Morphosyntactic innovation in the White House?

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From the "Press Briefing by Press Secretary Sean Spicer, 2/14/2017, #12" (starting at 15:23 of the ABC News video):

JONATHAN KARL:  Back in January, the President said that nobody in his campaign had been in touch with the Russians. Now, today, can you still say definitively that nobody on the Trump campaign, not even General Flynn, had any contact with the Russians before the election?

SEAN SPICER: My understanding is that what General Flynn has now expressed is that during the transition period — well, we were very clear that during the transition period, he did fee- he did speak with the ambassador —

JONATHAN KARL: I’m talking about during the campaign.

MR. SPICER: I don’t have any- I- there’s nothing that would conclude me that anything different has changed with respect to that time period.

Many English verbs that express a change of state — known as inchoative verbs — can also be used as causatives, when something causes that change of state. Thus

The ice melted. ↔ The sun melted the ice.
The water boiled. ↔ Kim boiled the water.
The rock disintegrated. ↔ The impact disintegrated the rock.

A large number of other inchoative verbs also have causative versions — freeze, break, open, close, change, sink, float, etc.

There are some inchoatives that lack a causative version, or developed a causative version as a relatively recent innovation.  An example is disappear, whose common causative version seems to have developed in the 1970s, in response to events in Latin America, to mean  (in the OED's gloss) "To abduct or arrest (a person), esp. for political reasons, and subsequently to kill or detain as a prisoner, without making his or her fate known".

But most English inchoative "propositional attitude" verbs — describing a change of mental state with respect to some proposition — don't have standard causative versions. Thus

We realized that it was getting late.
*The darkness realized us that it was getting late.

They learned that the show was cancelled.
*The doorman learned them that the show was cancelled.

She inferred that he had packed for a long trip.
*A search of his closet inferred her that he had packed for a long trip.

So I was struck by Mr. Spicer's causative use of conclude:

There’s nothing that would conclude me that anything different has changed with respect to that time period.

Presumably this was just a speech error, though it's one of those interesting errors that result from over-generalizing a quasi-regular pattern, just as children and second-language learners often do.

A quick web search finds a fair number of uses of this construction, but most if not all of them seem to be from non-native speakers, e.g.:

My experiments with MT imaging conclude me that, on average, it can image disks faster using fast compression than with-out.

From the evidences of the research and the theory of First Language Acquisition, these conclude me that Veronica is in two-word stage of child first learning acquisition because often she sounds two words even some word not clear, understand plural grammar.

But her rude behavior confirmed and conclude me that she has an attitude and hatred against Muslim Malays as she is Indian Race Malaysian Citizen whom mostly preferred to work in Singapore taking / snaping away local jobs to foreigner like her and her associates

You just conclude me that I cannot understand intl fans' minds. I'm Korean but that doesn't mean I can see Exo.

Still, it's possible that Mr. Spicer's usage is evidence of an unexpected dimension of micro-syntactic variation in North American English. We'll keep an eye on it.

Update — Mr. Spicer's remark has been widely construed as a negative response to Jonathan Karl's question, e.g. in "Trump campaign aides had repeated contacts with Russian Intelligence", NYT 2/14/2017:

The F.B.I. declined to comment. The White House also declined to comment Tuesday night, but earlier in the day, the press secretary, Sean Spicer, stood by Mr. Trump’s previous comments that nobody from his campaign had contact with Russian officials before the election.

“There’s nothing that would conclude me that anything different has changed with respect to that time period,” Mr. Spicer said in response to a question.

But that interpretation requires several steps of approximate reasoning that are probably not warranted in the context.




  1. Phillip Minden said,

    February 15, 2017 @ 10:49 am

    Dativus commodi.

  2. Robert Coren said,

    February 15, 2017 @ 11:08 am

    The whole sentence is so completely incoherent that it's hard for me to associate any particular process with it.

  3. fev said,

    February 15, 2017 @ 11:09 am

    Causative "disappear" shows up in Heller's "Catch 22": "'They're going to disappear him,' she said."

