Etymology Grammar Usage

Why can’t the Brits and Yanks agree?

Q: Commentators on the BBC World Service say people “agree” things. Example: “The delegates finally agreed the rules for seating.” This sounds unusual to an American. Is it a British thing?

A: In British English, according to Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.), “agree” is coming to be used transitively (“agree the rules”) where in US English it’s used intransitively (“agree on the rules”).

A verb is transitive when it acts on an object (“Gertrude grew dahlias”) and intransitive when it doesn’t (“Her dahlias grew” or  “Her dahlias grew by the wall”).

The transitive use of “agree,” notes Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3d ed.), “has become common but somewhat controversial in Britain” though it “remains rare or non-existent in America.”

Fowler’s lists several examples of the British usage, including this one from a 1963 issue of the Listener, a former BBC magazine: “the difficulty of agreeing a definition of mysticism.”

As you point out, this usage sounds jolting to the American ear. We’d find it difficult to get used to if it caught on in the US.

Interestingly, this relatively new British use of “agree” as a transitive verb is actually a revival of an old usage that dates back to Chaucer’s day.

The earliest published example in the Oxford English Dictionary of a transitive “agree” is from Chaucer’s Middle English poem Troilus and Criseyde (circa 1374):

“If harme agre me, ye, wherto than I pleyne?” (If harm agrees me, why complain then?)

The verb “agree” in this early sense meant to please, much as we would say a good meal or a pleasant day agrees with us.

However, the OED has citations dating back to the 1500s for the transitive use of “agree” in the sense you ask about: to settle differences or come to an understanding.

Here’s a citation from The Fair Example, a 1706 comedy written by the actor Richard Estcourt: “Do but agree the matter between you.”

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