May 28, 2004

More conjectures and refutations on strict transitivity

My recent suggestions for verbs so rigidly transitive that they always have an overt direct object (where it is permitted) were have and keep. There may be some others; but not the ones some people have been sending me.

Andy Durdin was immediately reminded (as I should have been) of the words from the old Church of England marriage service from the Book of Common Prayer:

"I _______ take thee _______ to my wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part, according to God's holy ordinance; and thereto I plight thee my troth."

However, I think this is one of the cases where the construction involved requires a missing object. There are lots of these constructions, and in every case it is fine for the object not to be there; but it is also fine for the object of a preposition like at not to be there:

I want a wife I can love ____ for the rest of my life
I want a copy of this that I can look at ____ whenever I want.
That diamond would really be something to have ____ if you wanted to attract thieves.
This would be a useful goal to aim at ____ .
Peace of mind is a wonderful thing to have ____.
That Rembrandt is a wonderful thing to gaze at ____.

What these examples show is that in some kinds of sentence you are required to have a missing noun phrase. We're talking about whether or not you can leave it out in a context where it would normally be permitted.

That doesn't mean I was right about have. I wasn't, as email correspondents and bloggers have been jumping all over me to show. Keith Ivey sent me by email a Googled sentence, The world we live in is a world of those who have and those who don't, which seems fine. And Jonathan Mayhew offers an attested example, from Billie Holliday's "God bless the child": Mama may have, papa may have / But God bless the child that's got his own. Douglas Davidson points out that the Bible also says For he that hath, to him shall be given: and he that hath not, from him shall be taken even that which he hath, and he is quite right, it doth. Language Hat emailed me to point out that there is a book by Ernest Hemingway entitled To Have and Have Not. All in all, that pretty much does it for have.

Sasha Albertini suggested give and take might be obligatorily transitive, but I don't think so: The trouble with you is that you know how to take but you have no idea how to give.

Still, there may be some verbs that are. Adam Albright proposes a list that are about as solid as I can imagine coming up with. He doubts that an implicit objects would ever sound good with any of these verbs:

attain, attribute, cause, comport, delineate, depict, eclipse, impute, induce, portray, predecease, resemble, squelch, subsume, supercede, utter

The nice thing about this little puzzle is that it is highly empirical: you can always find one of your conjectures is blown away completely by a single counterexample. I once thought abandon was a solid case, and then I leafed through a copy of Atlantic Monthly at an airport bookstall one day in the 1990s when Newt Gingrich was threatening his Contract With America, and I read that the conservatives in the Congress were implacably devoted to the destruction of bloated Federal programs of expenditure: "Where necessary, we must not merely revise, we must abandon." I put the magazine back on the rack and got on the plane knowing that I couldn't cite abandon as strictly transitive any more. And as Adam says:

I also thought "await" might be one, but then I discovered this quote from T.H. White's "Once and Future King":

"There is nothing," said the monarch, "except the power which you pretend to seek: power to grind and power to digest, power to seek and power to find, power to await and power to claim, all power and pitilessness springing from the nape of the neck."

This is a lovely example of a genuine context in which plenty of transitive verbs could be coerced into occurring without their usual objects. And a similar case could readily be imagined that would remove several of the verbs on Adam's list above:

If you want to be an artist, it is not enough just to splosh paint around; before your abstractions can mean anything you must first study representational art — you must learn how to delineate, to portray, to impute, to depict.

I think that is convincingly grammatical (not that it's a genuine citation: sometimes a syntactician cannot Google, but must invent). As yet I am not able to see it as likely that objectless occurrences will be found for attain, attribute, cause, comport, eclipse, induce, keep, predecease, resemble, squelch, subsume, supercede, or utter. But who knows? It may merely be that I lack the necessary imagination and haven't yet spotted cases that are out there somewhere in textland waiting to be Googled up.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at May 28, 2004 01:40 PM