Q: Sarah Palin made a statement a year or so ago about “progressing this nation.” It grated on my nerves but I figured it was her ignorance and not mine. Then the other night I read in a respectable publication a very similar statement. Is this usage correct?
A: People generally use the verb “progress” in the sense of to proceed, go forward, grow, develop, etc. In this sense, it’s an intransitive verb, one that doesn’t need an object. For example, “The work progressed rapidly.”
English speakers have been using “progress” in this way since the 16th and 17th centuries, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.
Here’s an example from Shakespeare’s King John (circa 1616): “Let me wipe off this honourable dewe, / That silverly doth progresse on thy cheekes.”
The two US dictionaries we use the most – The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) – list the verb “progress” only one way: as an intransitive verb.
But Sara Palin used “progress” as a transitive verb, one that requires an object, when she said in November 2008: “Let’s talk about progressing this nation.”
She used the word here as a gerund, a verb that acts as a noun but retains the same features as the verb. In other words, if the verb is transitive or intransitive, its gerund is too.
So was Palin’s English legit?
Well, American dictionaries don’t consider it standard English to use “progress” transitively, as she used it, but the OED begs to disagree. It has published references from the 18th to the 21st centuries for “progress” as a transitive verb.
Oxford describes this usage as originally American, but it has many published references from English sources, including (surprisingly) one from the second edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage.
Sir Ernest Gowers, who revised and edited H. W. Fowler’s classic 1926 usage guide in 1965, says the transitive verb is “now much used in the manufacturing and building industries in the sense of pushing a job forward by regular stages.”
R. W. Burchfield, editor of The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1996), includes the transitive usage and cites a 1978 article in the Observer that refers to welders who “progress their own work to completion.”
Like you, we find the usage irritating and klutzy, but Palin has the OED and the latest two editions of Fowler’s in her corner, linguistically anyway.