Grilling, staging, and landing

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A couple of days ago ("On not allowing Bin Laden to back-burner", 5/3/2011), I noted that English (like other languages)  often turns a noun denoting a place into a verb meaning "cause something to come to be in/on/at that place".  I also noted that other causative change-of-state verbs generally have intransitive/inchoative uses as well (The sun melted the snow versus The snow melted), but denominal locative verbs typically don't.

Thus we have transitive causatives like She floored the accelerator and We tabled the motion, but not the corresponding intransitive/inchoative versions *The accelerator floored and *The motion tabled.

I also observed that Hale and Keyser's 1993 paper ("On argument structure and the lexical expression of syntactic relations") has spawned a large literature discussing ways to explain these and related facts. And it occurs to me that there have been quite a few corpus studies of causative/inchoative alternations and related things, but I don't know of any that have specifically focused on the case of denominal locative verbs. Correspondingly, the work stemming from Hale and Keyser 1993 seems to be entirely or almost entirely based on lexical and grammatical intuitions. (This is not my field, so I may be wrong: if so, some readers will no doubt set me straight.)

So for this morning's Breakfast Experiment™, I decided to take a quick look at the usage in COCA of three of the verbs identified as denominal locatives in the literature: grill, stage, and land. What we'll find is three quite different patterns: grill is mostly causative but has inchoative uses at a low rate, in the sense of cooking on a grill but not in the metaphorical sense of being subjected to intensive questioning; stage is invariably causative in the observed sample; and land is inchoative more often than not, except that the fishing use is always causative, as is the extended sense that means "to catch or get hold of a person, a job, an opportunity, etc.".

The goal — aside from satisfying my own curiosity — is to make a plausible case that a more serious empirical study would yield evidence relevant to the theoretical debate. I'll leave for another time the question of what implications such explorations might have.  (And you are hereby warned that relatively few readers are likely to be interested in wandering as far into the lexico-syntactic weeds as this post is likely to go.)

The verb grill, as the OED observes, has an transitive/causative use "to broil on a gridiron or similar apparatus over or before a fire" (with the figurative extension "To subject to severe questioning"); and an intransitive/inchoative use "To undergo broiling, to frizzle. Chiefly fig.".

The transitive uses are fairly common. Thus the literal causative/transitive:

One of the couple's passions is grilling things never cooked that way before.
As the sun went down, we grilled burgers and let the kids run around on the grass.
Then we grilled the corn, onions and tomatoes over charcoal, with mesquite chips added for smoke.

And its metaphorical extensions:

She learned all these Sex Pistols songs on guitar and is grilling us for information about what the punk era was like.
Senator Carl Levin, a Democrat from Michigan, chaired the panel that grilled the Goldman executives.
We grilled Max about his homework and the latest gossip in his class.

The intransitive inchoative is quite a bit less common, and (contrary to what the OED says) is always literal rather than figurative in the examples that I found:

While escarole is grilling, whisk together lemon zest, lemon juice, garlic, parsley and olive oil.
And, kangaroo, water buffalo, yabbie, emu sausage, barramundi as well as crocodile (tastes like chicken) were grilling at an all-you-can-eat picnic.
To those of us who buy and eat chicken, it's a nice meat that makes good salads, grills nicely and tastes far better than it ought to when fried to golden crispness.

In order to estimate the relative frequencies, I didn't count things like grilled as a modifier ("we liked the grilled fish") or predicative ("we like our fish grilled"). And I also ignored the (small number of) cases of null-complement anaphora, meaning "to grill unspecified stuff", though in fact this is a normal extension of transitive verbs:

Above all, we grilled year-round while our Eastern cousins hibernated in the winter.
They went down in the first round to Mancelona, and that night we grilled out at Jake's.

In order to keep the problem simple, I only checked out the patterns "have|has grilled", "is|are|was|were grilling", and "I|you|he|she|it|we|they grilled". In those sets, I found 136 transitive/causative uses and 8 intransitive/inchoative uses, for a rate of about 5.6% inchoative. Of those 8 inchoative examples, 6 were in recipes.

