English Grammar: a contradiction in terms. #2 : Transitivity

Traditional grammar divides verbs into two categories:

those which take a direct object, and those which do not

I fed the dog
I beat the drum

This distinction is used as a means of identifying transitivity. Transitivity is how an action expressed through a verb affects or changes the object of the verb. Traditional grammar sees two types of verb: those like feed and beat, which act directly on the object, and those like talk, play which require a preposition.

So the presence of a preposition is often cited as an indication of intransitivity. Intransitive verbs have two properties that are common across most languages:

The verb can be used without an object:

We talked for hours.

The verb requires a preposition to indicate its relation to the object:

She likes to play with tin soldiers.

So far so simple. But English loves to do deviant things with prepositions. Consider the verb put.

In normal usage, put requires two objects, one direct, one indirect; consider that we cannot say:

I put on the table.

Any more than we can say:

I put the plates.

To give put its proper meaning, we have to say:

I put the plates on the table.

Grammarians deal with this using an idea called valency - it turns out that there are quite a number of verbs that require more than one object, as well as some that don't require a subject - though apparently English isn't the worst offender.

So let's take put and put it with English's famous prepositions, to get the verb put up with, which means tolerate.

We can't use it without an object, any more than we can use tolerate without an object.

Mr Churchill famously said that he wouldn't tolerate

Is clearly as nonsensical as:

Mr Churchill famously said that he wouldn't put up with.

So give it an object ( a nice complicated gerund clause ):

Mr Churchill famously said that he wouldn't put up with being invaded by the Nazis.

To people who learned grammar in a language other than English, the verb in the above sentence seems to be "put", and it seems to need two prepositions before the object, so "put" must be a verb meaning "tolerate" or "allow", and it must be intransitive. But it isn't. It has a structure that looks intransitive but a meaning that is transitive, because the bare infinitive is not "put", but "put up with".

Just to make it even more fun, while most prepositional verbs formed from "put" are similarly transitive, some are not, for instance, I put one over on him means I convinced him of a falsehood; the verb is "put one over", not "put one over on". Can I prove it?

I put one over when I need to

Conveys the same meaning of communicating a falsehood, though this usage is uncommon.

Of course, it doesn't stop there. English has verbs that can fall into either category, depending on what kind of thing the object is. For instance, the verb communicate is dependant on whether the object is abstract or concrete.

I communicate ideas well

(I hope), but:

I also communicate well with people.

In romance languages there is a strong sense for the way in which the action of a verb modifies the object, and this makes it possible in some languages to guess the transitivity. When telephones began to become commonplace in Italy, no Italian would ever have thought of using telefonare transitively, because the action is not of doing something to something, but doing something towards.

Telefono a mia mamma implies "using the telephone, I talk with my mother"

Telefono mia mamma if it could exist, would seem to be implying some sort of action performed on my mother. Possibly with a dial or keypad.

In English, which I increasingly feel is the language of ablatives, you can form a verb from any noun whose usual role in the sentence is one of being used as a tool (hence ablative).

Using the flatiron, I press my trousers

Has become:

I iron my trousers.

By the same route,

Using the telephone, I speak to my mum, 

Has become:

I 'phone my mum.

Just to push the whole thing to ridiculous extremes, can you identify the transitivity in the sentence:

I beat out a crazy rhythm on the bongos,

and if so, can you identify the verb?

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