Disputed meaning of "transitive"?

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Wordsmyth

Senior Member
Native language: English (BrE)
I've always understood a transitive verb to be one that takes a direct object. So an intransitive verb is one that doesn't take a direct object (i.e. one that takes an indirect object or no object at all).

However I've recently come across a number of "learn English" and "English grammar" websites (all US-based) that describe a transitive verb as one that takes an object (direct or indirect!), and an intransitive verb as one that takes no object.

All the dictionaries I've checked (AmE & BrE) give "my" definition, and WR members posting in various related threads all seem to follow that meaning. I've done a web-search for discussions of two different meanings, but can find none.

Does anyone know if the second definition is a recent deviation (one might even say a mistake) that is being web-propagated, particularly in the US? — Or have the two definitions existed for a long time, and been used by different camps in blissful ignorance of each other?

If the two meanings do co-exist, it could be very confusing for learners!

Ws:)
 
  • Wordsmyth

    Senior Member
    Native language: English (BrE)
    OK Myridon, I didn't want to overload my post with links, and I didn't note the sites as I searched ... but I'll trawl back through my search history to see if I can find them.

    Ws:)
     

    pob14

    Senior Member
    American English
    I'm not very good with the technical terminology of grammar, but how the heck can a verb have an indirect object without having a direct object?
     

    entangledbank

    Senior Member
    English - South-East England
    'Transitive verb' is the traditional but not entirely helpful term, since verbs have transitive uses rather than being permanently one or the other. Thus, 'Mary ate' means "Mary ate something, a sandwich for example", with the verb having the same semantic orientation whether it has an explicit object or not. Do you call this transitive? Compare to when the transitive and intransitive uses have different orientations: Mary sank the boat; The boat sank. (So also boiling water, opening doors etc.)

    Second, modern grammars often distinguish more clearly than was traditional between syntactic and semantic roles. 'Mary e-mailed her proposal' and 'Mary e-mailed her lawyer' have exactly the same syntax, and the object has the same syntactic role in both. There are no syntactic grounds for saying that one is one kind of object, the other a different kind. Both can be passivized or clefted, for example: Her proposal/lawyer was e-mailed yesterday; It was her proposal/lawyer that she e-mailed. How they differ is in semantic roles: the lawyer is a recipient, and the proposal is a theme (the unenlightening name for a thing that is transferred).

    The traditional terms 'direct object' and 'indirect object' are only useful when there are two objects to be distinguished: Mary e-mailed her lawyer her proposal. And here, the first object is the only one with fully object-like properties. :tick:Her lawyer was e-mailed her proposal. / :cross:Her proposal was e-mailed her lawyer. (AmE may allow the latter type more than BrE does.) In Latin - which is not English - you can have an indirect object without a direct object, as they use dative and accusative: the distinction is real. In English, however, if there is only one object, it just is the object (a syntactic term), whatever its semantic role may be (and there are many more than recipient and theme).
     

    PaulQ

    Senior Member
    UK
    English - England
    Pace "In English, however, if there is only one object, it just is the object (a syntactic term), whatever its semantic role may be (and there are many more than recipient and theme)."

    Whereas entangledbank's example (i) 'Mary e-mailed her proposal' and (ii) 'Mary e-mailed her lawyer' appear, respectively, to have only a direct object and an indirect one, in fact, both are really complete with direct and indirect objects; these being understood.

    (i) 'Mary e-mailed her proposal (d.o.) [to her lawyer] (i.o.)
    and
    (ii) 'Mary e-mailed
    her lawyer (i.o.)[her proposal] (d.o.)

    with verbs of transmission (give, take, send, email, broadcast, etc.) there are always both types of object but often one is omitted.
     

    Wordsmyth

    Senior Member
    Native language: English (BrE)
    'Transitive verb' is the traditional but not entirely helpful term [...]
    OK, when I said "transitive verb", I meant a verb being used transitively (cf. those that appear as "v. tr./intr." in dictionaries). In "Mary ate", ate is often described as a transitive verb with an implicit object. But I take your point, entangledbank, that the traditional terms may be too limiting, and that they're relevant only when such distinction is needed.

    However, many many teachers and learners of English (native or otherwise) still refer to the traditional terms, so for as long as that's the case it would be useful to know whether there's a single (or at least a preferred) definition of "transitive" (my original question).

    [...] how the heck can a verb have an indirect object without having a direct object?
    That's easy, pob. "I speak to you" : indirect object, no direct object. // "I see you" : direct object, no indirect object.

