October 26, 2004

Puncturing etymology porn

That was the subject line of an email from Rich Alderson, commenting on a post about the history of boring and some other words. As he wrote, "Man, does *that* look like a spam subject header." The body of his note:

Just wanted to comment on your

??His balloon punctured.

Easily gotten in context:

The task set for the game show contestants was to see who could
carry a fully inflated child's balloon through a narrow corridor
lined with various sharp objects. The male contestant was much
too sure of himself, moving very aggressively, and not surprisingly
his balloon punctured first.

And while I get bored with some things much more often than others, I didn't
even blink at "quickly boring of the task".

Rich's proposed context certainly sugar-coats the pill. (Though his gender stereotypes are less inventive than his linguistic context: why not "the female contestant was much too sure of herself, moving very aggressively..."?)

I'm reminded of a series of Language Log posts in which Geoff Pullum and various readers examined the question of whether there are any strictly transitive verbs in English. Phil Resnik referred the discussion back to the recent literature on lexical syntax and semantics. And (this was my favorite part) Sally Thomason wrote about how strict transitivity almost caused a prison riot.

But (I think) all of the examples in those earlier discussions involved some kind of null complement, where an object is omitted as generic or habitual or anaphoric or otherwise unneeded. The outcome of the discussion seemed to be that pretty much any transitive verb can have its object thus annulled, if you work at it. Geoff ended with this quotation from T.H. White:

"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."

The examples with bore (and puncture) are different. These are causative/inchoative alternations, pairing an intransitive phrasing about something that undergoes a change of state ("chocolate melts") with a transitive phrasing about some cause that induces such a change ("heat melts chocolate"). But perhaps the conclusion is similar: this alternation can be induced in any transitive verb (that can be construed as) denoting the causation of a change of state in its object. If you work the context hard enough, at least.


Posted by Mark Liberman at October 26, 2004 07:30 AM