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Verbs in learner’s dictionaries 3: ‘Your order has shipped’

My recent posts (here and here) discussed verbs like teach and disappoint, which are both transitive and intransitive: she teaches (English); the festival didn’t disappoint (anyone). The grammatical subject, and the meaning of the verb, are much the same whether there’s an object or not. Today I will focus on another, quite different, way in which verbs can be both transitive and intransitive.

I recently ordered a ‘funky vintage-inspired lace-trim crinkle tunic with silver-effect buttons’ on the Internet, or maybe I didn’t – it was probably just a pair of generously-cut everyday black leggings. It doesn’t matter, because what interested me was an email from the company, beginning: Your order has shipped.

This was new to me, although in fact the Macmillan Dictionary labels and defines ship (sub-sense a) as intransitive/transitive, and gives a suitably high-tech example. After further investigation into my occasional Internet shopping sprees, I also found a few emails whose subject lines read simply: Your [company name] order has dispatched.

What is going on here? Dispatch, like ship, is usually transitive. I would expect a human agent: we have dispatched your order, or the passive your order has been dispatched. ‘We’ sounds direct and personal, while the passive, though impersonal, nevertheless implies human agency: your order has been shipped (by us). But the intransitive email messages suggest a complete absence of any human involvement or responsibility. My fancy mixed-fabric shirt, or whatever it was, apparently acted quite spontaneously and independently: it decided the time had come, so it wrapped itself in the usual impenetrable black plastic and shipped. It upped and went. It dispatched.

There are a few hundred verbs – sometimes called ‘ergative’ verbs – for which this behaviour is perfectly standard. They are often labelled ‘intransitive/transitive’ (see change, burst, boil, curl); or they have closely-related senses that reflect each use (see fill, dissolve, lift, drop). In choosing between intransitive and transitive, you are opting to talk about the world in very different ways – to depict events as just somehow happening, OR as caused by someone or something. These pairs of examples are from ukWaC (via Skylight):

His expression changed from sadness to joy.
I was careful not to change my expression.

This feeling doesn’t last and the bubble bursts.
Can love’s young dream survive, or will reality burst the bubble?

But what about verbs like ship and dispatch? Their intransitive use seems odd to us now, but it may spread, and perhaps become current outside the restricted field of Internet correspondence. I don’t know; only time will tell.

Meanwhile, other verbs may be changing in the same way: The movie releases all over the country today. This intransitive use of release, collocating with movie or film, has begun to appear only recently. Typically, release is transitive, usually passive: The movie is released next week.

And then there is the verb link. Stan Carey’s post on shared alphabets began: Our recent roundup of Language in the News linked to a BBC report on a new phonetic alphabet… Link is intransitive here, though it is labelled ‘transitive’ in the dictionaries. Although it was Stan himself who did the linking, it seems natural and logical to present it as something that just IS, in the very nature of the Internet. So his clear, uncluttered use of link may well flourish.

Sometimes it is a question of relative frequencies. This is from a recent news broadcast:

More birds have washed up in the West Country with the same pollutant that contaminated sea-birds two months ago.

This intransitive/transitive sense of wash up (sense 2) is typically transitive, passive: sea-birds have been washed up The implied agent is of course ‘the tide’, although the real cause lies elsewhere, in oil and other pollutants. The intransitive, however, conveys the impression that the dead and dying birds are simply appearing on the shores of their own accord, spontaneously – a useful encoding from the polluters’ point of view.

Anyway, if this trend continues, I’m expecting to receive an email saying YOUR ORDER HAS SENT, any day now.

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Gill Francis


  • The trend for intransitive verbs is alive and well in Australia too. Bank machines come up with messages such as ‘transaction processing now’ and festivals miraculously launch themselves, as in ‘the festival launches next week’. It’s quite weird!

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