Furthermore, all 8 of the inchoative uses were about literal instances of cooking on a grill, whereas 62/136 = 46% of the causative uses were about intensive questioning. The "figurative" instances of intransitive/inchoative grill in the OED are all about literal heat, or at least an active metaphor of cooking:

1849 R. Curzon Visits Monasteries 2   Malta‥was cool in comparison to the fiery furnace in which we were at present grilling.
1883 J. Hawthorne Dust I. 277   The spleen which was doubtless grilling within him.
1883 R. L. Stevenson Treasure Island I. v. xxii. 177   Walking in the cool shadow of the woods,‥while I sat grilling.

So in the COCA sample, the causative uses of the verb grill are dominant — leaving out recipe-language, the inchoative uses are only about 1.4% of the total. And the inchoative uses in this sample are always about being subjected to literal heat, whereas the causative uses are about half heat-related and half about intensive questioning. If the inchoative usage had the same expected proportion of intensive-questioning uses as the causative usage does, this distribution of results would be quite unlikely: it's like flipping a fair coin eight times and getting eight heads. My intuition, for what it's worth, agrees that the intensive-questioning sense doesn't work these days in an intransitive/inchoative frame: "While the expert witnesses were (*grilling) (being grilled), we decided to go out for lunch".

At about 5% in this sample, intransitive/inchoative grill is relatively rare. But still, that's a higher proportion than I found  for inchoative uses of the verb stage. Here we're interested the literal locative verb, derived from the noun stage, that the OED glosses as "to put (a play, etc.) upon the stage", and its figurative extensions "To mount or put on (a spectacle). Also, to effect (a recovery); to stage a comeback". (In addition to comeback, I included examples of staging a protest, coup, rally,  walkout, boycott, etc.)

Again, I ignored modifier or predicative uses of staged, and  one apparent example of null complement anaphora:

Sometimes I think the White House press corps features vaudevillians, journalistic vaudevillians, who are staging and performing for the cameras.

I also ignored a few examples of another verb, used in military contexts, which seems to be related to the word that the OED glosses as "intr. To travel by stage or stage-coach; to travel by stages; to journey over by stages", e.g.

It was not until 3:45 P.M. that Lieut. Col. Bill David, the commander of the battalion that was serving as the ground element of the reaction force, was ordered to send an infantry company to the airport, where the Rangers were staging.

For the analogous set of patterns ("have|has staged", "is|are|was|were staging", and "I|you|he|she|it|we|they staged"), I counted 453 examples of the transitive/causative use, and 0 of the intransitive/inchoative use.

In the earlier post, I observed that

If the local theater staged Three Sisters in 2009, we wouldn't say that Three Sisters staged in 2009.

But in the comments, Duncan countered that

I've had some amateur acting experience (mostly in high school and college, US mid- and mountain-west, '80s) and wouldn't find it unusual at all to say that a particular production staged in some year (or season).

I don't doubt his testimony, but that usage is rare or specialized enough not to leave a trace in COCA, or at least in the parts that my patterns searched.

In the case of land, there are various older and newer literal transitive/causative meanings, among them those glossed by the OED as "To bring to land; to set on shore; to disembark"; "To bring (an aircraft) to earth from the air; to place (an aircraft or spacecraft, or its contents) on the ground or some other surface after a flight"; "To bring (a fish) to land, esp. by means of a gaff, hook, or net".

Some of these have intransitive/inchoative counterparts, "To come to land; to go ashore from a ship or boat; to disembark. Of a ship, etc.: To touch at a place in order to set down passengers"; "To alight upon the ground, e.g. from a vehicle, after a leap, etc. Esp. of an aircraft or spacecraft, or a person in one: to alight upon or reach the ground, or some other surface, after a flight". Notably missing from the set of intransitive/inchoative senses is the one that would correspond to the angling expression "bring (a fish) to land".

