I often see such phrases, and I am wondering whether they are strictly grammatically correct or not. It seems to me that the subject is "whiteboard" and the verb is "erase", which as far as I can tell is a transitive verb, hence requires a direct object.

On the other hand, it is obvious that the speaker is talking about some whiteboard which is unable of being erased, so that the whiteboard is actually the object of a verb, which should have been passive, whereas the subject is lacking.

The question is: Is this sentence grammatically correct or not?

Cambridge Dictionary and AHD list only the usual transitive usage.

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    There are a number of verbs can can be used in what is called the middle voice ( or mediopassive or pseudo-passive). For example: She photographs well or Her books don't sell, his do. I see no reason to call this usage of erase ungrammatical.
    – Shoe
    Commented Jul 19, 2021 at 12:04
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    Also known confusingly as both ergative and anti-ergative verbs, depending on theoretical stance; I recommend avoiding these terms. The "middle alternation" relates The book is selling to X is selling the book, intransitive vs transitive. It isn't a "voice" in English, though it was in Greek. Commented Jul 19, 2021 at 12:13
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    How is it grammatically different from say "My car won't start"? There may be something of a factual problem, since we don't generally expect whiteboards to erase, but it's perfectly possible to form grammatically correct sentences that don't correspond to reality.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jul 20, 2021 at 0:13
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    Compare with "file won't delete" or "video won't play." This is very common usage in informal communication. Commented Jul 20, 2021 at 3:23
  • Is this a conventional whiteboard with physical dry-wipe pens and eraser or is it an electronic whiteboard? If it is the latter then "the whiteboard won't erase" makes sense. If it is the former then it is the marks that won't erase. This can be the case when someone has written on a whiteboard in permanent marker, in that case the permanent marks won't erase but dry-wipe ones still will.
    – BoldBen
    Commented Jul 20, 2021 at 7:39

1 Answer 1


Merriam-Webster has already picked up this usage:


[intransitive verb]: to yield to erasure

There are a smallish number of examples on the internet, for instance

  • The new whiteboard erases flawlessly. The markers from my original purchase erased flawlessly on the replacement board as well,

[Amazon product review]

Wiktionary also includes erase in its list of 'English ergative verbs'. But see John Lawler's comment above on terminology here. Also, some use the terms 'ergative usage' ('the glass broke', an event, punctive) and 'middle usage' ('glass breaks easily', describing a state) non-interchangeably; see Your order has shipped.

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    To fully address the concerns that motivate the OP's question (rather than just the question as explicitly formulated), it should be noted that, even though ergative verbs (or however one wants to call them) tend to proliferate these days, many people resist that trend, and accept such use only when it gets really widespread. Such resistance is not confined to far-out prescriptivists; the people in the center of the prescriptivism-descriptivism spectrum also avoid using verbs as ergative until the usage is well established; they may perceive it as, at best, belonging to some jargon.
    – jsw29
    Commented Jul 19, 2021 at 16:54
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    Isn't that an answer? I've hinted strongly at the lowish currency, but the fact remains that some usage panels have accepted the usage as grammatical. I'd probably only use it in informal contexts. Commented Jul 19, 2021 at 17:02
  • I have to say... "Exactly". Commented Jul 19, 2021 at 23:59
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    "The ink erased on the board" shows what's being called here an "ergative verb". "The markers erased on the board" is similar plus the metonymy of referring to the pen when you mean the substance it produces. But the OP asked about "This white board won't erase". This requires taking a noun even remoter syntactically from the subject and using it as subject.
    – Rosie F
    Commented Jul 20, 2021 at 11:46
  • Yes, Rosie. The transferred usage (the medium rather than the markings / data being erased) is not new for active and passive etc clauses: << erase ... 1.2 Remove recorded material from (a magnetic tape or medium) ... ‘the tape [was/ ] could be magnetically erased and reused’ [= 'wipe clean/blank'] >> [Lexico] Commented Jul 20, 2021 at 11:54

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