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Verbs in learner’s dictionaries 2: ‘He only does it to annoy …’

Last week’s post focused on the thousands of verbs that are classified in dictionaries as ‘transitive/intransitive’. I also mentioned particular circumstances in which ‘transitive-only’ verbs typically occur without objects. Today’s post will develop this theme, this time in relation to a group of verbs that seem to be consistently ‘losing’ their objects in certain text-types.

This verse is part of ‘a sort of lullaby’ from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). It was sung by the Duchess to her unfortunate baby, who was howling and sneezing in the pepper-filled air:

Speak roughly to your little boy,
And beat him when he sneezes:
He only does it to annoy,
Because he knows it teases.

In the verse, both annoy and tease are intransitive. They impute a wicked intention to the little boy who sneezes – an approach that seems both cruel and irrational. But the verse is a parody of a Victorian poem beginning ‘Speak gently! It is better far To rule by love than fear’. Carroll was mocking its excessive sentimentality, his biographers say, not advocating a ‘tough love’ approach to child-rearing. (Do we need such intertextual detail in order to appreciate the verse? No, but it helps.)

Lewis Carroll’s use of annoy is slightly unusual: unlike tease, annoy is not typically about intentions. More often the focus is on someone’s reaction to something, e.g her laugh annoys me. Similar verbs include amaze, bewilder, delight, disappoint, disturb, enchant, frighten, shock, and surprise; they all refer to the feelings inspired by something, and usually occur with a fully paid-up object, e.g You never cease to amaze me.

But they also occur intransitively, especially in book and film reviews, news commentaries, and adverts. The writer is stressing the universality of a response, widening it to include not just ‘me’, but ‘you, anyone, everyone’. Some recent examples from the media:

It is an exchange that disturbs on many levels.
…a form of words that bewilders.
Her book …still has the power to shock.
Such gimmicks tend to annoy, rather than impress.
A beguiling Grimm for all ages entertains but never enchants.
The Ars Electronica festival dazzled

Intransitive disappoint is almost always negative. Dorothy Zemach says of ‘her’ word wayzgoose:

It sounds good. It looks good. And its meaning doesn’t disappoint.

Is the intransitive use of these verbs increasing? I believe so, but of course I can’t prove it, in the absence of up-to-the-minute balanced corpora representing everyday language. My guess, too, is that where one verb goes, its little family of like-minded verbs will eventually follow, by analogy. The semi-fixed sequences ‘cannot fail to VERB’ and ‘never fail/cease to VERB’ are particularly productive, as reviewers and advertising copy-writers search for ever more creative ways of engaging their readers’ attention:

Rome never ceases to amaze … the variety of cuisine on offer cannot fail to astound … the gardens never fail to delight

Grammatical norms have long been exploited for creative or humorous effect*, and it may be that Lewis Carroll himself was deliberately departing from a norm in the line He only does it to annoy.

The task facing lexicographers, when classifying and defining any word, is to examine new evidence and ask: “Do these uses involve creative departures from the norm, or are they becoming the norm?” One-off creative exploitations can be safely ignored, but if a feature has become frequent enough to be considered typical of the word’s behaviour, it must be recorded and reflected in definitions, examples, and grammar labels. Today, for example, a comment like The story puzzled sounds weird – no one would rush to record intransitive puzzle in the dictionary – but tomorrow it may be perfectly acceptable. In language change weird is the new normal.


*For an excellent discussion of this, see Patrick Hanks, Lexical Analysis: Norms and Exploitations, Cambridge & London: The MIT Press, 2013

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Gill Francis

1 Comment

  • Your discussion of this kind of intransitive use reminds me of a phrase often used in relation to tea: “The cup that cheers.” This apparently derives from a poem written by William Cowper in 1785: “And, while the bubbling and loud-hissing urn / Throws up a steamy column, and the cups / That cheer but not inebriate, wait on each…”

    A more modern intransitive use, although it’s different from the type you mention in this post, is when someone says “You like?” instead of “Do you like this?” I’ve noticed this being used by one of the presenters of a TV programme that helps people find a house to buy – I don’t know how widespread the use is.

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