And there are several extended or figurative uses as well, including "To bring into a specified place, e.g. as a stage in or termination of a journey; to bring into a certain position … Also fig. to bring into a certain position or to a particular point in a course or process."; "slang. To get (a blow) home"; and "fig. To catch or ‘get hold of’ (a person); to secure or win (a sum of money, esp. in betting or horse-racing). Also, to obtain (employment)."  The first two of these have inchoative as well as causative uses, but the last one seems to be lack them, in the OED's examples as well as in my COCA sample. Thus COCA has

Actor Charlie Sheen has landed in new trouble.
… the same disorder that has relegated his father to life in a lift chair and has landed his brother in a group home.
Powlus also has landed in an anonymous spot on the Oilers depth chart …
This isn't the first time Crowe's temper has landed him in the news.

My punch landed on his face and he fell.
The fat guy landed a punch to his stomach …

But I landed a job as an apprentice fashion copywriter in the Garment District …
… he landed a contract to supply the armed forces with silk for parachutes …
Now it appeared that Christina had landed a client who could keep the firm busy well into the future.

For the last sense, I neither expected nor encountered any examples in which the job, contract, client, etc., was in the subject position.

Because land is substantially more common than the other two words I looked at, I limited my tally to the pattern "is|are|was|were landing", for which I counted 26 transitive/causative uses, and 164 intransitive/inchoative ones, or 87% inchoative. The analogous search pattern for grill yielded 30 transitive/causative cases and 2 non-recipe intransitive/inchoative cases, or about 7% inchoative; and the analogous search for stage yielded 126 transitive/causative cases and 0 intransitive/inchoative cases, or 0% inchoative.

FWIW, the analogous COCA search patterns for boil and melt are 97% and 96.7% inchoative respectively.

So to sum up, grill is mostly causative but has inchoative uses at a low rate, in the sense of cooking on a grill but not in the metaphorical sense of being subjected to intensive questioning; stage is invariably causative in the observed sample; and land is inchoative more often than not, except that the fishing use is always causative, as is the extension that means "to catch or get hold of a person, a job, an opportunity, etc.".

Why are grill, stage, and land so different? Why are there also such striking differences among their senses? To a first approximation, this favors Paul Kiparsky's approach over Hale & Keyser's, since (as Kiparsky puts it)

The relevant  constraints […] could not be derived from purely combinatorial properties of the primitives of compositional semantics — for H&K,  the lexicosyntactic categories from which word-internal propositional structure  is built. […]  H&K will not be able to  avoid bringing extralinguistic conceptual knowledge into their theory.

However, I don't (yet?) see how Kiparsky's specific proposal deals with the differences among the various senses of the three words examined here. More on this at some later time.

It's worth noting that none of the corpus-search results discussed here are particularly divergent from native-speaker intuitions, at least in retrospect. However, I don't think that I would have arrived at the same set of observations without looking at the patterns of usage. This reminds me of a point made in Charles Fillmore's 1992 chapter "'Corpus Linguistics' or "Computer-aided armchair linguistics'", which begins

Armchair linguistics does not have a good name in some linguistics circles. […]

Corpus linguistics does not have a good name in some linguistics circles. […]

These two don't speak to each other very often, but when they do, the corpus linguist says to the armchair linguist, "Why should I think that what you tell me is true?", and the armchair linguist says to the corpus linguist, "Why should I think that what you tell me is interesting?"

This paper is a report of an armchair linguist who refuses to give up his old ways but who finds profit in being a consumer of some of the resources that corpus linguists have created.

I have two main observations to make. The first is that I don't think there can be any corpora, however large, that contain information about all of the areas of English lexicon and grammar that I want to explore […] The second observation is that every corpus that I've had a chance to examine, however, small, has taught me facts that I couldn't imagine finding out about in any other other way.

Academics being as endearingly conservative as they are, things have not changed in the intervening 20 years as much as you might expect, although the existence of convenient web-accessible corpus searching has certainly shifted the culture a bit.


  1. Spell Me Jeff said,

    May 5, 2011 @ 12:45 pm

    After running a bunch of locations through my head, I came upon a usage that I don't recall seeing mentioned in this conversation. Forgive me if I err.

