Learning about transitive verbs: is there a funny side?

Posted by on November 26, 2012

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 ballsChill until requiredFry 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.

Comments (11)
  • A happily childfree friend of mine once joked that she had taken the instruction on a plastic bag literally: “Danger of suffocation, keep away from children.”

    Posted by Liz on 26th November, 2012
  • My favourite transitivity-ambiguous instruction came from a bottle of something-or-other which told you to “Place thumbs under cap and push off”.

    Posted by Stephen on 26th November, 2012
  • My favourite is on the escalator: “Dogs must be carried”.

    Posted by Mary on 28th November, 2012
  • Interestingly, this kind of usage is often genre-specific. Recipes are a good example of this. I don’t imagine that there is much (space) to be gained by omitting the ‘object’ participant (e.g. ‘the bread’ in ‘bake in a hot oven’), and yet it is commonly found in cookery books and other sources of recipes. The omission of participants in transitivity can also signal very specifically what the ‘object’ participant is. If, for example, we read something like ‘please give generously’, we can be pretty sure that the participant is ‘money’. We would also understand the ‘indirect object’ participant to be something like a good cause or a charity.

    Posted by Gordon on 28th November, 2012
  • Yes, recipes are a good source. Crack an egg into a bowl and beat it. ?! or Pour over the marinade and chill. mmmmm…

    Posted by Jeanette on 28th November, 2012
  • Gordon: It’s usually very clear who or what the omitted participants are, isn’t it? The joke, in clauses like ‘shake for more than a minute’, or ‘push off’ is to wilfully assume that no participant has been omitted – to treat the verb as intransitive: ‘shake’ = ‘tremble’. I also like both ‘push off’ & ‘beat it’ (thanks Stephen & Jeannette); ‘Beat it’ is good because it does actually have the vague, general, object ‘it’, which is almost meaningless in the ‘wrong’ interpretation..

    Btw, the newer recipe books – Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson – seem to be altering the trend and have fewer absent participants; perhaps they’ve noticed the danger of ambiguity leading to humour that could threaten the solemnity of their mission.

    As you say, these participant-omissions occur mostly in recipes and instructions, so I’m glad you mentioned ‘give’ with two omitted participants – it is not associated with either genre. I was trying to think of others like ‘give’ – there’s ‘Do not steal’ – where ‘anything, from anyone’ is retrievable. It needs more thought.

    Posted by gill francis on 29th November, 2012
  • I totally agree that “Perhaps the most rewarding part of learning a language is figuring out its jokes, and teachers can often use them to explain grammatical distinctions”, and think it applies to spelling/vocabulary too – think of the possibilities afforded by Graham Rawle’s ‘Lost Consonants’ (http://www.grahamrawle.com/lostconsonants/), for example!

    Posted by Nick on 3rd December, 2012
  • I’m not a native speaker of English but have spent a few years in the U.K. I heartily laughed at most of your meaning twists by assuming the none existence of an accusative.
    There is one I can’t make out though:
    “Dogs must be carried”. “carried” seems to be able to assume a meaning which I don’t know.. I shall be glad for enlightenment!
    kate

    Posted by Kate Kimberley on 5th December, 2012
  • Kate, I’d understood ‘dogs must be carried’ to be ambiguous in a slightly different way from the transitivity issue that Gill raises in her blog. The funny meaning is the one where we understand the notice as something like ‘you can’t travel on this escalator unless you’re carrying a dog’. In other words, if you don’t have a dog to carry, you can’t use the escalator. The presumably intended meaning is ‘if you have a dog with you, you must carry it when using the escalator’ and that would be to avoid the dog getting hurt walking on the escalator itself. If I’m right in understanding the ambibuity in this expression, then you can see that there’s a fair amount of contextual information necessary for an appropriate interpretation.

    Posted by Gordon on 5th December, 2012
  • Kate: Another escalator sign is “Shoes must be worn”, i.e everyone must wear shoes on the escalator.The joke is to interpret “Dogs must be carried” in the same way: “You must have i) shoes and ii) a dog”. Confusing, if you see them side-by-side on the same escalator! The best way to distinguish one from the other is through intonation. SHOES must be worn. Dogs must be CARRied.

    But this is interesting: I can’t think of any other signs that work in the same way – will try to do so! The use of the passive seems part of it, but then “Wear shoes, carry dogs” is similar (but does not occur). Fortunately, ambiguity is immediately resolved by context, as Gordon says. No-one goes back and kidnaps a portable pooch before continuing their journey.

    Posted by gill francis on 5th December, 2012
  • [...] for why new words survive. At Macmillan Dictionary blog, Gill Francis explored the funny side of omitted objects; Orin Hargraves discussed the language of internet dating; and Stan Carey compared anymore and any [...]

    Posted by This Week’s Language Blog Roundup: Dictionary scandal, names, 30 Rock cocktails | Wordnik on 7th December, 2012
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