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 newer transitive use of “grow” applied to nonliving things (as in “grow the economy”) seems to have emerged during the 1992 presidential election, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.). Many (though not all) language authorities frown on a usage like “grow our business,” including 80 percent of American Heritage’s Usage Panel.

Nevertheless, the dictionary’s editors say in a note, “these usages have become very common and are likely to see continued use in business contexts.”

Another widely used dictionary, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), is more accepting. It recognizes without comment the use of grow in the sense to promote the development of and gives as an example start a business and grow it successfully. So in the view of the M-W editors, this usage is now standard English. 

Speaking for myself, I hope this remains corporate jargon and doesn’t become more widely used. Even worse, though, 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.

[Note: This entry was reviewed and updated on Aug. 4, 2014.]

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