language change and slang linguistics and lexicography Live English Love English

Verbs in learner’s dictionaries 1: ‘Enjoy your meal’ or just ‘Enjoy’?

In dictionaries generally – whether intended for native speakers or for learners – the majority of verbs (or verb senses) have one of three main labels: ‘transitive’, ‘intransitive’, or ‘transitive/intransitive’, according to whether they have a direct object or not. A major advantage of learner’s dictionaries, of course, is that they include clear up-to-date examples showing you the verb in action; the label just hovers in the background where it belongs.

Yet these three broad categories are the ones that everyone recognises, and they do reflect the fundamental ways in which we say things with verbs.

Today I’d like to focus on the least transparent and user-friendly of the three – ‘transitive/intransitive’ – which embraces hundreds, perhaps thousands, of verbs with widely different patterns and norms of behaviour.

Probably the largest group gathered under this umbrella are verbs like teach and accept, which occur either with or without an object: you teach mathematics or children or you just teach, you accept an offer or you just accept. In such pairs, the meaning of the verb is essentially the same, and its subject is also unchanged.

When these verbs are used intransitively, there is often a ‘default’ or ‘understood’ object; for example, if you say we’ve decided to adopt, the implication is that you plan to adopt a human child, whether a three-month-old baby or a five-year-old. It’s unlikely that you’d say this if you were going for a baby elephant, a badger, a barn-owl, or a dolphin – not to mention a charity, a cyberpet, or a garden gnome. The ukWaC corpus is full of the less obvious adoption ideas.

In some cases, the default object is ‘people’, though often there is a strong implication that ‘this means YOU’. Think of warnings like SOLVENT ABUSE KILLS and the motorway sign TIREDNESS CAN KILL (so take a break).

The Sun (March 10) yielded the headlines:

Earn as you learn’ boom
Drink kill yob sues

The last one is very tightly-packed, and the ensuing report supplies the necessary expansion of each word (basically, a ‘yob’ who had killed someone while drunk sued someone).

The general principle, then, is that an omitted or ‘ellipted’ object should be clear from its wider context.

However, in addition to the verbs that are explicitly labelled ‘transitive/intransitive’, there are many contexts where ‘transitive-only’ verbs typically occur without an object. See here, for example, for a post on object ellipsis in printed instructions like Store at room temperature.

The use of a ‘transitive-only’ verb without an object can strike us as unusual, as in this example (spotted by Liz Potter):

“You’ve rearranged! Plants, how very unlike you.” (TV series The Hour)

Labels like ‘transitive/intransitive’ are simply generalisations that lexicographers make about verbs on the basis of large amounts of real data from increasingly massive corpora. They are assigned on the basis of frequency, though they must also reflect central and typical usages. They have no intrinsic meaning beyond this. If a new use emerges and becomes well-established, its label can be changed – nothing is set in stone.

Some transitive verbs are genuinely on the move; this intransitive of commit (sense 3) is fairly new to British English:

[intransitive] to decide to have a permanent relationship with someone: He’s not ready to commit.

What is ‘missing’ here, of course, is the reflexive pronoun himself. This use is often targeted as a pet hate by the anti-language-change community, as is the verb Enjoy! mouthed by tired waiters as they abandon you to your meal. In Macmillan Dictionary this is recorded as a sub-sense (1a), although traditional ELT websites still inform us sternly that ‘enjoy always has an object’.

Apart from object ellipsis, there are other meanings of ‘transitive/intransitive’ as it is used in dictionaries. Look at these two short sentences:

Your order has dispatched.
We have dispatched your order.

Both are genuine messages from internet retailers confirming that goods purchased are on their way, but this time they differ in important respects – they have different subjects, for a start. And this kind of behaviour may be spreading among English verbs, as I’ll suggest in the coming weeks.

Email this Post Email this Post

About the author


Gill Francis

1 Comment

  • Abi Morgan, the writer of The Hour, pleaded guilty when charged with perpetrating linguistic anachronisms:
    “When a line of dialogue jars and is seen as an anachronism, one holds one’s hands up. But more because it has taken the audience out of the drama, The Hour is escapism and for that moment the escapism hasn’t worked.”
    I think that’s what happened here, although I wouldn’t say the line is anachronistic, just slightly odd. If it hadn’t jarred I wouldn’t have noticed it, because I’d have been caught up in the story.
    She went on to say: “But I am a dramatist. I elaborate. I imagine.”
    Thus using a verb that is usually transitive without an object – how about that?

Leave a Comment