The Grammarphobia Blog

“Look” in its quasi mode

Q: In my dictionary, “look” is listed as an intransitive verb. How then would you explain the following sentences? “He looked me in the eye.” (Isn’t “me” an object?) “Never look a gift horse in the mouth.” (Same question for “a gift horse.”)

A: “Look” is indeed an intransitive verb—most of the time. By “intransitive” we mean it doesn’t require an object. Examples: “Don’t look now” … “Look before you leap” … “Try to look interested.” 

But in statements like “look me in the eye,” “look a gift horse in the mouth,” “look death in the face,” “look the part,” and “look one’s age,” the verb is what the Oxford English Dictionary calls quasi-transitive.

“Look” is fully transitive (no quasi-ness here) when it means “to quell or overcome by one’s looks,” the OED says. An example: “When the bully confronted me, I looked him down.”

And it’s also transitive when it means “to cast one’s eyes over; to scrutinize; to examine (papers, or the like),” says Oxford. Example: “Please look the manuscript over.”

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