Q: I saw a bio on a haiku website that says the subject “was conferred with a certificate for being one of the top 100 haiku poets in Europe.” Why does that use of “confer” sound wrong to me?
A: It sounds off-kilter because “confer” in the sense of to give or to present is a transitive verb (that is, it needs a direct object), and the proper object here is the thing given. You confer a certificate on someone or a certificate is conferred on someone.
The verb “confer” has two very different meanings: (1) to give or present, which is the sense we’re talking about, and (2) to speak together, as in having a conference. The first is transitive and requires a direct object; the second is intransitive and never has an object.
This sentence illustrates both uses: “The trustees, after conferring on Monday, voted to confer three honorary degrees next May.”
Both senses of “confer” came into English in the 16th century and are derived from the same Latin verb, conferre, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The Latin verb, combining con– (together) and ferre (to bear or bring), also has two meanings: (1) to give or bestow, and (2) to bring together, join, gather, consult together, and so on.
When “confer” first came into English in the early 1500s, it had some meanings that have since disappeared—to collect, to comprise, to compare, and others. Today, the verb has only those two meanings mentioned above—to give, and to speak together.
The “confer” that you’re asking about is defined in the OED as “to give, grant, bestow, as a grace, or as the act of a qualified superior.” And there’s always an object—the gift or honor that’s being given.
The dictionary’s earliest example is from a 1570 act of Parliament in England: “No Title to conferr or present by Lapse, shall accrue upon any Depryvation ipso facto” (Act 13 of the Acts of Parliament during the reign of Elizabeth I).
These are among the dictionary’s later examples, and we’ll underline the objects of the verb: “Sacraments containe and conferre grace” (before 1600); “honour thus conferr’d” (1633); “favour you are then conferring” (1716-17); “conferring degrees in all faculties” (1725); “title … which the king is pleased to confer” (1765-69); “benefits conferred” (1858); “degrees were then conferred” (1891).
And in these examples, an honor is conferred “on” or “upon” a recipient, and again we’ll underline the object: “Power conferred on them” (1651); “the favour he had conferred upon him” (1841); “the great benefits we confer on them” (1861).
Oxford notes the similar use of “bestow” in the sense of “to confer as a gift, present, give,” a usage that also dates from the 16th century. In this sense “bestow,” like “confer,” is transitive, and the object of the verb is the thing bestowed.
This is among the dictionary’s later examples: “He bestowed on him a pension of a hundred crowns a year.” From A Short History of the English People (1874), by John Richard Green.
The other “confer”—the one that does not take an object—is defined in the OED as “to converse, talk together.” In modern use, the dictionary says, the verb always implies “on an important subject, or on some stated question: to hold conference, take counsel, consult.”
The OED’s citations date from the mid-16th century and include this cozy domestic example from Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew (early 1590s): “They sit conferring by the Parler fire.” So in early use, to “confer” could mean simply to chat or gossip.
This 18th-century example illustrates the modern use of the verb: “A certain number … should meet, in order to confer upon the points in dispute.” From The History of the Reign of the Emperor Charles V (1769), by William Robertson.
That example raises a point we’d like to make. When you’re wondering whether a verb is transitive or intransitive—that is, whether it does or does not require an object—don’t be misled by prepositional phrases. In that example, “confer” is followed by a prepositional phrase, “upon the points in dispute.” But “points in dispute” is not the object of “confer.”
In fact, “confer” in that sentence has no object, and the prepositional phrase there could just as well be omitted—grammatically, it’s unnecessary.
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