oblige with animate subjects

Takahero

Senior Member
Japanese
Hello.

Longman Advanced Learners Dictionary says that "Do not use oblige when you are talking about a person making someone do something".

Do you think that oblige taking animate subjects is unacceptabale?

ex. Don Cruickshank, the telecommunication regulator, has virtually obliged BT to buy Cable and Wireless...(Wordbank)

Thank you for your reply.
 
  • owlman5

    Senior Member
    English-US
    Some writers sampled in COCA* don't have any problem with using "oblige" to describe "making somebody do something":

    Most colleges oblige students to take at least one history course.
    He appeared among them in 1892, a privacy-seeking writer whose global celebrity would soon oblige the government to provide him with his own post office, and built himself a...
    Our security, our vitality, and our ability to lead in todays world oblige us to recognize the overwhelming facts of our interdependence.
    Floods in this rainy part of the world oblige folks to take extra precautions.

    I tend to use other verbs, but many use "oblige" to mean "to make" or "to force" somebody to do something.

    *Corpus of Contemporary American English
     
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    Takahero

    Senior Member
    Japanese
    Thank you.

    Is it possible for "oblige" to have a human subject as in (1)?

    (1)a. The professor obliged me to take the course.

    b. No one can oblige you to stay in a job that you hate.
     
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    Hugo de Toronja

    Member
    English - American
    Thank you.

    Is it possible for "oblige" to have a human subject as in (1)?

    (1)a. The professor obliged me to take the course.

    b. No one can oblige you to stay in a job that you hate.
    As Owlman5's examples suggest, you can use oblige in that sense.

    However, were I to run across it in a piece I was editing, I'd likely change it, or suggest that the author change it, to something more common, if only for clarity's sake.

    (To my ears, "oblige" smacks of a certain kind of ersatz "old timey" rural, particularly "Wild West," speech -- "I'd be much obliged, ma'm, if'n you'd follow me to the saloon." Noblesse oblige, on the other hand, doesn't bother me.)
     

    Takahero

    Senior Member
    Japanese
    How about the following sentences?
    Do you think that they are acceptable?

    a. Students were obliged by the professor to take the course.
    b. Mary was obliged by the boss to stay in a job that she hated.

    Thank you for your reply.
     

    Takahero

    Senior Member
    Japanese
    I understand that No one can oblige you to stay in a job that you hate. is acceptable.

    In this case, what does oblige mean?
    Is the meaning of oblige as strong as force ?
     

    grubble

    Senior Member
    British English
    As Owlman5's examples suggest, you can use oblige in that sense...
    Except that Owlman's examples all have a non-human subject; "colleges", "celebrity", "floods" etc.

    I had never realised there was a rule but I think Longman's has some validity in this case.

    How about the following sentences?
    Do you think that they are acceptable?

    a. Students were obliged by the professor to take the course.:cross:
    b. Mary was obliged by the boss to stay in a job that she hated. :cross:
    They don't sound right to my ears.

    a. Students were required by the professor to take the course. :tick:
    b. Mary was compelled by the boss to stay in a job that she hated. :tick:

    My opinion.



     

    lucas-sp

    Senior Member
    English - Californian
    Whoa! Wait a minute here! The question is about whether "oblige" can have human subjects. If you look at all of owlman's excellent examples, you'll see that none of them have human subjects for "oblige":

    Most colleges oblige students to take at least one history course.
    He appeared among them in 1892, a privacy-seeking writer whose global celebrity would soon oblige the government to provide him with his own post office, and built himself a...
    Our security, our vitality, and our ability to lead in todays world oblige us to recognize the overwhelming facts of our interdependence.
    Floods in this rainy part of the world oblige folks to take extra precautions.

    I bolded all the subjects. In these cases, "oblige" is taking human objects - students, the government, us, folks - but not human subjects.

    In the case of the passive voice, obviously "oblige" can then take human subjects:

    Students are obliged by their universities to take at least one history course.
    We who live in this rainy part of the world are obliged to take extra precautions against the threat of floods.
    You aren't obliged to stay in a job you hate.

    But these subjects are different than those given in the first set of examples - they are the grammatical subject of the verbs, but they do not perform the action of "obliging"; rather, they receive it. I think the general rule is: If "oblige" is in the active voice, it more commonly takes non-human subjects; in the passive voice, it can take human and non-human subjects.