  4. ===Dan said,

    February 15, 2017 @ 11:10 am

    "…anything different had changed" also seems non-standard. Its literal interpretation seems to undermine the presumed meaning of the sentence.

  5. Orin Hargraves said,

    February 15, 2017 @ 11:13 am

    I wonder if there's some interference from transitive clue, which is very often followed by a personal pronoun, thus establishing a pattern (or familiar rut?) the same sound sequence (e.g., /kluːd mi/.

  6. Ben Zimmer said,

    February 15, 2017 @ 11:47 am

    On the American Dialect Society mailing list Gerald Cohen suggests that this is an on-the-fly blend of "There's nothing that would convince me that…" + "There's nothing that would cause me to conclude that…" Or perhaps Spicer was thinking "There's nothing that would convince me to conclude that…" and skipped straight from the "con-" in "convince" to "conclude."

  7. Phillip Minden said,

    February 15, 2017 @ 11:53 am

    I'll stick with dativus commodi. Conclude [for/to] me.

  8. Ben Zimmer said,

    February 15, 2017 @ 12:06 pm

    More on transitive "disappear" in my 2011 post.

  9. Daniel Barkalow said,

    February 15, 2017 @ 12:49 pm

    It's worth nothing that "conclude", in the sense of "finish", does have a causative version, although the propositional attitude sense has a subject that matches the agent of the causative version of the ending sense ("I concluded that X" ~~ "I concluded the investigation holding the belief that X"). As of yet, nothing's concluded Sean Spicer as press secretary, but we'll see.

  10. Ryan said,

    February 15, 2017 @ 3:59 pm

    The fourth example ("You just conclude me…") is interesting in the way that it differs from the others; whereas in all the other statements "conclude me" essentially means "lead me to conclude", in that statement it means "conclude about me".

  11. BillR said,

    February 15, 2017 @ 4:21 pm

    He's channeling Professor Irwin Corey, who died last week at age 102.

  12. Ralph Hickok said,

    February 15, 2017 @ 5:55 pm

    Magicians have used "disappear" as a causative for a long time. A "disappearing box" was a staple of comic book ads when I was a kid (late 1940s and early 1950s); and it was not the box that disappeared, it was the object placed inside it, so the box disappeared the object. It also reversed the process by "appearing" the object. "Vanish" is also commonly used by magicians as a causative, but I don't remember seeing or hearing it that long ago.

  13. Belial Issimo said,

    February 15, 2017 @ 6:47 pm

    It's not just magicians – the stain remover Vanish is so called not, presumably, because it vanishes but because it causes stains to vanish.

  14. Terry Hunt said,

    February 15, 2017 @ 8:05 pm

    As a sidenote, "learn" is (or was) used causatively in some uneducated registers of UK English – for example as "I'll learn him" meaning "I'll teach him [a lesson]". However, I'm not aware of any regional dialects where this is considered standard. Does anyone know differently?

    [(myl) But the usage frames for this sense are mainly (or only?) "learn " and "learn to " — where the last one means "teach them (via punishment) the consequences of that action" — and not "learn that ".]

  15. Robert said,

    February 15, 2017 @ 9:05 pm

    As Sam Goldwyn might have said, "Conclude me out."

  16. Ray said,

    February 15, 2017 @ 11:15 pm

    "there's nothing that would conclude [for] me that anything different has changed with respect to that time period" [because he's addressing smoking guns. trying to make people conclude something.]

  17. Chas Belov said,

    February 16, 2017 @ 3:34 am

    @fev: It's been years since I read Catch 22, and sorry I forgot about that usages. I've heard "disappeared" many times over the years since then, often in regard to dissidents in Central America.

  18. Chas Belov said,

    February 16, 2017 @ 3:39 am

    Hmm, according to Google ngrams "disappeared him," "disappeared her," and "disappeared them" have had various frequencies over the years. Given that the 3rd person singular feminine doesn't morph for subject and object positions, so the high early presence is likely due to sentences involving a sentence ending between the two words.