    Dress casually, Martha. We're eating on the porch tonight.
    ??We're porching tonight.
    ?We're porching it tonight.

    The quasi-referential "it" in the last construction sounds quite normal, and I can think of similar constructions. It might ultimately be analogous to "roughing it" (i.e. "living in the rough") though I don't really know what relationship might exist there.

    Anyway, I wonder if the potential for pseudo-transitive constructions like these makes us less likely to accept the transitive ones. More likely, it just complicates things.

    [(myl) Interesting, but this is a slightly different case. We've been talking about a class of denominal verbs where (in the core cases) "X Ys Z" means that X causes Z to come to be on/in Y", and where there may sometimes (but usually isn't) be related uses "Z Ys", meaning that Z comes to be on/in Y. But your example is of the form "X Ys" or "X Ys it", meaning that X does something suitable or characteristic on Y.]

  2. Andrew Dowd said,

    May 5, 2011 @ 1:02 pm

    How can we distinguish between genuine inchoative uses and middles of causatives? For instance, "it… grills nicely" is almost surely a middle.

    [(myl) Is there a distinction to be made at all? The key point in this example is that the thing-being-grilled is the subject of an active form of the verb grill, meaning "to cook on a grill", with no object. See here for a discussion of the argument in CGEL that

    The term [middle voice] is certainly not applicable to English in this sense: there are just two categories in the syntactic system of voice in English, active and passive. She doesn't frighten easily is active in form, but it has some semantic affinity with the passive, and it is in this semantic sense that it can be thought of as intermediate between ordinary actives and passives: we put scare quotes around the term to signal that it is being used in an extended sense and is not to be interpreted as denoting a formal category in the voice system.

    So why would you think that there's a distinction between "genuine inchoative uses" and "middle uses of causatives"? The fact that you can't think of a test might be a clue.]

  3. @boris_tweets said,

    May 5, 2011 @ 2:43 pm

    Thanks for this captivating post!

    While I understand why you do not want to count instances of null-complement anaphoras as inchoative uses of "to grill" (why not count them as causative uses, by the way?), I feel differently about "to stage". It really seems to me that "Sometimes I think the White House press corps features vaudevillians, journalistic vaudevillians, who are staging and performing for the cameras." is a real instance of inchoative use (in other words, I don't think that a complement is missing, here). Of course, "staging a show" would have worked, but I like to think that this is an example of a voluntary inchoative use of "to stage," not a mere omission of the complement. Isn't that how some verbs acquire their inchoative use anyways? They're used as causatives, repeatedly, and one day the complement is so obvious that it doesn't need to be there any more, and a new inchoative verb is born… Duncan's comment about inchoative uses in the theater community supports this thesis: making an inchoative use of a transitive verb is easier in a small subgroup of society, where the lack of complement will be easily understood, since the transitive use is so common.

    – to stage, trans.: "to put a show upon the stage"
    – to stage, interns.: "to blow things out of proportions, to be extremely dramatic"

    In other words, [to stage (intrans.)] = [to stage (trans.) a show], which means that by using "to stage", a transitive verb, as an intransitive verb, **I can express the same meaning with fewer words**.

    The sentence you found in the COCA sample is actually great because it shows that even though the meaning of the verb changes when switching from causative to inchoative, the meaning of the sentence does not vary much:

    "Sometimes I think the White House press corps features vaudevillians, journalistic vaudevillians, who are staging (intrans.) and performing for the cameras."


    "Sometimes I think the White House press corps features vaudevillians, journalistic vaudevillians, who are staging (trans.) a show and performing for the cameras."

    [(myl) You may be right about both of these — but it won't make much of a difference in the percentages, since there were only a couple of null-complement anaphora cases for grill, and I think just the one case for stage.]

  4. Rubrick said,

    May 5, 2011 @ 2:50 pm

    My (not especially insightful) intuition is that the varying balances in different usages reflect the differences in how much action is required by the causer.

