Further "warning"

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Geoff Pullum was rightly baffled by Simon Heffer's recent pronouncement that sentences like The Prime Minister has warned that spending cuts are necessary are ungrammatical, since the verb warn, Heffer imagines, must always be transitive. But the objection doesn't come completely out of nowhere. As commenter iching noted, there's an entry on warn in Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, which suggests that the intransitive use "seems to have originated in American English in the early 20th century."

The perceived American-ness of intransitive warn may explain lingering resentment in British quarters (despite the much older precedent of Spenser cited by Geoff). Another commenter, Terry Collmann, says that the style guide of the Times of London maintained a proscription against intransitive warn until a recent revision, belatedly catching up with what has now been recognized as accepted usage on both sides of the Atlantic. MWDEU points out that the 1965 edition of Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage, edited by Sir Ernest Gowers, already viewed intransitive warn as "common in journalism."

The intransitivization of warn brings it into line with other verbs that Beth Levin, in English Verb Classes and Alternations, calls "advise verbs": "verbs related to giving advice or warnings," such as admonish, advise, alert, caution, counsel, and instruct. A common characteristic of these verbs is that — with the exception of alert — they allow "PRO-arb object interpretation when used intransitively." In the PRO-arb object interpretation, Levin explains, the intransitive variant "could be paraphrased with the transitive form of the verb taking 'one' or 'us' or 'people' as object." Levin illustrates the alternation with these examples, in which the verb takes different sentential complements:

Ellen warned (Helen) that melons were selling.
Ellen warned (Helen) how to avoid the crowd.
Ellen warned (Helen) not to skate on thin ice.

Of verbs in this class, Levin says, only alert resists this kind of intransitivization. So Heffer would have been on firmer ground if he had made his pronouncement about alert rather than warn — though even alert (a relatively new verb in English) may eventually join the other advise verbs in the intransitive club. A Google search on "has alerted that" finds numerous examples, though many appear in Asian and African varieties of English.

A final point on warn: Language Log reader David Curwin sent along this recent crash blossom-y headline from the British site Top News:

HSBC warned to move its headquarter away from London

You might think the headline is implying that HSBC has been warned to move its headquarter(s) by some unspecified warner. But in fact it's HSBC that's doing the warning, as the article makes clear:

One of the largest banks of the world, HSBC has warned to move its headquarters away from London if the coalition government of UK plans to break up the big banks in the country.

This flavor of intransitive warn is certainly peculiar. Formally, it resembles the example given by Levin of warn with infinitival complement:

Ellen warned (Helen) not to skate on thin ice.

But in that example, Ellen is cautioning someone else (not) to do something. In the Top News headline, HSBC is cautioning others about its own potential course of action. I would expect this to be expressed more idiomatically as:

HSBC warned that it will move its headquarters away from London

Perhaps we can chalk this up to the same elliptical headline-ese that leads Reuters to create such specimens as "Citrix Systems says to double Asia revenue by 2012." (See here for much more on this Reuters quirk.) But Top News extends the "warn to" construction into the body of the article, so it's possible that this type of ellipticality is infecting British journalistic usage more generally. I'm having trouble Googling up other examples, however, so my guess is it's little more than a Top News-ism.


  1. mollymooly said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 11:27 am

    Judging from the topic headings and the names of the journalists, Top News has a South Asian bias, with appropriate language features not otherwise common in Britain.

    Use of the preterite in news headlines generally denotes less recent events or details which have only recently come to light.

  2. AC said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 11:34 am

    I've noticed this happening more and more lately to lots of other non-advise verbs. I keep hearing about military personnel "embedding" into Afghanistan" in an intransitive way.

    And going the opposite direction, I believe based on observation that the writers of Mad Men have officially banned the verb "lie" (replacing it with "lay"). That could of course be seen as "lay" acquiring a new intransitive sense in the same way "embed" has.

  3. Dan T. said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 11:39 am

    To me, "threatened to" would fit the meaning of the sentence about the bank better than "warned to".

  4. Joe said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 11:55 am

    I'll place this comment here, although it could appear in GK's earlier post as well. It is possible that the BBC reporter messed up the example. The Guardian posted a letter from Heffer berating his colleagues for various "grammar" mistakes. In one of them, he says, "If you are "warning," you need to warn something or someone: otherwise you are 'giving warning.'" He doesn't give an example, but I do wonder if a content clause counts as "something" (and I couldn't help but note he seems to violate his own rule. Anyway, the letter (which I guess is authentic, is here:


  5. Joe said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 12:11 pm

    Sorry, I rushed the post and didn't get a chance to finish. I guess my question is, would a traditionalist say "X is warning that . . . " an example of an intransitive construction? I thought traditionalists would analyse the "that" clause as a "noun clause," functioning as object of the verb.

