In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Transitivity and Voice

  • Introduction
  • Textbooks
  • Monographs
  • Edited Collections
  • Reference Resources and Bibliographies
  • Special Issues of Journals
  • Notable Articles
  • Descriptions of Individual Languages and Families
  • Foundational Works

Linguistics Transitivity and Voice
Seppo Kittilä
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 December 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 October 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0148


Transitivity and voice have a rather long history in linguistics, both dating back to ancient Greek. Initially, transitivity was understood as a carrying over of energy from one participant to another. In other words, in a transitive sentence, an agent is acting on a patient that is directly affected by this action (as in, John killed the deer). Later, the concept was extended to mean any construction that has a subject (or agent) and an object (patient) (as in, John saw Mary). Definitions of transitivity differ as to whether transitivity is seen as the presence of two arguments or whether the form of the arguments (e.g., having an accusative object or an ergative agent) is relevant, in addition to the number of arguments. In other words, transitivity encompasses the formal expression of semantic transitivity in languages. In functional-typological linguistics (the focus of the present article), transitivity is seen as a scalar notion, ranging from highly transitive constructions (and events), such as The farmer killed the duckling, to less transitive constructions, such as John loves Mary, in which there is no energy flow from agent to patient and thus no change in a patient participant. Voice also dates back to ancient Greek grammatical distinction, appearing under the name diáthesis. It was seen as the morphological opposition between active and middle, but in Latin the term was adopted to denote the distinction between active and passive. In the early 21st century, voice is used in a more general sense, also expressing other valency-related verbal alternations, such as causative, reflexive, antipassive, and applicative. Voice expresses relations between a predicate and a set of nominal positions, or their referents, in a clause or other structure. Voice alternations include both semantic and pragmatic aspects. The notion of voice is directly related to transitivity, because voice alternations have consequences for the number and marking of arguments, and transitivity and voice are both typically expressed by argument marking, and verbal morphology and word order play a role in their expression. Moreover, grammatical roles and relations (such as agent, patient, subject, and object) are central to both transitivity and voice, which makes concepts such as ergativity central to transitivity.


There are no good textbooks on transitivity or voice alone, but there are many textbooks that explore these concepts in depth. The only textbook discussing exclusively transitivity and voice is Palmer 1994, which is a good and easily accessible introduction to grammatical roles and relations, including linguistic typology and argument marking. One of the first books to discuss transitivity (argument marking) in more detail was Mallinson and Blake 1981. The authors devote a whole chapter to argument marking types attested in the world’s languages. Similar discussions can be found in later books as well. In addition, there are books that deal with facets of transitivity (such as case or grammatical relations) in depth. Blake 1990 is devoted to relational grammar, one of the relevant theories of grammar for grammatical relations. Case is a central feature of transitivity, a topic covered in Blake 2001. Lazard 1998 offers one of the best overall descriptions of argument marking, whereas Levin and Hovav 2005 looks at argument marking and its motivation from different perspectives. Alsina 1996 provides a more generative approach to argument structure. These cannot be seen as paradigm examples of textbooks, but they are listed because of their relevance to the topic. Song 2001 is an introduction to linguistic typology but has chapters devoted to case marking and causatives.

  • Alsina, Alex. 1996. The role of argument structure in grammar. Center for the Study of Language Information Lecture Notes 62. Stanford, CA: Center for the Study of Language Information.

    A good, formally oriented introduction to the study of argument structure. Reflexives, causatives, and case marking and their relation to argument structure are thoroughly discussed.

  • Blake, Barry. J. 1990. Relational grammar. Croom Helm Linguistic Theory Guides. London and New York: Routledge.

    Blake’s book is a well-written introduction to relational grammar, a theory that can be seen as central to transitivity because of its focus on grammatical relations.

  • Blake, Barry J. 2001. Case. 2d ed. Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139164894

    A good and comprehensive textbook on different facets of case. Aspects relevant to transitivity (such as argument marking) are also covered.

  • Lazard, Gilbert. 1998. Actancy. Empirical Approaches to Language Typology 19. New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

    DOI: 10.1515/9783110808100

    Lazard’s book is perhaps not strictly a textbook, but it offers one of the best descriptions of argument marking available and thus deserves mention here. The book is also an invaluable data source for anyone interested in argument marking.

  • Levin, Beth, and Malka Rappaport Hovav. 2005. Argument realization. Research Surveys in Linguistics. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511610479

    A research survey of different approaches to argument marking. Although not strictly a textbook, because of the range of theories examined, the book is relevant for anyone doing research on argument marking.

  • Mallinson, Graham, and Barry J. Blake. 1981. Language typology: Cross-linguistic studies in syntax. North-Holland Linguistic Series 46. Amsterdam and New York: North-Holland.

    As the title implies, this book is an introduction to language typology. However, it includes a detailed discussion of argument marking, which makes it very relevant to transitivity as well.

  • Palmer, F. R. 1994. Grammatical roles and relations. Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139166638

    A very well written, accessible textbook dealing with grammatical roles and relations. The book does not require prior knowledge and is therefore a good introduction to the topic for the student who wants to write an essay on grammatical roles and relations.

  • Song, Jae Jung. 2001. Linguistic typology: Morphology and syntax. Longman Linguistics Library. Harlow, UK, and New York: Longman.

    Song’s book is also an introduction to the study of linguistic typology, but, owing to the author’s fields of expertise, it includes thorough discussions of argument marking and causatives, both of which are central aspects of transitivity and voice.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.