Internal and External Causation

Béla Korponay and Ildikó Nagy

In their book Unaccusativity (1995) Levin and Rappaport Hovav make the illuminative distinction between internal and external causation. In their analysis verbs like break and open describe eventualities that are under the control of some external cause that brings such an eventuality about. Such intransitive verbs have transitive uses in which the external use is expressed as subject. On the other hand, verbs like laugh, play, and speak do not have this property. The eventuality each describes “cannot be externally controlled” but “can be controlled only by the person engaging in it” (Smith 1970: 107). Smith takes the lack of a causative transitive use for these and other verbs to be the reflection of the presence of “internal control”:

Mary shuddered.
*The green monster shuddered Mary.
The green monster made Mary shudder.

Levin and Rappaport Hovav distinguish between internally and externally caused eventualities. In their analysis, with the intransitive verbs describing an internally caused eventuality, some property inherent to the argument of the verb is “responsible” for bringing about the eventuality. For agentive verbs such as play and speak, this property is the will or volition of the agent who performs the activity. However, internally caused verbs need not be agentive. For example, the verbs blush and tremble, which take inanimate arguments, can be considered to describe internally caused eventualities, because the eventualities arise from internal properties of the arguments, typically an emotional reaction. These verbs exemplify that neither trembling nor blushing is generally under the person’s own control.

The notion of external causation can be extended to a class of non-agentive single argument verbs that can be referred to as verbs of emission. These verbs can be divided into four subclasses:

  1. Sound: burble, buzz, clang, crackle, hoot, hum, jingle, moan, ring, roar, whir, whistle, …
  2. Light: flash, flicker, gleam, glitter, shimmer, shine, sparkle, twinkle, …
  3. Smell: reek, smell, stink
  4. Substance: bubble, gush, ooze, puff, spew, spout, squirt, …

The eventualities described by such verbs come about as a result of internal physical characteristics of their argument. Consequently, only a limited set of things qualify as arguments of any specific verb of emission. Only embers, lights, and certain substances glow since only they have the necessary properties, and the same holds of other verbs of emission.

Unlike internally caused verbs, externally caused verbs by their very nature, imply the existence of an external cause: one agent, an instrument, a natural force, or a circumstance. Thus, consider the verb break. Something breaks because the existence of an external cause.

Some externally caused verbs such as break can be used intransitively without the expression of an external cause, but, even when no cause is specified, our knowledge of the world tells us that the eventuality these verbs describe could not have happened without an external cause.

The core class of causative alternation verbs are the verbs of change of state, which typically describe changes in the physical shape or appearance of some entity. Jespersen (1927) suggests that the class of verbs that are found in the causative alternation can be characterized as the “move and change” class, because it includes a variety of verbs of change of state and verbs of motion. The list of alternating verbs can easily be divided into two subclasses along these lines:

  1. bake, blacken, break, close, cook, cool, dry, freeze, melt, open, shatter, thaw, thicken, whiten, widen, …
  2. bounce, move, roll, rotate, spin, …

Relatively few verbs of motion participate in the causative alternation. The difference between internally and externally caused verbs is also reflected in the general pattern of selectional restrictions on the cause argument of the two kinds of verbs. For instance, only a limited set of things qualify as the arguments of any specific verb of emission, so that only embers, lights, and certain substances glow, since only they have the necessary properties; similar restrictions hold of other verbs of emission. Unlike most internally caused verbs, most externally caused verbs do not impose restrictions on their external cause argument, taking agents, natural forces, and instruments as external cause.

It is in the nature of internally caused verbs that they are inherently monadic predicates. On the other hand, externally caused verbs are dyadic taking as arguments both the external cause and the passive participant in the eventuality. The proposed analysis of externally caused verbs predicts that there should be no externally caused verbs without a transitive variant. That is, all externally caused verbs have a causative, but not all of them have an intransitive use in which the external cause is unspecified (for example, The baker cut the bread, but *The bread cut).

In English (as in other languages) adjectives are used to describe states, and not surprisingly, many alternating verbs of change of state are deadjectival, as shown by the examples, taken from Levin (1993: 28). These deadjectival verbs can be divided into two groups, one (a) in which the verbs are zero-related to adjectives and a second (b) in which the verbs are formed from adjectives through the use of the suffix -en:

  1. brown, clean, clear, cool, crisp, dim, dirty, dry, dull, empty, even, firm, level, loose, mellow, muddy, narrow, open, pale, quiet, round, shut, slack, smooth, sober, sour, steady, tame, tense, thin, warm, yellow, …
  2. awaken, blacken, brighten, broaden, cheapen, coarsen, dampen, dark­en, deepen, fatten, flatten, freshen, gladden, harden, hasten, heighten, lengthen, lessen, lighten, loosen, moisten, neaten, quicken, quieten, redden, ripen, roughen, sharpen, shorten, sicken, slacken, smarten, soften, steepen, stiffen, straighten, strengthen, sweeten, tauten, thick­en, tighten, toughen, waken, weaken, whiten, widen, worsen, …

What is relevant for us is that the adjectives that form the base for alternating verbs of change of state support the proposal that such verbs are externally caused. In Carlson’s analysis (1977) these verbs are related to stage-level and not individual-level predicates: stage-level predicates describe temporary properties or transitory activities. They contrast with individual-level predicates, which describe permanent properties.