  19. Edwin Schmitt said,

    February 16, 2017 @ 4:11 am

    Some of the verbs you have chosen to describe inchoates that have not become causative seem strange to me. It seems that there is a built in understanding of direction in two of these verbs, which would prevent them from becoming causative in the examples you provide. For instance "learn":
    They learned that the show was cancelled.
    (In this example the logic of this inchoate verb makes sense because the subject has received new information. This direction of "receiving" is a primary semantic element of the verb "to learn")
    *The doorman learned them that the show was cancelled.
    (In this example the logic of this hypothetical causative verb is confused because it assumes that the subject is sending new information to "them" which would violate the semantic understanding of the verb "to learn")
    It would seem a similar directional logic can also be seen in the verb "to infer". I would not expect these verbs to ever develop a causative syntactic function.
    However, realized is quite different.
    *The darkness realized us that it was getting late.
    I do not see a logical reason why this sentence could not make sense, it would seem that convention alone is preventing the verb "to realize" from developing a causative form. This is evident in the fact that this sentence could simply be written using the transitive "made":
    The darkness made us realize that it was getting late.
    Which syntactically is no different than:
    The sun made the ice melt.
    Kim made the water boil.
    The impact made the rock disintegrate.
    For some reason these verbs dropped the transitive "made" and there doesn't appear to be any logical reason why "to realize" couldn't as well.
    And these examples are probably not much different than:
    …there's nothing that would make me conclude that anything different has changed with respect to that time period.
    From another perspective, if you were to put "make" or "made" in front of "learn" or "infer" it would imply that the object of the sentence was "forced against their will" to "learn" or "infer" by the subject of the sentence. But that is not necessarily the case with the verbs "to realize, to conclude" and would certainly not be the case with "to boil, to melt, to disintegrate" in the context provided…unless of course we want to give water and rocks some kind of extreme Latourian agency, ha! :-)

  20. Phillip Minden said,

    February 16, 2017 @ 4:38 am

    Yes. Dativus commodi, not direct object.

  21. Vilinthril said,

    February 16, 2017 @ 6:43 am

    As a matter of fact, a common speech error in (at least Austrian) German is to say ich lern es dir (“I'll learn it to you”) for “I'll teach it to you”.

  22. richardelguru said,

    February 16, 2017 @ 6:50 am

    "*The doorman learned them that the show was cancelled."

    That'll larn 'em.

  23. Robert Coren said,

    February 16, 2017 @ 9:53 am

    @Vilinthril: I would assume that the error in German arises in large part because of the lexical closeness of lernen ("learn") and lehren ("teach").

  24. Robert Coren said,

    February 16, 2017 @ 9:57 am

    For an amusing sidelight on transitive "learn" for "teach", review your childhood copies of Kenneth Graeme's The Wind in the Willows, where Rat scolds Toad for saying "I'll learn 'em!" and Badger scolds Rat for scolding Toad: "If it's good enough for me, it's good enough for him. And anyway, we don't want to teach 'em; we want to learn 'em. And we're going to do it, too!"

  25. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    February 16, 2017 @ 10:37 am

    'Learn' for 'teach' was clearly once respectable English, as it is used in Coverdale's Psalter, still in use as part of the Book of Common Prayer, e.g. 'O learn me true understanding and knowledge'. (The Authorised Version replaces it with 'teach'.)

    I think there is a permanent tendency to replace words for one relation with words for the converse relation, as in 'Can you borrow me a pound?' or 'Barack Obama is an ancestor of William the Lion'.