    Meanwhile, back to my original question: I'm still pulling up the examples you asked for, Myridon.

    Ws:)

    PS. I know this is a fascinating subject, as the number of other related threads shows. But please can we avoid turning this thread into a general discussion of transitive/intransitive and direct/indirect. My question concerned the popularity/acceptability of a second definition of transitive (see my post #1). Thanks everyone.
     
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    Wordsmyth

    Senior Member
    Native language: English (BrE)
    It would be very helpful to this discussion if you could tell us about these sites and some examples of what they say.
    Myridon, here are some of the sources that define transitive as taking "an object" (direct or indirect), and intransitive as taking no object:
    grammar.about.com... ; usingenglish.com...transitive ; usingenglish.com...intransitive ; livestrong.com (see para. "Intransitive verbs"); laits.utexas.edu (talking about French grammar, but the principle's the same); wiki/Transitive; wiki/Intransitive (but interestingly another wikipedia article uses the other definition: wiki/Transitivity(grammar)).

    A recent post in another thread (in the Fr/Eng forum) adds another example : WRthread

    However many other sources quote the other definition (transitive: direct object), so I conclude that there are two definitions in quite widespread use, and that users of each seem little aware of the other.

    1) Transitive: direct object.
    ....Intransitive: no direct object (i.e. indirect or no object)

    2) Direct transitive: direct object
    ....Indirect transitive: indirect object
    ....Intransitive: no object

    So, regarding verbs taking indirect objects, the two definitions appear contradictory (one says they're transitive, the other intransitive); so I guess any reference to their 'transitivity' should be accompanied by the appropriate definition — or just be avoided!

    Ws:)
     

    Loob

    Senior Member
    English UK
    You pays your money and you takes your choice, Wordsmyth....
    That's easy, pob. "I speak to you" : indirect object, no direct object. // "I see you" : direct object, no indirect object.
    Mmm - perhaps not quite so easy: there are grammarians who would argue that the "to you" in "I speak to you" is not an indirect object:).
     

    Chimel

    Senior Member
    Français
    However many other sources quote the other definition (transitive: direct object), so I conclude that there are two definitions in quite widespread use, and that users of each seem little aware of the other.
    (...)
    2) Direct transitive: direct object
    ....Indirect transitive: indirect object
    ....Intransitive: no object
    That's the one I've always learned, taught and used. I also think it is far more widespread in the French-speaking area.

    I know everyone likes to advocate for his own cause but frankly, I think it's subtler than the other one because in the first definition, a verb like to die (which I would call "typically intransitive": it just cannot have any direct or indirect object) is considered the same way as a verb like to think (of), which can have an (indirect) object.

    To me, the main advantage of grammatical categories is to distinguish between several kinds of words. It's easier to understand how a language works if you know for example the difference between an adjective and an adverb than if you think both are the same kind of words. So if a classification treats the same way words which are of a different kind, what's the use of it?
     

    Pertinax

    Senior Member
    BrE->AuE
    there are grammarians who would argue that the "to you" in "I speak to you" is not an indirect object:).
    Indeed, the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, 2002 (p248) takes this view.

    Some modern grammars, they add, take the opposite view: classifying "him" and "it" in "I gave him it" as direct and indirect object respectively.

    Grammar has developed rapidly over the past few decades, and the terminology is understandably still in flux.
     

    Wordsmyth

    Senior Member
    Native language: English (BrE)
    [...] there are grammarians who would argue that the "to you" in "I speak to you" is not an indirect object:).
    I did have second thoughts about my example, Loob, given that speak can also occur as a 'direct transitive'. (See, I'm using that new (to me) terminology already!). I have indeed come across different interpretations of such a sentence: that "you" is the indirect object of speak; that the prepositional phrase "to you" is the direct object of speak; that "you" is the direct object of the preposition to ... Maybe we should settle for this charmingly simple definition from an online teaching site :
    we can say that all verbs in English can be divided into two groups--those that must have a word (or words) after them and words that do not have to have any word after them.;)

    Perhaps I was a bit quick with my reply to pob14. At that point I hadn't realised just how varied the perceptions of direct/indirect could be.

