Transitive Verbs or Who did what to whom?

It must have been in the mid-1980s when I first realized that transitive verbs had begun losing their complements. That may not seem catastrophic to most people, but if you’re a grammarian (as I am), it can be pretty serious. To put it simply, understanding what people said was becoming more difficult because action verbs were losing their direct and indirect objects, so that we no longer knew whom or what the verb was affecting.

The verb commit in particular appeared to be under attack.

Suddenly my high school students were pelting me with stories in which characters were unwilling to commit. At first I was merely puzzled, and I questioned one of them in conference.

“Unwilling to commit what?”

“To commit. You know, like to commit.”

“Do you mean for example, ‘The man was sentenced to life imprisonment because he committed? Doesn’t that sound as if something is missing — maybe a serious crime?”

I was trying to segue into a lesson on transitive and intransitive verbs, but my student was having none of it.

“No, not a crime,” she explained patiently, “a relationship! You know how in a relationship men never want to commit?”

I looked at her sadly and thought that she seemed wise beyond her years despite her grammatical deficits. I must note parenthetically that the recalcitrant males who refused “to commit” figured inevitably in short stories written by my girls.

“I see. You mean that Noah doesn’t want to commit himself to an exclusive relationship with Olivia.”

Himself? Why do I have to have himself? I already said he doesn’t want

to commit. I mean, you’re always saying we should use fewer words. Like, good writing is concise.”

“Yes, but you can’t delete the necessary words. And in this case you need a direct object because commit is a transitive verb. So let’s talk about transitive verbs.”

During the next 30 years, I found myself revisiting frequently this grammatical minefield.

“You will receive notification when your copy of the computer program has shipped,” I am informed by e-mail. (What has my computer program shipped?)

“Lady Macbeth transforms into an incarnation of the witches,” a student tells me. (Whom does she transform?)

“The positively charged particles attach to the contaminants and neutralize them,” a commercial explains. (What do the particles attach to the contaminants? Themselves perhaps?)

or

“She is very insecure and tends to attach to other people,” says the guidance counselor. (What is she attaching to them? I wonder. But I don’t ask.)

“On the question of weapons for the Ukrainians, the President will defer until spring,” reports the newscaster. (I try hard to understand what the President will defer — the question, the weapons? Or, could it be the missing decision?)

“The word derives from the Latin facus, meaning bundle,” pontificates my erudite neighbor. (Derive: to take, receive. The word derives what?)

“The fertilized eggs will then be placed into the womb where they can implant and grow,” says my friend’s doctor. (What will the eggs implant? I can’t resist asking.)

Language, of course, is dynamic. Inventions and new movements in art, science, and politics, for example, generate new words to describe them. (Even the President of the United States takes selfies nowadays.) We no longer speak or spell in the language of Shakespeare or Chaucer. The non-standard speech of a former time often becomes today’s norm. But the movement toward change should not be a heedless rush into Babel. Rather, it should be a temperate and sober stroll that above all preserves and clarifies meaning.

So, for the foreseeable future, I suggest we endow our transitive verbs with direct and indirect objects that help us communicate more clearly with one another.

Rosette Liberman, Ed.D.                                                                                   co-author The Cooper Hill Stylebook, a guide to writing and revision