Real Vocabulary Quiz, Question 7: is it acceptable to use “transpire” to mean “happen”?

Posted by on March 21, 2016

Real Vocabulary with Scott ThornburyOur Real Grammar series showed how the evidence of language in use often undermines or contradicts the made-up or outdated “rules” which some people insist on.

In this series on Real Vocabulary, with Scott Thornbury, we’re bringing you blog posts, videos and a quiz that give evidence-based answers to frequently asked questions about vocabulary.


In the seventh question in our Real Vocabulary quiz, we asked whether it was acceptable to use the verb transpire with the meaning of “happen” or “take place” in a sentence like this:

We were asked not to divulge what had transpired at the meeting

The Macmillan Dictionary records three meanings for transpire, and it’s interesting to trace the process by which it acquired the meanings which are now dominant. In its original use (dating from the 16th century), transpire is a scientific term for describing what leaves do when they give off water vapour — a common usage in texts about botany or gardening, but relatively rare in general discourse. From this technical meaning, it developed a sense defined by Dr. Johnson as “to escape from secrecy to notice” — as if facts previously unknown had “escaped” into the public domain, like vapour escaping from a plant. From here, transpire soon acquired a further use, which is explained in the first edition of the OED as “arising from misunderstanding a sentence such as What had transpired during his absence, he did not know”. In this third meaning, transpire is generally seen as being synonymous with “happen” or “take place” — though things may be a little more complicated than that, as we’ll see later.

This “happen” meaning is the controversial one. The Economist Style Guide disapproves in concise terms, saying simply:

Transpire means exhale, not happen, occur or turn out.

On the Grammar Book site, we are told, equally bluntly, that

This usage of transpire, though common, is incorrect. The word doesn’t mean “occur” or “happen.”

A common argument against using transpire to mean “happen” is that it is there is no need for it: English already has several perfectly good ways of saying that something happened, including occur, take place, and happen itself. The Grammarist site grudgingly accepts this usage (“it is well-established and probably can’t be stopped”) but goes on to say that

There is no use for this sense of transpire even in formal contexts, as the ancient and reliable happen always works in its place.

This doesn’t make a very strong case: there are plenty of other examples of near-synonyms in English — think of let, allow and permit. But one of the lessons we learn from corpus data is that it is in fact rare for two or more words to be complete synonyms which can be used interchangeably and which behave in exactly the same way. So what does the evidence tell us?

In a 1.6-billion-word English corpus, we find 3578 instances of transpire. This means it is not common enough to form part of Macmillan’s core vocabulary (the dictionary’s 7500 “red words”) but is nevertheless quite a frequent word. As we would expect in a general-purpose corpus, just a small number of instances (perhaps 3% of the total) exemplify the original botanical meaning of transpire. Of the rest, the majority convey the idea of facts being revealed or coming to light. In this use, transpire almost always occurs in a construction with it, in sentences like these:

It now transpires that the whole thing was a monstrous fraud.
It later transpired that he was an FBI informant.

There are 2245 examples like this, making up over 62% of all uses of transpire. (The American Heritage Dictionary’s Usage Panel declares that this meaning “could be headed for obsolescence” — which shows what happens when you make assertions about language on the basis of intuition rather than hard evidence.) There is still a healthy minority (around 34%) of cases where transpire is used to mean “happen” — or at least, something like it.

There are certainly cases where it appears to be a straightforward synonym of happen:

Many of the players could not believe what had just transpired and were left stunned and speechless.

But these are rare. In most sentences, we are not looking at a single event that happens at one particular moment, but a course of events which unfolds over an extended period. This is very much the way transpire is used by the poet Emily Dickinson in a letter to a friend written in 1846:

I long to see you once more, to clasp you in my arms & tell you of the many things which have transpired since we parted.

The contemporary evidence points strongly in this direction too:

As the course of events transpired, the two armies were very much within tactical and strategic contact with one another.
I briefly related to him what had transpired [The writer then goes on to list a series of events].
None of us could have foreseen what was to transpire over the next three years.
We would wait and see what transpired over the next few days.

Our conclusion here is that this use of transpire is perfectly acceptable. This meaning is marked “formal” in the Macmillan Dictionary, and it’s true that it would sound rather pretentious in most other kinds of text. But the data also suggests that when writers select the word transpire, instead of opting for happen or take place, they often do so because it adds to the basic idea of “happening” the notion of several things taking place over a period of time.

To learn more about Real Vocabulary, keep a close eye on our Real Vocabulary page. You can also follow this topic using #realvocabulary on Twitter, and remember that you can find all the blog posts on this topic by using the tags “prescriptivism” or “realvocabulary”.

Email this Post Email this Post
Comments (1)
  • Interesting post. Does the ‘happen’ sense of ‘transpire’ also include the idea of events unfolding in a way that wasn’t expected or predicted? ‘Actually’ and ‘really’ seem to be strong collocates – suggesting the idea of actual events being different from what was expected.

    Posted by Julie Moore on 22nd March, 2016
Leave a Comment
* Required Fields