  6. The Ridger said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 12:57 pm

    As I understand it, what he wants is a recipient, not content. That is, "X is warning Y that" .

  7. Spell Me Jeff said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 1:09 pm

    When Heffer writes "giving warning" I think he is not supplying a synonym, which is what I gather from Joe, but explaining that "to give warning" is the proper verb phrase to use when the something or someone is elided, e.g.:

    he warned that a ship was approaching [incorrect according to Heffer]
    he gave warning that a ship was approaching [correct ATH]

    which I seems (to me) to be a silly distinction.

  8. Joe said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 1:24 pm

    Oh, I agree that Heffer's distinction between "warn" and "give warning" is silly. I was just curious whether a traditionalist would say that "warn" followed by a content clause would be an intransitive use of the verb. As I said, I thought traditional grammar analyses the content clause as a "noun clause" and say that it is functioning as object of the sentence. All the examples in Webster's of "intransitive warn," for instance, have the verb followed by a preposition.

  9. John said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 1:33 pm

    I'm with Joe (as I was with mollymooly on the previous posting on this topic).

  10. Sid Smith said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 2:14 pm

    "One of the largest banks of the world, HSBC has warned to move its headquarters away from London"

    This certainly isn't acceptable in British English – even British journalese. A non-native speaker, I'd assume.

  11. Sid Smith said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 2:25 pm

    Heffer's a journalist and no doubt lots of his (daft) opinions are acquired from newspaper house styles. At my own paper we can't say "Tom helped Mary cut the cake": we have to say "to cut". We can't say "in the last ten years": it has to be "in the past ten years".

    House styles are always conservative, with a sprinkling of the pet peeves of every chief sub-editor who's ever worked on them.

  12. Pflaumbaum said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 2:42 pm

    By the way, is there a phrase, along the lines of the Recency and Frequency Fallacies, for the tendency of us English to assume any supposedly new usage is American?

    Something along the lines of…

    The Charlie Chaplin Fallacy
    The Cary Grant Fallacy
    The Angela Lansbury Fallacy
    The Burger King Fallacy
    The Stephen Hawking Fallacy (topical)
    The Palestinian Partition Fallacy (controversial)
    The Baseball Fallacy (even more controversial)
    The Idea of Using Uranium-235 to Split the Atom Fallacy
    The Slash Fallacy

    Any other suggestions? It would work better if it was someone/something trendy or annoying.

  13. John Lawler said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 2:43 pm

    @Joe — I really can't say what a "traditionalist" might say; they say, apparently, the first thing that comes into their head. But in general, a complement clause (tensed, infinitive, gerund, or embedded question, the four English types) does function as the direct object (or, depending on the predicate, the subject) of a sentence.

    They're noun clauses and they have many of the same stigmata as noun objects — they can be passivized, for instance:
      Geoff believes that Heffer is not of sound mind  ➔
      That Heffer is not of sound mind is believed by Geoff
    though usually they're promptly extraposed:
      It is believed by Geoff that Heffer is not of sound mind
    to avoid heavy subjects like clauses.

  14. Jonathan Lundell said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 4:33 pm

    A quick google of "X warned against Y", ignoring passive examples, suggests that it's much more commonly used without an object (as opposed to "X warned Z against Y).

    From George Washington's first inaugural:

    In offering to you, my countrymen, these counsels of an old and affectionate friend, I dare not hope they will make the strong and lasting impression I could wish; that they will control the usual current of the passions, or prevent our nation from running the course, which has hitherto marked the destiny of nations. But, if I may even flatter myself, that they may be productive of some partial benefit, some occasional good; that they may now and then recur to moderate the fury of party spirit, to warn against the mischiefs of foreign intrigue, to guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism; this hope will be a full recompense for the solicitude for your welfare, by which they have been dictated.

  15. Jonathan Lundell said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 4:34 pm

    …and notice Washington's parallel intransitive "guard against".

  16. WindowlessMonad said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 4:49 pm

    … though even alert (a relatively new verb in English) may eventually join the other advise verbs in the intransitive club…

    It's happened already in bridge: Declaring side: the partner or the person making the Alertable call alerts after the auction is completed and prior to the opening lead. Defending side: the partner of the player making the Alertable call Alerts after the opening lead is made face-down and before the dummy is tabled.

