April 20, 2012


Informal Explanation of Ergativity

In Hindi, sometimes a verb agrees with its object, not with its subject. This phenomenon is sometimes called ergativity.

Here’s the basic rule:

  1.  If the verb is transitive …
  2. AND the verb is a perfect or perfective form …
  3. AND the verb requires “ergative alignment” (most verbs do, I’ll explain)

then … the subject is marked with ने and the verb agrees with the object (in person, number, and gender).

If the verb is compound, both the main verb and auxiliary verb must follow rules 1, 2 and 3.

If the object is “blocked” by a postposition then:

  1. If the verb is a nominal conjunct verb, it agrees with the noun of the conjunct verb
  2. Otherwise, it defaults to masculine

If the object has no gender (such as the word क्या), then the verb defaults to the masculine singular form. Thus, for instance, one could say “तुमने क्या किया” (“What did you do?”).

For the sake of agreement, all verbs in “ergative alignment” (i.e., that agree with their object) are considered third person. So, for instance, in the sentence “क्या तुमने कभी भिंडी खायी है” (“Have you ever eaten okra?”), the verb is third person (खायी है).

Here are some examples:

I could say “मैंने एक रोटी खायी“. The verb is feminine, even though I am a man. Why? Because the verb खाना is a transitive verb, खायी is a past perfective form, and खाना exhibits ergative alignment.

I could say “मैंने उससे बात की“. Again, the verb is feminine. Notice something in this example. The object is उससे. Since there’s a postposition (से), the verb cannot agree with it. Thus, the conjunct verb (बात करना) agrees with the noun बात, which is feminine.

I could say “मैंने उसको देखा“. Here, the verb is masculine because the object is “blocked” by को. It defaults to masculine. Even a woman would say मैंने उसको देखा.

The verb समझना does not use ergative alignment when used without an explicit object. So, a man would say “मैं समझा” and a woman would say “मैं समझी“. However, if an explicit object is stated, समझना agrees with its object, as in “बच्चों ने कविताएं समझीं“.

I would say “मैं पूरा खाना खा गया” because “खा गया” is a compound verb, and गया is an intransitive verb. A woman would say “मैं पूरा खाना खा गयी“.

When compound verbs are used, the general principle is that if both verbs require ने, then the compound verb require ने also. However, पाना is a notable exception. When it is used as an auxiliary verb, the compound verb does not require ने. Thus, for example in the sentence “मैं खाना नहीं खा पाया“ (“I couldn’t eat the food”), ने is not used. If the speaker were female, then the sentence would be “मैं खाना नहीं खा पाई“. However, if पाना is used as a main verb, it does require ने, as in “मैंने पाया है कि हिंदी सीखना कठिन है पर असंभव नहीं” (“I have found that learning Hindi is difficult, but not impossible”).

Note, as in the previous example, that an entire clause can be the object of a verb (i.e., the subordinate clause “कि हिंदी सीखना कठिन है पर असंभव नहीं” is the object, in a sense, of the verb). Thus, even in this example, ने is used.

Some verbs are used inconsistently with ने. Some speakers use बोलना and लाना with ने, and some do not. Thus, for instance, you might hear or read both “अंजलि ने बोला कि …” and “अंजलि बोली कि …”.

One way to think about this is to suppose that the subject is “blocked” by ने and therefore the verb must agree with the object.

This is similar to other idioms in Hindi in which a postposition “blocks” an agent. For instance, when the verb चाहिए is used with an infinitive to express obligation, the infinitive agrees with the object since the person under obligation is “blocked” by the postposition को:

अंजलि को पानी पीना चाहिए – “Anjali should drink water”; although अंजलि is feminine, the infinitive पीना is masculine, since its object पानी is masculine, and अंजलि is “blocked” by को.

रोहित को अंजलि से बात करनी चाहिए – “Rohit ought to talk with Anjali”; Since रोहित is “blocked” by को, and since अंजलि is marked by से, the infinitive actually agrees with the noun बात, which is feminine.

This might seem really complicated, but in practice, it really isn’t hard to use.

Formal Explanation of Ergativity

An ergative language is a language that treats the subject of an intransitive verb like the object of a transitive verb, but treats the agent of a transitive verb differently.

