V + P~Ø

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March approaches, and just before the Ides of March (on the 13th and 14th, specifically) comes the Stanford Semantics Festival. This is the 10th; a program, with abstracts, will soon be up on the Stanford Linguistics site.  As usual, I'm giving a paper (I'm not actually a semanticist, but I play one annually at SemFest), this year on verbs taking either direct or oblique objects — with extensive references to postings on Language Log and ADS-L. The paper is a follow-up to my paper from last year's SemFest, on "diathesis alternations".

The abstract is below. (Remember that this is just an abstract, not the whole paper. It's much compressed and also lacks most of the references.)

V + P~Ø

Verbs abound in English that can occur, with very similar meanings, either with direct objects (the Ø option) or with oblique objects (the P option), and new ones are being added all the time, either by “transitivizing P-drop” (British “They agreed a draft constitution” ‘They agreed on/to a draft constitution’) or by “intransitivizing P-addition” (love on ‘cuddle, caress, show affection for’). Some of these pairs have been around for a considerable time (beware (of), flee (from)), and many of the transitives have been the object of proscriptivist scorn (transitive abscond ‘take, steal’ and transitive depart).

1. Each pair has its own history, its own syntactic peculiarities, its own semantic/pragmatic profile, and its own sociolinguistic profile (transitive protest is American, and is objected to by many British speakers and usage critics, who insist on protest against; the situation is reversed for transitive agree).

2. So far as I can tell, the variants in each pair almost always differ semantically or pragmatically or both, though this difference is often subtle, so that in many contexts the difference is not especially salient.

3. The virtue of the Ø option is brevity, plus an implicature of close relationship between the denotation of the verb and the denotation of the object (affectedness, directness). When usage critics prefer this option in a particular case, they generally appeal to brevity (Omit Needless Words) and disregard possible meaning differences.

4. The virtue of the P option is (relative) explicitness, plus an implicature of more distant relationship between the denotation of the verb and the denotation of the object. Compare “I played the piano for hours” (direct) and “I played on the piano for hours” (oblique). When usage critics prefer this option in a particular case, they generally appeal to explicitness (Include All Necessary Words) and disregard possible meaning differences.

On points 2-4, consider the discussion of approve (of) on Language Log (here), prompted by William Safire’s recommendation of “I approve this message” rather than “I approve of this message” (in line with U.S. legal requirements on the labeling of political messages). Safire supported his recommendation with appeals to historical precedence, a judgment on his part that the oblique variant sounds “elitist”, and Omit Needless Words, but neglected the considerable meaning difference between the two variants.

5. There is considerable pressure towards transitivization, especially when the P is selected by the V, as in depend on (which has developed a transitive variant, in “We depended them for support” and the like). In such cases the P is dispensable, because it contributes little to the meaning of  V+P.

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