  17. Spell Me Jeff said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 7:02 pm

    Err, going with the idea that "that clauses" function as subjects and objects, eg:

    "That I am a royal jerk is well-known across campus"

    does this mean that in the following:

    "I warned Helen that the soup would burn."

    Helen is the indirect object and that the soup would burn is the direct object? Makes sense to me. Which means Heffer has this whole transitivity thing more backward than previously imagined.

  18. J. Goard said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 9:03 pm

    @Spell Me Jeff:

    But consider the cases in which a "that" clause can and cannot occur when attached to a nominal head:

    (1a) That I am a royal jerk is well known across campus
    (1b) The fact that I am a royal jerk is well known across campus.
    (2a) Felix taught (Max) that the moon is made of green cheese.
    (2b) Felix taught (Max) the theory that the moon is made of green cheese.
    (3a) I warned (Helen) that the soup would burn.
    (3b) * I warned (Helen) the possibility that the soup would burn.

    While there are some verbs (particularly teach) which are thoroughly compatible with the ditransitive construction, this being closely paraphrased by the "that" clause construction, many more verbs are like warn, incompatible with the standard ditransitive.

  19. Alex said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 10:30 pm

    You do hear intransitive "alert" with sniffer dogs (drug dogs, cadaver dogs, etc). For instance "the second [officer] brought his dog to the passenger side of the Cadillac, where, according to the handler, the dog alerted." (quote is from the Dog Law Reporter Blog)

    I'm not sure it's really intransitive– syntactically, yes, but logically there is a person being alerted. Maybe that's what's confusing Heffer. Or maybe he's just a crank.

  20. bfgray said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 10:33 pm

    Perhaps it was only too obvious or not interesting enough for others to point out, but in the example from 'Top News', 'warn' has been used where I would expect 'threaten':

    "HSBC has threatened to move its headquarters away from London if the UK coalition government…".

    (Also, only just figured out on a third or fourth re-reading that 'plans' is a verb in that sentence – hence its only semantically bizarre, not syntactically.)

  21. xyzzyva said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 10:45 pm

    HSBC warned to move its headquarter away from London

    Why not use "HQ" and free up ten characters for some syntax clarification, if concision is paramount?


    HSBC has warned it will move its HQ away from London


  22. the next Prescott Niles said,

    September 13, 2010 @ 12:32 am

    @ John Lawler, Spell Me Jeff, J. Goard:

    (4a) Guessing that the soup was about to burn, I warned Helen.

    (4b) I warned Helen of the likelihood that the soup would burn.
    (4c) I warned Helen that the soup would burn.

    Helen is the direct object in 4a and 4b, right? Doesn't that suggest that it's also the direct object in 4c? If not, what is it? If so, how is the complement clause functioning?

  23. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 13, 2010 @ 1:22 am

    @John Lawler: There can't be infinitive complements of verbs that can be passivized.

    *To leave soon is wanted.
    *It is wanted to leave soon.

    I guess one can say

    "It was desired to measure a variety of enzyme activities in very small amounts of brain…" as here.

    Anyway, the criterion of passivizability suggests that a content clause that's the complement of warn is not an object, right?

    I warned him not to use such small amounts of brain.

    He was warned not to use such small amounts of brain [suggesting you is a direct object].

    *It was warned him not to use such small amounts of brain.

    And likewise with Everyone warned him that he shouldn't write about things he's never thought about.

    But maybe other criteria give different results?

  24. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 13, 2010 @ 1:23 am

    There can't be many infinitive complements of verbs that can be passivized. Someone should have warned me not to post this late.

  25. Joe said,

    September 13, 2010 @ 2:29 am

    Sorry, I didn't see that you made a similiar comment to my own in an earlier posting on this topic.

    @everybody commenting on whether a content clause functions as the object of a clause

    When I referred to clauses like "that the soup would burn" as a "content clause," I was alluding to Huddleston and Pullum's discussion in CGEL (1018-1022) where they say such clauses (finite subordinate clauses that are neither relative nor comparative clauses) are internal complements of the verb, not objects. If it isn't too presumptious (since GKP can obviously explain this claim better than I), I'll repeat some of their arguments.

