Intransitive uses of transitive verbs

If you love grammar (and you must do, if you are reading this), you’ll probably already know about Oliver Kamm’s Pedant column in the Times newspaper in which he discusses points of English usage. His perspective is always refreshingly and sensibly descriptive, and averse to unmotivated prescriptivism. The same is true for his delightful book Accidence Will Happen.

In a recent column Kamm discusses the verb warn in the sentence below, published in his newspaper:

Crashing out of the European Union without a deal would generate an abundance of red tape, raise food and drug prices and cause lengthy delays at the border, businesses have warned.

Kamm cites his nemesis Simon Heffer, who argues in his book Strictly English that the verb warn cannot be used intransitively:

We often read in newspapers that somebody has warned that something will happen. This is ungrammatical. The verb warn is transitive: it requires an object. Somebody has to be warned.

Could Heffer be right, if only just this once? After all, we cannot say:

*She warned.

The verb warn requires a specification of who is being warned (optionally) and of the contents of the warning. For example:

She warned (us) that the shop would close very soon.

You can find hundreds of examples online where the target of the warning (the indirect object) has been left out. However, in the example above we cannot leave out the clause that is introduced by that which functions as direct object.

Because objects usually appear after the verb that selects them it may seem as though the verb warn is indeed intransitive in the Times sentence because nothing follows the verb.

However, transitive verbs are not always directly followed by their object. Consider this example:

Tea, I like, but not coffee.

In this sentence the verb like has a direct object, but it is not positioned in its usual place. Instead, it is placed at the beginning of the sentence. Grammarians call this process topicalisation. They would not say that like is intransitive here.

Consider also:

“I will not let you eat all the cake,” he said.

This would be an unremarkable structure in a novel. Here too the verb say is transitive. Its object (the clause I will not let you eat all the cake) has merely been preposed.

Now, something similar is happening in the sentence from the Times. I would argue that the object of the verb warn is the clause Crashing out of the European Union without a deal would generate an abundance of red tape, raise food and drug prices and cause lengthy delays at the border.

This becomes clear when we reorder the words:

Businesses have warned that crashing out of the European Union without a deal would generate an abundance of red tape, raise food and drug prices and cause lengthy delays at the border.

Here the clause introduced by the subordinating conjunction that comes immediately after the verb and is its object. This means that in both versions of the sentence warn is in fact transitive.

Kamm also cites an example of ‘intransitive warn‘ from Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590):

And chearefull Chaunticlere with his note shrill/ Had warned once, that Phoebus fiery carre/ In hast was climbing up the Easterne hill . . .

However, in this case too, warn does have an object, namely the clause that Phoebus fiery carre/ In hast was climbing up the Easterne hill.

What about examples like this:

Anne: What were you doing on Sunday afternoon?

Kamal: I was reading.

Surely, this would be an example of intransitive read? Well, possibly, but we would then have to say that the dictionary should list read under two headings, namely read(transitive) and read(intransitive), which would suggest that they have different meanings. Alternatively — and I would prefer this option — we can say that in such cases there is an implicit object, because Kamal must have been reading something.

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One thought on “Intransitive uses of transitive verbs

  1. Traditionally, ‘warn’ is a transitive verb. There are some obsolete intransitive uses in OE but these do not concern us here. However, slipshod usage (as always) has led to the intransitive use which is now generally accepted in most dictionaries (ODO, for example). This is one simple explanation why ‘warn’ is now used as an intransitive verb. And I’m not saying that we should discourage usage that originates from ignorance or confusion. The pages of history of all languages are full of examples of outrageous errors becoming standard usage. All we have to do is to admit it. Your attempt to make the subordinate clause the object of ‘warn’ is really going too far and quite unnecessary. The intransitive use of ‘warn’ with a that-clause does not make it transitive and the clause is by no means the object of ‘warn’. If you will forgive me for chiding you gently, you always take delight in rocking the boat by introducing something revolutionary.

    Before clicking ‘Post Comment’, I noticed that Jeremy Butterfield ‘liked’ your above post. I could not believe Butterfield could possibly have such a different view from mine and so I took a quick look in his latest book (2015) and voila! He agrees with me!!!

    Like

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