verb that claims to have no agent combined with a prepositional phrase that claims to be the verb's agent.  What agent (except Schrodinger's cat) can both exist and not exist in the same container at the same moment?


The sentence that you want is: 

Weak students are easily bullied. 

The passive voice implies that an agent exists, but does not require that that agent be supplied. 



I mean the plain arrow ( ---> ) to represent "is similar to" and the crossed-out arrow (-X-> ) to represent "is not similar to".  Clauses after the crossed-out arrow are not necessarily wrong.  They're simply not related to the clauses before the arrows. 

  • On oxford learners' dictionary, There is the example opposite to your opinion. "This pen won't write."
    – GKK
    Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 15:49
  • And in my opinion it does not make sense "The book sells itself." how does the book sell itself? The book is just a thing not a human.
    – GKK
    Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 15:57
  • That reference does not oppose my opinion. "This pen won't write" is a perfectly sound clause. I never claimed otherwise. However, this "write" is not ergative. The sentences "This pen won't write" and "This pen isn't written" have very dissimilar meanings, and the second isn't naturally sensible. On the other hand, "this book sells" and "this book is sold" have very similar meanings, because "sells" is ergative. Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 16:04
  • I suggest that you browse through some of the 88,800 results that Google finds for the phrase "it sells itself". It's more than a sensible phrase. It's a common cliche. Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 16:06
  • I got it. I've misunderstood. thank you for the answer.
    – GKK
    Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 16:11

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