  26. Marianne Hundt said,

    February 16, 2017 @ 12:00 pm

    The phrase 'conclude me' appears to have been in use (in a complex transitive construction) in the eighteenth century, particularly in closing/concluding formulae at the end of letters (the following examples are from Clarissa, 1748; quoted from the Corpus of Late Modern English):

    My best compliments, and sister's, to the most deserving lady in the
    world [you will need no other direction to the person meant] conclude me
    Your affectionate cousin and servant,

    My thankful compliments to your good Mr. Hickman, to whose kind invention
    I am so much obliged on this occasion, conclude me, my dearest Miss Howe,
    Your ever affectionate and grateful

    In the same novel, there's an example outside this context (where we would expect 'consider' instead of 'conclude' today):

    But you will expect my reasons; I know you will: and if I give them not,
    will conclude me either obstinate, or implacable, or both: …

    I also found one instance in a letter from Jane Austen (1817):

    -God bless you all. Conclude me to be going on well, if you hear nothing to the contrary.-Yours Ever truely
    J. A.

    In Google Books, we find complex transitive uses in academic writing, too:

    … consequently Mr. Hooke could not from my letters, which were about projectiles and the regions descending hence to the centre, conclude me ignorant of the theory of the heavens.
    (1893, W.W.Rouse Ball, An Essay on Newton's 'Principia')

    But even this transitive use is unusual to our ears, as an editorial comment on an edition of an eighteenth-century play (The Lady of Pleasure) from 1986 shows:

    Aretina: You shall conclude me when you please.
    Editorial comment:
    The context implies 'conclude our interview'. I have not found this phrase elsewhere, but I suspect it of being a polite variation of 'have done with me.'

    I found no instances in the COCA corpus but one in COHA (the historical American corpus) from 1838 in a text from E.A. Poe:

    My powers of speech totally failed, and, in an agony of terror lest my friend should conclude me dead, and return without attempting to reach me,

    If we cast our net wider to include other pronouns (i.e. conclude + pers. pronoun + adj.) we find that this is actually a regularly (low frequency) option for CONCLUDE up until the end of the 19th century.

    While these are not causative uses of the type initially discussed in this thread, they show the potential of the verb for complex transitivization.

  27. DWalker07 said,

    February 16, 2017 @ 12:51 pm

    Right, as was mentioned, I'm baffled by "anything different has changed". I can't parse that. The filler "with respect to" doesn't help.

  28. Rube said,

    February 16, 2017 @ 1:32 pm

    @Robert Coren

    "Oh, very well, have it your own way,' said the Rat. He was getting rather muddled about it himself, and presently he retired into a corner, where he could be heard muttering, 'Learn 'em, teach 'em, teach 'em, learn 'em!' till the Badger told him rather sharply to leave off."

    I think we can all relate.

  29. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 16, 2017 @ 5:45 pm

    DWalker07: I understand "anything different has changed" as either "anything is different" or "anything has changed", your choice.

  30. Roscoe said,

    February 17, 2017 @ 6:14 pm


    Cf. "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," Ch. 12:

    "'That's very important,' the King said, turning to the jury. They were just beginning to write this down on their slates, when the White Rabbit interrupted: 'Unimportant, your Majesty means, of course,' he said in a very respectful tone, but frowning and making faces at him as he spoke.

    "'Unimportant, of course, I meant,' the King hastily said, and went on to himself in an undertone, 'important–unimportant– unimportant–important–' as if he were trying which word sounded best."

  31. Ray said,

    February 18, 2017 @ 2:26 pm

    I wonder if this is like how people say they're "woke."

    [(myl) Not really — the verb wake has a standard inchoative/intransitive version ("When the sleeper wakes") and a standard causative/transition version ("…their pain wakes them at night"). There's variation with "awake" and "wake up", but plain wake certain has both inchoative and causative versions. The standard modern preterite form is "woke", and the OED observes that

    From the 17th cent. onwards the forms woke, woken (after broke, broken, spoke, spoken, etc.) have been more or less current for the past participle; woke seems obsolescent, but woken is at least as frequent as waked.

    So "woke" is just the "obsolescent" but once-standard past participle for causaative/transitive "wake" — the more current but less evocative form would obviously be "awakened".]

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