A language could choose to have two verbs whose meanings are the same in every respect except that one describes the eventuality as internally caused and the other externally caused. The verbs shudder and shake at first glance appear to be synonymous, but only shake, and not shudder, shows a transitive causative use. Given the differing behaviour of these verbs with respect to the causative alternation, shake should be externally caused and shudder internally caused. Things that shudder are usually thought of as having a “self-controlled” body: they include people, animals, and, by forced extension, the earth, engines, machinery, and vehicles. In contrast leaves, teacups, and furniture, none of which can be said to have a “self-controlled” body, can only shake.

There are certain agentive verbs that appear in causative pairs:

The soldiers marched (to the tents).
The general marched the soldiers to the tents.
The horse jumped (over the fence).
The rider jumped the horse over the fence.
The mouse ran (through the maze).
We ran the mouse through the maze.

These verbs describe the manner in which motion takes place, contrasting with verbs of inherently directed motions like come and go, which describe the direction — but not the manner of motion.

At this point we mention a Hungarian peculiarity which may help in solving some problems. In Hungarian factitive meaning is generally expressed by morphological means, the regular factitive suffixes being -at/-et, -tat/-tet. These verbs, as a rule, take two agent participants (somebody is made to do something):

János meneteltette a katonákat.
‘John marched the soldiers.’

The reader, we hope, will find the following list of oppositions persuasive:

alszik ‘sleep’ ~ altat ‘make sb sleep’, bízik ‘have confidence in ’ ~ biztat ‘encourage’, bukik ‘fail’ ~ buktat ‘fail sb’, éhezik ‘starve’ ~ éheztet ‘starve sb’, emlékezik ‘remember’ ~emlékeztet ‘remind sb of sth’, fekszik ‘lie in bed’ ~ fektet ‘put to bed’, foglalkozik ‘deal with sth’ ~ foglalkoztat ‘employ ’, fürdik ‘bathe’ ~ fürdet ‘bathe sb’, hibázik ‘make a mistake’ ~ hibáztat ‘blame sb for sth’, iszik ‘drink’ ~ itat ‘make sb drink’, késlekedik ‘tarry’  ~ késleltet ‘detain, delay’, költözik ‘move’ ~ költöztet ‘move sb somewhere’, nyugszik ‘rest’ ~ nyugtat ‘calm sb’, öltözik ‘dress’ ~ öltöztet ‘dress sb’, szopik ‘suck’ ~ szoptat ‘suck a child’, várakozik ‘wait’ ~ vá­ra­koz­tat ‘keep sb waiting’, vetkőzik ‘undress’ ~ vetkőztet ‘undress sb’

In the pairs active agentive verbs are in opposition with factitive ones.

In English there is also a small class of verbs which may be used with agentive (animate) objects: e.g., John marched the solders. The clause contains a verb of action march, an actor the soldiers, and an initiator John. The above structure, however, is only used with a limited number of action verbs such as run, work, gallop, jump, etc. This is the reason why the sentence We can seat twenty people in this house sounds strange, but we think, a native speaker would understand it. Factitive meaning is usually expressed by the auxiliaries have, make, and get. Examples for the use of have:

I had my shoes cleaned.
I had the house painted.
I have my paper (all) written.
I had the piano tuned (yesterday).
I have my shoes mended.
I’m having my car washed.

The above factitive construction can be replaced by performative ones:

I asked someone to clean my shoes.
I ordered/asked someone to wash my car.
I asked a man to tune the piano.

In the function of have the auxiliary get can also be used:

I got my shoes cleaned.
I got the piano tuned.
I got my shoes mended.
I got my car washed.

In Hungarian the factitive pattern is quite regular so much so that, for example, in építtet a factitive suffix is added to the causative one.


Carlson, Gregory N. 1977. Reference to Kinds of English. Doctoral dissertation, University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Jespersen, Otto. 1927. A Modern English Grammar on Historical Principles. Part 3: Syntax, Second Volume. Heidelberg: Carl Winter.

Levin, Beth. 1993. Engish Verb Classes and Alternations: A Preliminary Investigation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Levin, Beth and Malka Rappaport Hovav. 1995. Unaccusativity. At the Syntax-Lexical Semantics Interface. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Smith, Carlota S. 1970. Jespersen’s ‘Move and Change’ Class and Causative Verbs in English. In: Mohammad Ali Jazayery, Edgar C. Polomé and Werner Winter (eds.), Linguistic and Literary Studies In Honor of Archibald A. Hill. Vol. 2: Descriptive Lingusitics. The Hague: Mouton. 101–109.