Etymology Grammar Usage

A symptom of medical English

Q: I’m participating in a research project that uses a consent form with the following wording: “Only consent forms that include the Johns Hopkins Medicine logo should be used to consent research participants.” This is the first time I’ve seen “consent” used as a transitive verb.

A: Johns Hopkins is a distinguished medical institution. But its English? You were right to seek a second opinion.

Let’s take a look at the relevant sentence in that permission form (we’ll underline the odd usage):

“Only consent forms that include the Johns Hopkins Medicine logo should be used to consent research participants.”

There are two problems here—one of grammar and one of usage.

You’ve identified the grammar problem correctly. The hospital uses “consent” as a transitive verb, while in modern usage it’s intransitive.

We’ll pause here to explain our terms.

A transitive verb needs a direct object to make sense; it’s called “transitive” because the action is being transmitted from the subject to an object. But an intransitive verb doesn’t need an object to make sense.

Johns Hopkins used “consent” transitively. And it can’t be an accident since the same error occurs twice in the consent form. We were as startled by this as you were.

An intransitive verb like “consent” is often followed by a prepositional phrase (“consented to the sharing of information”), but never by a direct object (“consented the sharing of information”).

In addition to the screwy grammar, there’s also a usage problem. To “consent” is to give one’s consent, not to get the consent of another. It’s not the hospital that does the consenting, it’s the research participants.

Except for rare occasions, the verb “consent” has been intransitive since it entered English in the 1200s.

In today’s standard dictionaries, including The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), it’s intransitive, and means to agree or give assent to something.

Here are two early examples cited in the Oxford English Dictionary, one with a prepositional phrase and the other without:

From the Chronicle of Robert Mannyng (circa 1330): “Hir frendes alle consent.” (“Her friends all consent.”)

From the Wycliffe translation of the Bible (1382): “He consentide not to the counceil.” (“He consented not to the counsel.”)

We can’t resist this later (and more romantic) OED citation, from Lord Byron’s long poem Don Juan (1819): “A little still she strove, and much repented, / And whispering ‘I will ne’er consent’ —consented.”

This is generally the way the word has been used ever since—intransitively.

But for brief periods centuries ago, “consent” was sometimes used transitively, though such uses are now labeled obsolete in the OED.

Here’s an example, from Robert Parke’s 1588 translation of J. G. de Mendoza’s History of China: “In the end … they consented a conclusion amongest themselues.”

Even this construction would be in line with modern usage if one added the preposition “to” after the verb: “they consented to a conclusion.”

Our prescription for Johns Hopkins: Give your English a checkup. Think of it as preventive medicine.

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