An accusative language is a language that marks the objects of transitive verbs, distinguishing them from the subject of both intransitive and transitive verbs.


English is an accusative language. Consider the following example:

She helped her.

“She” and “her” are the same pronoun, but “she” is in the subjective case, and “her” is in the objective case. We would not say “She helped she”, nor would we say “Her helped her”. The object of the transitive verb “help” is “her” and it is in the objective case, which in this instance marks it as the object of a transitive verb. The subject, “she”, is in the subjective case, however. The objects of transitive verbs are treated differently than the subjects of verbs in English. Thus, English is an accusative language.


Hindi is neither strictly accusative nor ergative. Hindi exhibits “split ergativity”. The context determines whether Hindi will exhibit “ergative alignment” or “accusative alignment”.

When a verb is transitive and perfective/perfect, Hindi generally exhibits ergative alignment. This means that in such contexts, the subject of intransitive verbs is treated like the object of transitive verbs. In other words, in such contexts transitive verbs agree with the object, not the agent.

Recall that the “perfective/perfect” verb forms in Hindi are the “past perfective”, “present perfect”, and “past perfect” forms.

Some verbs, however, are exceptions to this general rule.

The general form is as follows:

[agent in oblique case] ने [object] [verb (agrees with object)]

In other words, when a verb is transitive and perfective/perfect, the agent of the transitive verb is in the oblique case and followed by the postposition ने, and the verb agrees with the object in person, number, and gender.

The postposition ने “blocks” the agent, and thus the verb cannot agree with the agent. Rather, the verb agrees with the object.

Thus, verbs which follow this pattern are sometimes called ने-verbs. Not all verbs are ने-verbs, but this is the most prevalent pattern.

Since ने designates the agent of a transitive perfective/perfect verb, it is sometimes called an “agentive postposition”.


This phenomenon seems very complicated when described formally, but in practice it is not difficult to understand. The following examples are illustrative.

आपने क्या खाया – “What did you eat”?

The verb खाया is transitive, since it has a direct object: क्या. The verb खाया is perfective. Therefore, the agent आप is followed by the postposition ने. Words that have no gender (such as क्या) for the sake of agreement are treated as masculine. Thus खाया is third person, masculine, and singular.

वह खाना खा रहा था – “He was eating some food”

Note that the agent वह is not followed by ने since the verb खा रहा था is not perfective/perfect (it is continuous).

अंजलि ने पानी पिया था – “Anjali had drunk some water”

Although the agent अंजलि is feminine, the verb पिया था is masculine, since the object पानी is masculine.

मैंने उससे पहले से बात की है – “I have already talked with him”

The verb बात की है is transitive and perfect. Therefore, the subject मैं is followed by the agentive postposition ने. बात करना is a nominal conjunct verb. When object of a nominal conjunct verb is marked with an objective postposition (such as को or से), the verb part of the conjunct verb agrees with the noun part of the conjunct verb. Thus, since बात is feminine, the verb is feminine. Likewise, since the verb agrees with बात, it is third person and singular.

When compound verbs are used, the compound verb is a ने-verb only if both verbs are ने-verbs. Thus, for instance:

अंजलि पानी पी गयी– “Anjali drank up the water”

The compound verb in the previous examples is पी जाना (पीना + जाना) – “to drink up”.

Since जाना is intransitive, the compound verb पी जाना is not a ने-verb. Thus, the subject मैं is not followed by ने and the verb agrees with the subject अंजलि, not the object पानी.

मैं उसको दूकान में मिला – “I met him in the store”

Note that although the verb मिला is transitive and perfective, the agent मैं is not followed by ने. This is because मिलना is not a ने-verb. It is an exception to the general rule. Such exceptions must simply be learned.

Special forms of pronouns when used with ने

Most pronouns assume special forms when used with ने.

Pronoun Form with ने
मैं मैंने
तू तूने
तुम तुमने
आप आपने
यह इसने
वह उसने
हम हमने
ये इन्होने
वे उन्होंने

The plural of कौन when used with ने is किन्होने. The plural of जो when used with ने is जिन्होंने.