    Chimel, you sum up nicely the thoughts I've been having about the 'second' classification; (I'm a great believer in common sense and objective reasoning when it comes to language 'rules' and usage):
    [...] I think it's subtler than the other one because in the first definition, a verb like to die [...] is considered the same way as a verb like to think (of), which can have an (indirect) object. [...] So if a classification treats the same way words which are of a different kind, what's the use of it?
    The 'three-part' classification is certainly more precise than the one I was taught. It also fits better with the root meaning of transitive: the 'carrying across' of the action from the subject to the object; this idea applies just as much to an indirect object as to a direct object.

    So I guess this leopard has changed his spots ... and thank you all for the enlightening discussion.:thumbsup:

    Ws:)

     

    PaulQ

    Senior Member
    UK
    English - England
    there are grammarians who would argue that the "to you" in "I speak to you" is not an indirect object:).
    To speak to is a phrasal verb = to address - you is the direct object

    Chimel suggests that "to think of" has an indirect object - I have difficulty with this concept; "to think of" is a phrasal verb = "to consider" or "to imagine" or "to recall" and has a direct object - "I thought of chocolate" - "I imagined chocolate."

    Whereas to and for often introduce indirect objects (and perhaps should be considered part of them), to and for are often parts of phrasal verbs or simply prepositions.

    I baked it for her. - non-phrasal and (doubly) transitive
    I looked for the hammer. - phrasal and transitive.

    I gave it to him
    I went to town.

    If you class transitive verbs as those that have an object (be it direct or indirect, it doesn't matter) then that works for me.
     
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    Wordsmyth

    Senior Member
    Native language: English (BrE)
    [...] I have indeed come across different interpretations of such a sentence: that "you" is the indirect object of speak; that the prepositional phrase "to you" is the direct object of speak; that "you" is the direct object of the preposition to ...
    ... and bingo, here's another one from Paul : that "you" is the direct object of the phrasal verb "speak to". Oh well, as Loob says, you pays your money ...

    Ws:)
     

    Chimel

    Senior Member
    Français
    Paul, you're right about the distinction between a phrasal verb and a verb with an indirect object. Perhaps the whole discussion is also linked to the fact that, in French, we don't really have these phrasal verbs. So all these complements introduced by of, to, for... are indirect objects and this distinction between "transitif direct et transitif indirect" is more meaningful for us whereas English allows - or just needs - another type of classification.

    (But still, even if you only have two categories, I keep thinking that it's a bit strange to have "to look for" and "to die" or "to stay" in the same one: you'd better have a) transitives (direct or indirect or phrasal verbs, no matter) on the one hand and b) intransitives (no complement possible) in the other one. But who am I to contradict modern grammarians? ;))
     
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    PaulQ

    Senior Member
    UK
    English - England
    But who am I to contradict modern grammarians? ;))
    It is impossible to hold the title "grammarian" without having a unique theory - thus two grammarians never agree, and we choose to follow the grammarian who suits our prejudices. :)
     

    Keith Bradford

    Senior Member
    English (Midlands UK)
    It seems to me that there's little to be gained from saying that a verb as such is transitive or intransitive. English words are so fluid in changing between categories, that all we can say is that verbs can be used transitively or intransitively. I note that the Shorter Oxford English categorises verbs as v. and then goes on to distinguish between trans. and intr. For instance:

    Speak is used intransitively in the command "Say something, speak!" but doubly transitively in the BBC motto "Nation shall speak peace unto nation".
    Talk likewise. "Stop talking" but "Don't talk such nonsense to your father".

    However, the distinction isn't academic; it's essential in distinguishing subsidiary meanings, and for foreign learners who need to decide why they can't say "Don't talk him :cross: such nonsense", when they can say "Don't give him the letter".
     

    Chimel

    Senior Member
    Français
    It seems to me that there's little to be gained from saying that a verb as such is transitive or intransitive.
    Yes, I can follow you in this, Keith, but then (sorry to repeat myself...) the only category which really makes sense to me, whether you speak of the verb as such or of the way it is used, is "intransitive" in the strict and traditional sense of the word. It may be important for a learner to understand that some verbs, like "to stay", "to fall", "to die"..., cannot have a verb complement. Well, they can have a complement, of course, but if you say "Stay with me", it's not the same nature as "Give it to me". These verbs all have some common features, for instance the impossibbility to use them in the passive form.

    For the other verbs, it may be more relevant to speak of a transitive or intransitive use, possibly with the distinction between directly or indirectly transitive for those who find it useful to do so.

    (an interesting discussion, anyway! Thanks Wordsmyth for opening it :))
     
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