May 27, 2004

Illustrating obligatory transitivity

It is generally assumed by syntacticians that some verbs are obligatorily transitive. An example of one that isn't is eat. It can be used either with a direct object (I've already eaten lunch) or without (I've already eaten). I don't mean in constructions where the object is required to be eliminated, like passives (The food wasn't all eaten) or relative clauses (the things that they eat); I mean that in construction types that allow the object to be present, if the verb is eat the object can just be left implicit. Some verbs are standardly said to be much more rigid, insisting on an overt direct object noun phrase. A syntactician might well exemplify with verbs like, say, discard, or abandon, because it would be easy to assent to the notion that sentences such as these deserve their asterisk annotations for ungrammaticality:

*The company eventually decided to discard.
*I hope your brother doesn't just abandon.

But the syntactician would be wrong.

Look at this sentence, which I came across in this article about moves to improve the standard of computer programming in the future:

They require the courage to discard and abandon, to select simplicity and transparency as design goals rather than complexity and obscure sophistication.

Perfectly grammatical. So there goes the idea that discard and abandon illustrate obligatory transitivity. It is in fact extremely hard to come up with a list of even ten transitive verbs associated with a really hard requirement that the direct object be explicit rather than implicit. Sometimes I almost begin to think there aren't really any. I believe I can still be confident about have and keep. But finding eight more wouldn't be easy.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at May 27, 2004 09:24 PM