May My Blog Be Never Obsoleted?

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Saw the above tweet and was immediately struck by the use of obsolete as a verb, especially because I had seen it in another tweet just earlier, both of which seemed to me to be the first time I had seen such a use. The concentration of the verb obsolete in the twittersphere seems to be connected to rumors that the forthcoming iPhone will not have a headphone jack, thereby rendering headphones obsolete (or obsoleting them, I suppose). Naively I retweeted this, wondering whether Apple was behind this grammatical anomaly, but Google, as it so often does, proved me oh so very wrong.

This post from a 2005 UPenn blog (it seems) contains some helpful, if a bit technical, info, confirming that obsolete the verb has been around since the 17th century (according to the OED), though it seems to have fallen out of written favor until recently. But it yields the more important question of the intransitive verbs becoming transitive (or, similar, adjectives becoming transitive verbs).

Language will naturally simplify itself (it was so nice knowing you, whom or the entire subjunctive), and this shift is simply a continuation of that process. Why say ‘render something obsolete’ when you can simply ‘obsolete it’? Why make your business grow when you can grow it? Why force someone to retire when you can retire them?

Found this interesting discussion from a Pearson Longman site:

Formerly intransitive verbs

Q: It seems that certain verbs that used to be intransitive have evolved into transitive verbs. For example:

You need more capital to grow your business.

More than two hundred people were disappeared last year.

Is this a trend, and is there a pattern to the trend?

Posted 30 August 2002

A: Just as nouns are becoming verbs (to source, to gift, to impact, to network, to author [a book], to chair [a meeting]), verbs that have always been intransitive (without a grammatical object) are slowly becoming transitive (with an object). Yes, there is a trend, and the trend often follows a pattern. A new usage generally originates within a special, limited domain, as with the use of grow with objects other than objects in nature. Rachel posted an informative message about the transitive usage of grow, in which she quotes the New York Times Manual of Style and Usage (p. 149):

The newer usage of grow to mean expand (grow the business; grow revenue) is business jargon, best resisted

(To see the original message, click here.)

I might add that President Bill Clinton often used the statement “We have to grow the economy.” Other objects commonly used with grow are business and market. It remains to be seen whether this transitive usage will spread to domains outside of business and politics.

The transitive usage of disappear, as in “Two hundred people have been disappeared this year alone,” is still restricted to political, historical, sociological, and journalistic speech and writing, and involves only human objects. The transitive use of this normally intransitive verb arose, I think, for two reasons. First, the “disappearances” occurred in Latin America, where the Spanish desaparecer is both intransitive and transitive. Second, no other word in English could express the idea of someone being picked up and taken away secretly, never to be found or seen again. In early usage, the verb appeared in quotation marks (“Dozens of students have been ‘disappeared'”) to indicate that it was being used in a special way. Now it is used both with and without quotation marks, indicating that this usage has entered the mainstream.

A much newer transition from intransitive to transitive is taking place with the verb expire. Just this week I received a notice from my Internet provider telling me:

[Accounts like yours] are expired annually. We will expire all . accounts which have not been renewed on or after 9/16/2002. If you do wish to have your account expired, you need do nothing.

Curious, I did a Google search and found that expire is being used transitively in a variety of contexts:

We have expired all the cookies from this portal on your computer.

The meeting is still running but we have expired both of the agenda items.

Our old access numbers have been expired.

All of these usages involve things with expiration dates, but one rather alarming example has a human object:

We have expired some members who are overdue for renewal.

Still, the transitive usage of “expire” is very restricted and will not, I predict, become mainstream for quite some time.

Marilyn Martin

And here is the post on grow mentioned in the above post:



Q: We say: “Our collection of art is growing,” and “Our collection of art is increasing.”

Also, we say: “With more money, we could increase our collection,” but it seems incorrect to say: “With more money, I can grow my collection of art.” Why?

Deborah Mitchell

A: In current usage, the verb grow sometimes presents problems.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language(Houghton Mifflin, 1996, p.801) lists seven entries undergrow as an intransitive verb (a verb that doesn’t take a direct object). The first is: “To increase in size by a natural process.” The second is: “To expand; gain” as in: “The business grew under new management.”

The first two sentences that Deborah sent—”Our collection of art is growing,” and “Our collection of art isincreasing“—show “grow” as an intransitive verb. These two sentences certainly fit in perfectly with the second meaning—to expand or gain. There is no problem with usinggrow or increase interchangeably when the verb has an intransitive meaning.