    First, the passive test is neither necessary (John has three cars/*three cars are had by John) nor sufficient (someone slept in this bed/this bed has been slept in) for determining the object. A content clause functioning as the internal complement of "warn" appears to fail the passive test anyway: party leaders warned that they would fight the decision /*that they would fight the decision was warned by party leaders/*it was warned by party leaders that they would fight the decision.

    Second, content clauses have a different distribution than nouns. For instance, they can occur as complements of nouns and adjectives, whereas nouns cannot: they were happy that the Supreme Court decided . . . /*they were happy the Supreme Court's decision to . . .

    Third, content clauses do not have to directly follow the verb, whereas objects generally do (warned repeatedly that . . . /*opened repeatedly the door).

    Fourth, all verbs which license a clause to function as a subject also a license an NP to appear as subject as well; verbs like "warn" license a content clause but not an NP (*warned the danger that . . . ).

    Fifth, the contrast between NP object and NP obliques doesn't apply to content clauses ("He warned of disaster if they continued tearing themselves apart" /*he warned of that they would face disaster if they continued tearing themselves apart"). Since there is no contrast between constructions with and without a preposition, content clauses might be better understood as falling under the more general category of complements rather than the more specific one of object.

    And so on . . .

  26. maidhc said,

    September 13, 2010 @ 4:49 am

    I don't get the point of why you can't use a transitive verb without an object. I can think of plenty of examples.

    cut: He cut here and he cut there.
    hit: He hit as he had never hit before.
    read: He read from noon until midnight.
    ask: As much as he asked, he never received an answer.

    I'm drawing a blank on "make", but that's mostly because it's such a generic term. "He loved to make" doesn't sound right. Although there's the Maker Faire (http://makerfaire.com/), a gathering of DIY enthusiasts.

    A somewhat related question: I've noticed "farewell" used as a transitive verb in Australia ("His friends and family farewelled Jim before his two-year trip to Antarctica."). Is there any other English-speaking country that does this?

  27. Stan said,

    September 13, 2010 @ 6:49 am

    A couple of years ago, the Irish Times had a headline that read: "ESRI warns Irish recession to deepen next year". (The ESRI is the Economic and Social Research Institute.) Without a colon after warns, the headline might as well have an "or else" at the end.

  28. the next Prescott Niles said,

    September 13, 2010 @ 8:44 am

    @ maidhc:

    Make w/o object = defecate in U.S. juvenile English, at least; can't vouch for elsewhere, but the Google Books scan of a 1966 English translation of Céline's Mort à crédit has at p. 48 "We were in such a hurry to get there that I made in my pants . . . ."

  29. Spell Me Jeff said,

    September 13, 2010 @ 9:39 am

    Had to look up ditransitive. It clarifies.

  30. Grep Agni said,

    September 13, 2010 @ 11:44 am

    Am I the only one that finds (1) ungrammatical?

    (1) Ellen warned (Helen) how to avoid the crowd.

    In my idiolect one can't warn how to do something. Twenty-eight comments and no one has mentioned this yet. Maybe I'm the crazy one…

  31. Pflaumbaum said,

    September 13, 2010 @ 3:23 pm

    For me 'warned how' is fine, as in

    (1) Ellen warned Helen how bitterness can swallow up your soul.

    Both 'warned how to' and transitive 'warned how' are problematic for me:

    (2) ?Ellen warned how bitterness can swallow up your soul.
    (3) ?Ellen warned Helen how to avoid the crowd.

    But transitive 'warn' in general is fine:

    (4) The Treasury warned that interest rates were likely to rise.

  32. Pflaumbaum said,

    September 13, 2010 @ 3:25 pm

    Sorry I meant in-.

  33. Mark Mandel said,

    September 13, 2010 @ 9:11 pm

    Somewhat OT: In response to a friend's pointer to a badly-worded headline, I suggested he look at your archive for crash blossoms. I had to append a separate link to the first "crash blossom" article for the definition.

  34. iching said,

    September 13, 2010 @ 11:38 pm

    (1) Ellen warned (Helen) how to avoid the crowd.
    (2) Ellen warned (Helen) that there would be a crowd.
    (3) Ellen warned (Helen) to avoid the crowd.

    To my ears, as a speaker of Australian English, (1) sounds odd, (2) sounds fine and I am ambivalent about (3).

    (3) sounds OK to me only if it is taken to mean that Ellen issued an instruction or piece of advice ("avoid the crowd!") with implied undesirable consequences if ignored (either because of the circumstance involving a crowd or because of disobeying the instruction).

