When you step into a taxi in Singapore, you may see a little printed sign bearing the terse instruction ‘KEEP CLEAN’. Relax – there is no need to wonder whether you’ve taken a shower recently. Just don’t discard your chocolate wrapping or wipe your sticky fingers on the armrest. (As if!)
The imperative Keep clean means, of course, ‘keep this taxi clean’: the omitted (or ellipted) grammatical object is easily supplied by the immediate physical context. Even without a visible object, this use of keep is transitive: it is distinct from the linking verb keep in Keep calm (= ‘be/stay calm’).
One advantage of printed signs like this is that they are versatile and travel well. The legend Keep clean is suitable for any surface that needs to remain unlittered; Keep clear can mark out any stretch of road where parking is discouraged; Do not climb fits on any wall, railing, or temptingly scalable city-centre monument.
Though we are seldom consciously aware of them, object-less instructions pop up on countless things that we use or consume – on a jar of vitamin tablets, a tube of insect repellent, an electric radiator, a label sewn into a nightshirt, a spray-on surface cleanser promising ‘99.9% bacteria kill’. We are told to Keep dry, Keep cool, Keep away from children/eyes/fire, Shake before use, Store at room temperature. Then there are the ‘do nots’: Do not freeze, Do not cover, Do not overfill, Do not expose to direct sunlight. In all these injunctions, the implied or ‘understood’ grammatical object coincides with the tangible physical object that we can hold or touch – the missing grammar is in our hands, so to speak.
Interestingly, the same product label may feature imperatives with different implied objects. The warnings on an aerosol spray often include Do not spray on a naked flame (referring to the fluid itself) and Do not pierce or burn (the empty can). Similarly, a bottle of ‘non-bio laundry liquid’ cautions Do not ingest (this liquid) and advises us to Dispose of safely (this bottle). We make sense of these shadowy grammatical presences quite naturally, effortlessly resisting the urge to chew up and swallow the plastic container, or discard the laundry liquid unused.
Recipes are another domain where ellipted objects traditionally lurk unquestioned. A recipe for fish-cakes includes Roll into balls … Chill until required … Fry gently in the oil until golden-brown, turning once, and serve immediately. There’s a dynamism here, a useful vagueness about the implied object as it is steadily transformed from a cold mass of raw ingredients into the hot crispy morsels that you serve.
Many of the verbs that occur with implied objects also have intransitive senses, for example keep away, shake, freeze, wash, simmer, boil, roll, chill (= ‘chill out’), turn, and climb. And therein lies their ambiguity. You’ve probably thought of another interpretation of Keep away from children (= ‘avoid children’). And then there is the instruction Do not wash in a dishwasher – Me? Wash in a dishwasher? – but no, it is printed on the side of a vacuum flask. Turn twice during cooking does not require you to revolve slowly on the spot, and you really don’t need to Shake for at least a minute when confronted with a tin of paint.
We don’t usually stop to analyse the warnings and instructions that pervade daily life, and we are rarely confused or endangered by the lack of a grammatical object. Nor do dictionary entries draw attention to these non-entities – and you can see why a sentence like Do not apply directly to the eyes (on a jar of night-cream) might be rejected as a typical example of a transitive sense of apply. Yet in this sense apply often occurs without an object, particularly when imperative, and perhaps dictionary-makers need to be more aware of such slippery facts.
I’ll end with two examples that exploit the grammatical ambiguity of the verb stand. This is from the British sitcom The IT Crowd:
MOSS: [reading instructions on fire extinguisher] “Stand upright” [Moss stands upright] Oh well now I can’t read it.
Admittedly, this falls a bit flat without a visual context. So try this one, a hand-crafted notice that was reportedly spotted above a sink in a truck-drivers’ canteen:
Will drivers please rinse out mugs, then stand upside down in sink.
Perhaps the most rewarding part of learning a language is figuring out its jokes, and teachers can often use them to explain grammatical distinctions. You’ll kill any joke stone dead in the process, of course, so apply sparingly.Email this Post