There is a problem, though, as Deborah senses, when growhas a transitive meaning. Under transitive verbs (verbs that take a direct object), this dictionary lists two uses of grow: (1) to cause to grow, to raise, as in “grow tulips”; (2) to allow something to develop or increase by a natural process, as in “grow a beard.” It is important to remember the word “natural” here.

The transitive verb grow is—or has normally been—restricted in use to refer to nature or to living things or to parts of living things. This restriction does not apply to the verb “increase” as a transitive verb, which is defined simply “to make greater or larger.” There is no restriction to nature or living things with the verb increase.

Addressing your question specifically, The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage (Times Books/Random House, 1999, p. 149) gives us a good guideline in this excerpt:

Grow can be used without a direct object in many contexts: flowers grow; unemployment grows; businesses and governments grow. With a direct object, grow sounds natural in references to living things: grow flowers; grow wheat; grow a beard; grow antlers. The newer usage of grow to mean expand (grow the business; grow revenue) is business jargon, best resisted.

So, the sentence that Deborah finds incorrect—”With more money, I can grow my collection of art”—is indeed awkward; according to the description in the New York Times style book because a collection of art is not a thing of nature, not a living thing. It also doesn’t fit The American Heritage Dictionary‘s requirement for the transitive use of grow—that the direct object refer to something in nature. However, the verb increase, as well as other verbs such as expand, andaugment, have no such restriction, and thus we can comfortably use your sentence: “With more money, we couldincrease our collection.”

For a related article, go to the message “Formerly instransitive verbs.”

And finally this blog post that takes a bit of a broader, and more flexible, view of the process of transitivizing (totally made that up, of course) or of the relationship between transitive and intransitive senses of a verb.


Transitive, intransitive, or both?

Q: I’m appalled by the intransitive use of transitive verbs such as “excite,” “engage,” “inform,” and “entertain.” Then there’s the transitive use of intransitive verbs, as in “grow the economy.” I gag on these, almost as much as “between you and I.”

A: In English, the line dividing transitive and intransitive verbs isn’t as distinct as you might think. Most English verbs—including the ones you mention—can be both.

As we’ve written before here, a verb is said to be transitive when it requires a direct object, as in “She raises the shade.” (The verb’s action is transmitted to an object.) And a verb is intransitive when it doesn’t require an object, as in “The shade rises.”

Some verbs are always one or the other—they’re either transitive (like “raise”) or intransitive (like “rise”). But such one-or-the-other verbs are the exceptions.

As Joseph M. Williams writes in Origins of the English Language(1986), “Most verbs in English are neither strictly transitive nor intransitive.”

It’s true that the verbs you mention—“excite,” “engage,” “inform,” “entertain,” and “grow”—are generally used in limited ways (except for “grow,” they’re mostly used with objects).

But none of them are exclusively transitive or intransitive, according to their entries in the Oxford English Dictionary. Here’s a brief summary:

● “Excite,” while usually transitive (used with a direct object, as in “don’t excite the children”), has also been used without one for almost two centuries.

As the OED says, “excite” is used in modern English to mean “to move to strong emotion, stir to passion; to stir up to eager tumultuous feeling, whether pleasurable or painful.” And in this sense it’s sometimes used intransitively.

An early 19th-century example in the OED suggests to us that the intransitive “excite” may have originated as fashionable London slang. Here’s the citation, from a footnote in Pierce Egan’s novel Life in London (1821): “If some of the plates should appear rather warm, the purchasers of ‘Life in London’ may feel assured, that nothing is added to them tending toexcite.” (In his novel, Egan italicized slang words.)

The OED also gives this later example of the verb’s intransitive usage: “Last week’s legitimate television drama failed to excite” (from a BBC publication, the Listener, 1968).

● “Engage,” usually transitive, has had intransitive (or “absolute”) uses since the mid-17th century. The OED has a representative example from 1693: “When Beauty ceases to engage” (from a poem by Matthew Prior).

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) says that “engage” used intransitively can also mean, among other things, “to involve oneself” or “participate.”

● “Inform,” originally transitive, began acquiring intransitive uses in the 16th century. The OED’s examples include these: “They held that the Senses inform not alwaies truly” (from the classical scholar Thomas Stanley, 1656) …  “The basis of the patient’s claim is essentially the doctor’s failure to inform of risks” (the Modern Law Review, 1989).

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) says that “inform” used intransitively means “to impart information or knowledge.”

● “Entertain,” which also started out as a transitive verb, has had intransitive senses since the 19th century. The OED has these early examples: “My favourite occupations … now cease to entertain” (Charles Lamb, 1828), and “We were in such confusion … that we could not entertain” (from Macmillan’s Magazine, 1880).