    According to the OED, "oblige" historically took human subjects in the active voice. But they claim that such uses of the verb are archaic, and I kindof agree with them. I think in today's (at least American) English, I would only discuss the act of obliging as being performed by non-human forces.

    I would say "The professor made me take the class" and "Nobody's making you stay in a job you hate." I could also say​ "Nothing obliges you to stay in a job you hate."
     

    PaulQ

    Senior Member
    UK
    English - England
    However, and this will not help, I find that

    Don Cruickshank, the telecommunication regulator, has virtually obliged BT to buy Cable and Wireless...(Wordbank):tick:

    It is quite natural and there is support in freedictionary.com, which does however say that the passive voice is commoner.

    and

    a. Students were obliged by the professor to take the course.:tick:
    b. Mary was [virtually] obliged by the boss to stay in a job that she hated. :tick:

    both sound fine to me.
     

    lucas-sp

    Senior Member
    English - Californian
    In those situations, there's a bit of a bait-and-switch: you don't notice that "oblige" is being used with a human subject in either case.

    With Dan Cruickshank, you begin the sentence on the name of a person, but then you read "the telecommunications regulator," so you hear the verbal part of the sentence as being "The telecommunications regulator obliged..." It sounds like the office of telecommunications regulator is doing the obliging.

    In the passive voice constructions, you don't notice that the agency performing the action is a person until very late in the sentence, and by then you've half-forgotten that it was a sentence with "oblige."

    This is a situation where speakers are rather sloppy, but I still think that usually a speaker would avoid writing or saying "oblige" with a human agency performing its action - unless, as in the cases that PaulQ has collected, there's some kind of distracting factor that makes the sentence seem semi-correct. I really wouldn't expect to hear "The professor obliged the students..." but I don't mind "The students were obliged to X by the professor" - because, as I said, the structure of the sentence obscures the fact that a human is doing the obliging in the sentence.
     

    grubble

    Senior Member
    British English
    I stick to my guns and agree with Longman. Changing to the passive voice doesn't fool me at all. There are other words that work perfectly well as I showed above.
     

    lucas-sp

    Senior Member
    English - Californian
    You're a hard man to fool, grubble! We're never going to be able to get anything past you. I feel like in these cases, though, you often start off by saying a sentence in the passive with "oblige" and then at the end change your mind and throw the actor in - thus making a mistake and using a human actor with "oblige."

    And just on the original topic: it isn't incorrect to use "oblige" with a human actor, but it is obsolete and archaic. We don't do it in English any more.
     

    PaulQ

    Senior Member
    UK
    English - England
    And just on the original topic: it isn't incorrect to use "oblige" with a human actor, but it is obsolete and archaic. We don't do it in English any more.
    Perhaps it is making its way back? 100 years ago, there would have been those conservatives who would have sworn that they would fight the "no animate object" rule to their graves.
     

    lucas-sp

    Senior Member
    English - Californian
    One problem is that when you say "The professor obliged the students..." it seems like a different sense of "oblige" is implied by that opening. I would probably finish that sentence with "... by giving them an extra week to work on their papers." Remember "oblige" means "to give in to a request or demand" as well as "to constrain or demand."

    If you think this usage is "making its way back," it would be more convincing to find some current examples of human actors + oblige in the sense meant here. I just looked through the in-context results for "oblige" and I couldn't find any. I found some "rules" and a "constitution" obliging people to do things, and lots of people who were "happy to oblige," but I don't think this is an up-and-coming usage.
     

    Packard

    Senior Member
    USA, English
    I think "obligated" is a better choice. It generally includes the sense of "force" more than does "oblige".
     

    grubble

    Senior Member
    British English
    One problem is that when you say "The professor obliged the students..." it seems like a different sense of "oblige" is implied by that opening. I would probably finish that sentence with "... by giving them an extra week to work on their papers." Remember "oblige" means "to give in to a request or demand" as well as "to constrain or demand."

    I agree. :thumbsup: I think this is the key.
     
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    PaulQ

    Senior Member
    UK
    English - England
    I disagree. the very next word would give the game away, "The professor obliged the students to/by..."
     
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