The Grammarphobia Blog

Growing pains

Q: Please pass judgment on the use (or rather abuse) of the word “grow” in a phrase like “grow a business.” Is this a legitimate use of the verb “to grow,” according to formal standards of usage (if indeed such standards continue to exist at all)? Of course one can grow flowers (transitive) or grow tall (intransitive), but my ear is thrown by the idea that one can grow a business.

A: The transitive use of “grow,” as in “grow crops,” is well established, as you point out. The Oxford English Dictionary lists published citations dating back to 1774. (A transitive verb needs an object to make sense: He grows dahlias. Intransitive verbs make sense without one: The dahlias grow.)

But this new transitive use of “grow” applied to nonliving things (as in “grow the economy”) seems to have come out of the 1992 presidential election, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Most language people frown on it, including 80 percent of American Heritage’s Usage Panel.

Speaking for myself, I loathe it. Even worse is the phrase “grow down,” as in “I promise to grow down the deficit.” Anyone capable of speaking in such a way should grow up.