To take or not to take an object: verbs that used to just do are starting to do something too


It’s a strange verb, to grow. Usually we talk about things or people growing intransitively — ie. without an object. “The size of the crowd grew.” “She has grown so tall.” “The government’s power is growing.” There’s really no limit to what can grow, on its own, in an intransitive sense. However, when it comes to using the verb transitively — ie. when we’re talking about “growing something“, rather than seeing it grow under its own steam, then most bets are suddenly off: we only grow transitively when we’re referring to natural, living things. We grow plants, flowers and our own food; we grow beards, and our hair; we even grow pot-bellies — whether we like it or not. But it’s only recently that the transitive use of the verb itself has begun to grow: now embracing  inanimate objects and abstract items, grow is beginning to mean “expand” — and you can grow anything from your circle of friends to an economy or an international corporation’s revenue (whereas before they grew only intransitively). The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage advises against this growing trend of growing anything unnatural transitively: “The newer usage of grow to mean expand (grow the business; grow revenue) is business jargon, best resisted.”

Disappear is another dodgy suspect when it comes to its transitive use.Like grow, it tends to be happiest when its doing its own disappearing, intransitively. “She has disappeared.” It’s rare that we “disappear something”, even though we do cause things to disappear. However, the word has started to be used transitively in two modern settings — one contextual, and one geographical.

In the 1970s, when Western news outlets reported on the activities of the Argentine military government and its suppression of political insurgents, a subtle but striking verbal shift happened: the more passive “he disappeared” turned into a more sinister and active “they disappeared him”. That particular usage of the verb stuck, and many dictionaries now acknowledge this specific transitive definition: the American Heritage Dictionary says it’s “to cause (someone) to disappear;”especially by kidnapping or murder”; Collins English Dictionary prescribes it as “(esp in South and Central America) to arrest secretly and presumably imprison or kill (a member of an opposing political group)”; Random House is perhaps the most specific of all: “to kidnap, imprison, or kill (someone, esp. an opponent of a right-wing Latin American government).”

A few decades on, it seems to be becoming more common to talk about disappearing an object or person without having to kidnap or murder them — but only if you’re on one side of the Atlantic. Oxford Dictionaries lists a very general transitive definition  — “cause to disappear, as by consumption” — in American speech, but not British. The example it offers is “statistics show that the community disappears about 200 pounds of cabbage a year”. So apparently you can disappear cabbage in America, but not in the UK, where cabbage still has to disappear itself.

Appeal as a transitive verb is archaic and obsolete. (At least it was until very recently.) Back in the 17th century it meant to call (someone) to answer before a tribunal or to accuse (someone) of a crime or impeach them. Shakespeare’s Richard II says: “Tell me, moreover, hast thou sounded him, If he appeal the duke on ancient malice …?” Nowadays, we appeal to, for or against things or people: we make a serious or urgent request for action (“the police are appealing to the public to report any sightings”); we apply to a higher court for a reversal of a legal decision (“he is appealing against the verdict”); we address ourselves to a principle or quality in someone in anticipation of a favorable response (“I’m appealing to her better judgement”); or something is attractive or interesting (“that job appeals to me”). However, like the verb disappear but to an even greater extent, the transitive appeal is on the rise — but mainly in North America. Here in the U.S. we will appeal decisions or verdicts, missing out the “to” or “against” that most Brits generally still use.

Similar to appeal is protest, another verb that divides the Yanks and Brits in terms of its transitivity. The only time the Brits don’t protest about, against, to, or over something is when they’re protesting their innocence — and that’s something they’re arguing for, rather than against. Curiously this seems to be the only occasion on which Brits are willing to drop the preposition, unlike their American counterparts who will protest job-cuts, decisions, or anything else that puts their backs up. (Another thing to note about protest is that Brits emphasize the second syllable when they’re using it as a verb, but stress the first for a noun: “I would like to pro-TEST against this new law”, but “His PRO-test is unjustified.” Americans, on the other hand, always stress the first syllable, whatever the word’s grammatical status.)

When we think of expire, we tend to think of things or people running out of time, validity, or life — very intransitively. “The period of eligibility expired”; “my gym membership expired”; “he said his goodbyes before he expired.” But a bit like grow, it also has a limited transitive usage: according to the dictionaries, you can also officially expire something in the natural, poetic or medical sense of human breath, especially in the act of dying. Medics might measure the capacity of breath expired by your lungs; your soul or your last breath might be the last thing you expire. But also like grow, and the other intransitive verbs discussed above, expire is slowly — but not yet too surely — broadening its transitive reach, to become synonymous with terminate. People sometimes talk about licenses, memberships and other items of limited validity “being” or “becoming” expired, even though it’s likely to be a rubber stamp rather than a final breath that determines its final demise.

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