American Heritage says that when used intransitively, to “entertain” can mean “to provide entertainment.”

● “Grow,” an intransitive verb in Old English (as in “the corn grows”), has been used transitively (“he grows corn”) since the 18th century, according to citations in the OED.

In the transitive sense, to “grow” means to cultivate or cause to grow. Many people object, however, to uses that don’t involve living things (“grow the business” … “grow the economy”).

As we’ve written on our blog, you can feel free to object to this inanimate usage (we don’t particularly like it ourselves), but not on the grounds that “grow” is only intransitive.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) accepts without reservation the use of “grow” to mean “promote the development of” and gives as an example “start a business and grow it successfully.” So as far as M-W is concerned, this use of the verb is standard English.

There’s a much broader point to be made here. English verbs are very flexible in how they’re used, with transitive verbs taking on intransitive uses and vice versa. This has happened from the earliest times, and it’s likely to continue.

Origins of the English Language, which was mentioned above, notes that “starve” was originally always intransitive (“He starved”), but it took on a transitive sense in the 16th century (“Someone starved him”).

Williams, the author, argues that a sentence like “Someone starved him” probably sounded ungrammatical once upon a time. But such change is normal and to be expected.

In the end, he writes, the differences between transitive and intransitive senses “may not be in the meaning of the word but in whether the word occurs before an object, before a noun phrase.”

Another grammarian, Josephine Turck Baker, put it this way back in 1907: “The distinction between transitive and intransitive verbs is not an important one, for the reason, that most verbs are capable of either a transitive or an intransitive use.”

And in her book English Mediopassive Constructions (2007), the linguist Marianne Hundt notes that “the flexibility of using verbs both transitively and intransitively goes back to the Old English (OE) period. This tendency seems to have been strengthened through the following centuries.”

We’ve written before about verbs that change their spots, as with the newer uses of “disappear,” “bank,” “progress,” “consent,” “do,” “look,” “present,” and others.

There’s one more issue to consider here. Sometimes a verb’s alteration from transitive to intransitive has to do with its “voice”—that is, whether it’s being used in the active voice, the passive voice, or a “middle” voice (sometimes called the “mediopassive”) that’s somewhere in-between.

The German linguist Ekkehard König, writing in The Germanic Languages (2013), has this to say:

“In the so-called ‘middle’ voice, transitive verbs are constructed like intransitive ones and what is normally selected as object appears in subject position: Shakespeare does not translate, this bed folds up easily, this tent puts up in five minutes, this paint applies evenly.”

People use such constructions every day, in sentences like “My new silk blouse washes beautifully” … “Your house will sell in a week” … “The car drives smoothly.”

Note that the subjects (blouse, house, car) aren’t performing any action; they’re in fact the recipients of the action. Someone offstage presumably does the actual washing, selling, and driving.

In sentences like these, what would normally be the object of the verb disappears and becomes the subject. So the verb, even if it’s normally transitive and takes an object, must change its spots and become intransitive.

In our view, this flexibility between transitive and intransitive is a pretty nifty characteristic of English verbs. Sure, usages will emerge that make you gag. Some make us gag too.

But that’s the price we pay for speaking an exciting, engaging, and growing language.

I never love grammar curmudgeons (grammudgeons?), but sheepishly (or curmudgeonly) confess that I flirt with curmudgeon-dom when it comes to these verbs.

I find it interesting, though, that no one seems to be focusing on the use of different or innovative language to distinguish oneself. The use of grow in its technical or restricted sense, when used in business jargon, is referenced, as is Bill Clinton’s penchant for using it:

The newer usage of grow to mean expand (grow the business; grow revenue) is business jargon, best resisted.
I might add that President Bill Clinton often used the statement “We have to grow the economy.” Other objects commonly used with grow are business and market. It remains to be seen whether this transitive usage will spread to domains outside of business and politics.

It seems naive, though, to think that it wouldn’t spread beyond business and politics when someone as prominent as Bill Clinton is using it. Clinton himself used it of course to distinguish himself, to mark his verbiage as unique by a (n apparently) unique usage of a word. It’s not as if he internalized it by hanging out with businesspeople. We hear Clinton using it and, more important, the effect it has on us (i.e. we notice it / it sticks out to us because of its relatively uncommon usage) and so use it ourselves to achieve the same effect. We then internalize the process of taking a previously intransitive verb and making it transitive and start transferring that to other verbs to give ourselves the same linguistic advantage that we saw in Clinton.

And, thus intransitive verbs become transitive verbs in a process that, I assume, will never be obsoleted.


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