Speaking of Which | Shall We Disappear You?

23 Nov,2012

By Vidya Heble


There is a venerable text by a venerable pair of birds, Wren and Martin. Those over 40 should know about it, and those under that should too, if it is still the standard for school grammar education since I was there. It is titled High School English Grammar and Composition, and it is always called the Wren & Martin, and it has been published by S Chand & Co in slightly different versions of the same utilitarian cover with the insides, as far as I can tell, unchanged.


And as far as I can tell again, there isn’t any reason to change them. Grammar has not, fundamentally, changed. Yes, some words and phrases have expanded in meaning and shifted shape a little, like elastic-waisted jeans that help the wearer absorb delicious dinners without popping a button. But the essentials of grammar are still what they were. A noun is a noun, and the parts of the sentence still need to be in their places for the sentence to make sense.


We may not always need to know why something is right or wrong, except when we’re explaining them to someone else. Generally when writing or editing I don’t usually need to look up points of grammar. After 25 years on the job, language generally comes naturally to one. But when I get onto the Speaking of Which soapbox, and I have to justify my pontification, that’s when a tome is useful. There is a choice of volumes – Fowler’s, Oxford Companion, Websters, a selection of Penguin titles. But to explain one particular point of grammar I had to dig out my Wren and Martin.


That point of grammar is the verb – transitive versus intransitive. In grammarese, an intransitive verb is a verb that has no direct object. This is distinct from a transitive verb, which takes one or more objects. The verb property is called transitivity. Very broadly and a bit simply, a transitive verb is something that you do to someone else. And an intransitive verb is one that you do yourself or to yourself. You don’t have to worry about which verb is called what, although the word “trans” = “transfer” will help you remember if you want to. Far more important is to remember that an intransitive verb should not be made to do a transitive verb’s work. One instance of this is people using (or misusing) “disappear” thus. “He disappeared the file,” was one. You can’t do that. You can make the file disappear, or you can do away with the file. Or you yourself can disappear, as I wish perpetrators of these grammatical injustices would do.


In English, of course, there are grey areas. It has been compared to a woman’s wardrobe in terms of its lack of logic, although these days a man’s wardrobe would compete quite satisfactorily for that. The verb “grow” used in conjunction with money is one which baffled me for a while. “Grow your money” sounded terribly wrong but then what about growing plants? There’s no one-size-fits-all rule here. Finally I decided that you should not grow inanimate objects. Grow tomatoes, yes. Grow money – nice concept but it won’t happen. You can, however, make your money or your company grow, and here’s hoping you benefit majorly from it.


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