Most pronouns are separable, i.e., both आपने and आप ने are commonly written.

  • nilaya_shogun

    a vital article!!
    there is one aspect of this article that should be clearly emphasized. You are right, the syntax itself isn’t difficult at all, the tricky part—I reckon—is to know when to use the ने-construction. Apart from the few exceptions (लाना ‘to bring’ is another one worth mentioning) the verb’s transitivity indicates the ergative alignment, as you’ve said. This rule still applies though, even if no object is even expressed — it is therefore really about the verb being transitive and capable of having a direct object, rather than this object being expressed as well…

    ‘the girls listened carefully’ — लड़कियों ने ध्यान से सुना

    this sentence expressed no direct object, but still requires the ergative alignment with ने. In this case, the verb cannot inflect according to any object, and it is thus invariably masculine singular (सुना).

    Same applies when the object is marked with a postposition:
    ‘my mother had read your letters’ — मेरी माँ ने तुम्हारी चिट्ठियों को पढ़ा था
    here, पढ़ा था is masculine singular, though ‘your letters’ is feminine plural.

    I think, another aspect worth mentioning, is that some intransitive verbs which normally cannot take direct objects, simply switch to the transitive (and in the mentioned tenses: ergative) construction when an object is used after all, e.g. समझना:

    ‘we understood’ — हम समझे (intransitive)
    ‘they didn’t understand your point’ — उन्होंने तुम्हारी बात नहीं समझी (ergative)

    hence one has to simply know of the verb’s ergativity, whether or not objects are expressed at all…
    thanks again for this article!! superb work!
    btw: is there an article (if so, perhaps link it to this one here), where the variations of pronouns + ने are listed? like उन्होंने (वे), किन्होंने (कौन) etc. … ??

    • Thanks! You’ve made some great suggestions. I’ll update the article to talk about common exceptions, verbs that can be used transitively and intransitively, and special forms of pronouns.

  • sooty chat

    Great post and a great website. Thanks.

  • rpschamp

    Great article. One thing I’m still confused about: How would one express a series of completed actions, some that are transitive and others that are intransitive? Would -ne take over the whole series, would it be dropped entirely, or would a new subject be required for each verb (which would seem to make the sentence needlessly awkward)? To illustrate, how would one translate the following sentence most succinctly?
    “I woke up, ate an apple, watched a short film, and went to school.”
    Thanks for your help!

    • Thank you! There are several ways to express a series of actions. Your example sentence can be translated “मैं जगा, सेब खाया, लघु फिल्म देखा, और फिर स्कूल गया”. This is very similar to the English sentence. Even though the sentence started without -ne, it is still grammatically acceptable, since it is implicit. “Conjunctive participles” are another way to express a series of actions, e.g. “मैं उससे बात करके वापस आता हूँ – I’ll talk to him and come right back”. I’ve written a few brief articles about them: http://hindilanguage.info/?s=conjunctive+participle

  • Anca

    Great site.I appreciate ur work. Mai bht achhi trah se hindi bolti hu,par meri ek badi prb hai:ergativity.Mene bht baar koshish ki hai …par har baar nakamiyab huye sare koshishe.Mene kbhi hindi nahi sikhi hai. mera matlb hai ki movies,serials se sikhi hai kitabo ya fr sites se nhi.Ajj pehli baar mene apki site dekhi hai.bht badiya bnayi apne.Kya ap mujhe kuch advices de sakte hai? kya kar sakti hu taki mai is prb ko door kr du ?

    • Thank you very much! aap kafi acchi tarah se hindi bolti hain. aapne jo likhi, us mein ergativity ka bahut prayog ki; lagta hai ki aapko pehle se hi “ne” ka istemaal karna aata hai. meri salah yah hai ki aap movies, serials, vagairah dekhti rahen; yah hindi (ya koi bhi bhasha) sikhne ki sabse acchi tarikon mein se ek hai. maine ek blog post likha hai jis mein main is dhang se hindi sikhne ki baat karta hoon: http://hindilanguage.info/posts/english-blog/how-to-learn-hindi/ agar aapko koi bhi sawal puchna ho to aap yahaan bilkul puch sakti hain.