The Grammarphobia Blog

Transitive, intransitive, or both?

Q: I’m appalled by the intransitive use of transitive verbs such as “excite,” “engage,” “inform,” and “entertain.” Then there’s the transitive use of intransitive verbs, as in “grow the economy.” I gag on these, almost as much as “between you and I.”

A: In English, the line dividing transitive and intransitive verbs isn’t as distinct as you might think. Most English verbs—including the ones you mention—can be both.

As we’ve written before here, a verb is said to be transitive when it requires a direct object, as in “She raises the shade.” (The verb’s action is transmitted to an object.) And a verb is intransitive when it doesn’t require an object, as in “The shade rises.”

Some verbs are always one or the other—they’re either transitive (like “raise”) or intransitive (like “rise”). But such one-or-the-other verbs are the exceptions.

As Joseph M. Williams writes in Origins of the English Language (1986), “Most verbs in English are neither strictly transitive nor intransitive.”

It’s true that the verbs you mention—“excite,” “engage,” “inform,” “entertain,” and “grow”—are generally used in limited ways (except for “grow,” they’re mostly used with objects).

But none of them are exclusively transitive or intransitive, according to their entries in the Oxford English Dictionary. Here’s a brief summary:

● “Excite,” while usually transitive (used with a direct object, as in “don’t excite the children”), has also been used without one for almost two centuries.

As the OED says, “excite” is used in modern English to mean “to move to strong emotion, stir to passion; to stir up to eager tumultuous feeling, whether pleasurable or painful.” And in this sense it’s sometimes used intransitively.

An early 19th-century example in the OED suggests to us that the intransitive “excite” may have originated as fashionable London slang. Here’s the citation, from a footnote in Pierce Egan’s novel Life in London (1821): “If some of the plates should appear rather warm, the purchasers of ‘Life in London’ may feel assured, that nothing is added to them tending to excite.” (In his novel, Egan italicized slang words.)

The OED also gives this later example of the verb’s intransitive usage: “Last week’s legitimate television drama failed to excite” (from a BBC publication, the Listener, 1968).

● “Engage,” usually transitive, has had intransitive (or “absolute”) uses since the mid-17th century. The OED has a representative example from 1693: “When Beauty ceases to engage” (from a poem by Matthew Prior).

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) says that “engage” used intransitively can also mean, among other things, “to involve oneself” or “participate.”

● “Inform,” originally transitive, began acquiring intransitive uses in the 16th century. The OED’s examples include these: “They held that the Senses inform not alwaies truly” (from the classical scholar Thomas Stanley, 1656) …  “The basis of the patient’s claim is essentially the doctor’s failure to inform of risks” (the Modern Law Review, 1989).

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) says that “inform” used intransitively means “to impart information or knowledge.”

● “Entertain,” which also started out as a transitive verb, has had intransitive senses since the 19th century. The OED has these early examples: “My favourite occupations … now cease to entertain” (Charles Lamb, 1828), and “We were in such confusion … that we could not entertain” (from Macmillan’s Magazine, 1880).

American Heritage says that when used intransitively, to “entertain” can mean “to provide entertainment.”

● “Grow,” an intransitive verb in Old English (as in “the corn grows”), has been used transitively (“he grows corn”) since the 18th century, according to citations in the OED.

In the transitive sense, to “grow” means to cultivate or cause to grow. Many people object, however, to uses that don’t involve living things (“grow the business” … “grow the economy”).

As we’ve written on our blog, you can feel free to object to this inanimate usage (we don’t particularly like it ourselves), but not on the grounds that “grow” is only intransitive.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) accepts without reservation the use of “grow” to mean “promote the development of” and gives as an example “start a business and grow it successfully.” So as far as M-W is concerned, this use of the verb is standard English.

There’s a much broader point to be made here. English verbs are very flexible in how they’re used, with transitive verbs taking on intransitive uses and vice versa. This has happened from the earliest times, and it’s likely to continue.

Origins of the English Language, which was mentioned above, notes that “starve” was originally always intransitive (“He starved”), but it took on a transitive sense in the 16th century (“Someone starved him”).

Williams, the author, argues that a sentence like “Someone starved him” probably sounded ungrammatical once upon a time. But such change is normal and to be expected.

In the end, he writes, the differences between transitive and intransitive senses “may not be in the meaning of the word but in whether the word occurs before an object, before a noun phrase.”

Another grammarian, Josephine Turck Baker, put it this way back in 1907: “The distinction between transitive and intransitive verbs is not an important one, for the reason, that most verbs are capable of either a transitive or an intransitive use.”

And in her book English Mediopassive Constructions (2007), the linguist Marianne Hundt notes that “the flexibility of using verbs both transitively and intransitively goes back to the Old English (OE) period. This tendency seems to have been strengthened through the following centuries.”

We’ve written before about verbs that change their spots, as with the newer uses of “disappear,” “bank,” “progress,” “consent,” “do,” “look,” “present,” and others.

There’s one more issue to consider here. Sometimes a verb’s alteration from transitive to intransitive has to do with its “voice”—that is, whether it’s being used in the active voice, the passive voice, or a “middle” voice (sometimes called the “mediopassive”) that’s somewhere in-between.

The German linguist Ekkehard König, writing in The Germanic Languages (2013), has this to say:

“In the so-called ‘middle’ voice, transitive verbs are constructed like intransitive ones and what is normally selected as object appears in subject position: Shakespeare does not translate, this bed folds up easily, this tent puts up in five minutes, this paint applies evenly.”

People use such constructions every day, in sentences like “My new silk blouse washes beautifully” … “Your house will sell in a week” … “The car drives smoothly.”

Note that the subjects (blouse, house, car) aren’t performing any action; they’re in fact the recipients of the action. Someone offstage presumably does the actual washing, selling, and driving.

In sentences like these, what would normally be the object of the verb disappears and becomes the subject. So the verb, even if it’s normally transitive and takes an object, must change its spots and become intransitive.

In our view, this flexibility between transitive and intransitive is a pretty nifty characteristic of English verbs. Sure, usages will emerge that make you gag. Some make us gag too.

But that’s the price we pay for speaking an exciting, engaging, and growing language.

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