    In (1) I am assuming that "how" is being used to mean "by what means, in what way". However, I have also heard "how" used in informal English instead of "that":

    (4) Ellen warned (Helen) how there would be a crowd.

    Granted this informal use of "how", (4) seems OK to me.

    (5) Ellen warned Helen how bitterness can swallow up your soul.
    (6) Ellen warned how bitterness can swallow up your soul.

    Similarly with (5) and (6), assuming the informal use of "how" to mean "that", both seem fine to me, but not with the meaning of "by what means, in what way".

    Let me throw another possibility into the pot:
    (7) Ellen warned (Helen) to take an umbrella.

    To me (7) illustrates the slippery nature of language and the futility of trying to make up rules that cover 100% of cases. If I were to put on my prescriptivist hat, I would say that (7) is grammatically incorrect, and "warned" should be changed to something like "advised". But (7) sounds perfectly OK to me, and I think the reason is that the true warning is not explicit, but implied i.e. there is a likelihood of rain and/or "obey my instruction or else…"
    Constructive criticism welcome.

  35. Sid Smith said,

    September 14, 2010 @ 3:32 am

    "Ellen warned Helen how to avoid the crowd."

    "Ellen warned (Helen) to take an umbrella."

    These sentences aren't grammatically wrong, I think. They're wrong bacause of the meaning of 'warn': ie, 'warn' advises us about something undesirable, whereas these advise us about something desirable.

  36. iching said,

    September 14, 2010 @ 4:58 am

    Thanks, Sid Smith. That's an interesting comment.

  37. John Cowan said,

    September 14, 2010 @ 12:43 pm

    Sid Smith:

    I would agree with the warn/advise distinction about the umbrella example if the carrying of umbrellas were seen as desirable in itself: *Ellen warned Helen to have a good time. But in the world I live in, carrying umbrellas is undesirable even if necessary, so Ellen warned Helen to carry an umbrella (so as not to get wet, seen as undesirable) is fine.

    Sometimes only context will tell: *Ellen warned Helen to climb the hill in a context of recreational hiking, but Ellen warned Helen to climb the hill in a context of avoiding flash floods.

  38. chris said,

    September 14, 2010 @ 4:21 pm

    One problem with the original example, though, is not whether the thing to be warned of is desirable or undesirable, but the fact that it is the speaker's own action, and therefore the "warning" is actually a threat. "HSBC has threatened to move its headquarters away from London" is perfectly understandable and unobjectionable (linguistically, at least, however you may feel about the politics of such a threat); the problem arose when someone wanted to euphemize "threaten" without being terribly careful about what word they substituted.

    I can't think of many one-word substitutes for "threaten" with an infinitive complement; "HSBC has stated that it will move…" or "HSBC has announced its intention to move…" work fine, but are a few words longer.

    "Warn" doesn't work right in this type of context because when "warn" takes an infinitive phrase as a direct object, it describes a course of action that the recipient is suggested to take to avoid a negative consequence (e.g. carrying an umbrella, staying out of shark-infested water), but when "threaten" takes an infinitive phrase as a direct object, it describes the speaker's future course of action that IS the negative consequence. So you can't simply substitute word for word.

  39. Mark F. said,

    September 15, 2010 @ 11:06 pm

    Given what I've heard about the "Grauniad's" reputation for typos, they must have felt some pleasure at publishing Heffer's email to the staff of the Telegraph (mentioned in an early comment by Joe). It looked like a lot of what he was complaining about were mistakes by any standard.

    @maidhc — The verbs in the examples you give are actually intransitive in that context. What makes a verb transitive isn't the semantic question of whether there is a recipient of the action, it's the (related) syntactic question of whether there is a direct object in the sentence. Dictionaries will give both transitive and intransitive sub-entries for all of those words. I can even think of intransitive senses of "make." Sometimes if not enough people show for a pickup game of some sport to occur, we will say that the game "didn't make." But I don't think that's really a standard usage.

  40. Mark F. said,

    September 15, 2010 @ 11:11 pm

    I stand corrected; Merriam-Webster distinguishes transitive and intransitive senses, but Collins just gives a bunch of definitions and ignores the question of transitivity entirely. I haven't checked other dictionaries.

  41. Pflaumbaum said,

    September 23, 2010 @ 1:05 pm

    Glenn Greenwald's column contains the opposite phenomenon from the HSBC one: 'threaten' taking the position usually occupied by 'warn':

    "During the Clinton years, Jesse Helms was the Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and threatened the President not to go on Southern military bases lest he be killed."

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