    A burger requires someone to begin grilling it, but if the chef goes away the burger will continue to cook. A suspect, on the other hand, stops being grilled as soon as the detective leaves the room. A play simply can't stage on its own, and a fish will never land itself. But a plane will land eventually whether anyone is piloting it or not.

    Of course, as always with linguistic intuition, some examples give me pause. "The blow landed with tremendous force" sounds fine, but it's hard to imagine a punch landing without someone doing the punching. Perhaps we (linguistically) conceptualize punching as throwing a fist towards someone, with the fist continuing until it meets its target. Or perhaps I'm special pleading.

    [(myl) I believe that you've rediscovered (part of) Kiparsky's theory. And you're absolutely right that punch seems to be a troublesome case.]

  5. Andrew Dowd said,

    May 5, 2011 @ 5:15 pm


    In your reply, you've actually given the answer I wanted to hear. I had a line in that post originally about whether we should care, and I for some reason deleted it before I posted. I have some vague intuition that there may be more than one thing going on in the data, but I don't know. The only good diagnostic I know of for middles is that they typically require an adjunct of some kind. But that only helps us identify attested forms that don't have an adjunct.


  6. Bobbie said,

    May 5, 2011 @ 8:40 pm

    Do these two count? From an article about dredging an inlet in North Carolina:
    Tapped just three weeks ago to rescue Oregon Inlet from severe shoaling that had threatened to close the economically vital waterway, the hopper dredge Currituck has left Dare County to work on another project in Ocean City, Md., the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said today.

    The channel – which in March had SHALLOWED to depths of just 3 feet within the critical navigation span beneath the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge – has been dredged to at least 11 feet, said corps spokesman Hank Heusinkveld.

    "When the channel SHOALS to 8 feet, we'll look at whether to bring in a sidecaster dredge," Heusinkveld said. [emphasis added]

    [(myl) Again, these are somewhat different cases. "Shallow" is an adjective that that here turns into an inchoative verb meaning "to become shallow". Interestingly, there doesn't seem to be a causative form available, unlike e.g. in the case of deepen, where we have both "dredging deepened the channel" and "the channel deepens to the south". "Shoal" is also historically de-adjectival, according to the OED; and in addition to its intransitive/inchoative sense, used here, it apparently has a transitive usage that means "To find (one's soundings) gradually more shallow", as in "The alarm of the sailors was great when they perceived how rapidly they were shoaling the water". There is also a transitive/causative "He pursued with the idea that the sea had been shoaled by the wind".

    The normal case is for de-adjectival verbs in English to have both transitive/causative and intransitive/inchoative meanings (.e.g deepen, redden, sicken). The fact that this norm is different than it is for denominal locative verbs was one of the observations behind Hale & Keyser's 1993 paper.]

  7. Mfahie said,

    May 6, 2011 @ 1:43 am

    If I may add a small correction to your gloss of the verb to stage in a military context. It more or less means to gather and prepare, not to travel. Thus, infantry who are staging are all meeting somewhere and getting themselves prepared for a mission, or a truck being staged is one being loaded with the necessary equipment for a mission.

  8. maidhc said,

    May 6, 2011 @ 4:06 am

    Ooh, I have another one for you! "Graduate". Formerly was "she was graduated from college", now is "she graduated college".

    [(myl) An interesting change — but not very relevant to this discussion. In the first place, graduate as a verb is not historically derived from the noun graduate, nor do I think that present-day speakers think of it that way; and in any case, the noun graduate doesn't denote a place that those who are graduated are caused to come to be in.]

  9. Googler said,

    May 6, 2011 @ 4:08 am

    I'm not a native speaker and won't try to judge how natural the following examples sound, but finding instances of inchoative/intransitive/middle 'stage' (presumably written by Americans) is possible:

    The play will stage at 7:30 p.m. in Niggli Theater on the WCU campus. It is intended for mature audiences (says a North Carolina university at

    The play will stage at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 12 and 2 p.m. on Sunday, Feb (

    <The show will stage inside the Sarkeys Performing Arts Center (

    The play will stage in the Great Hall at the Cuneo mansion beginning October 19 (

    OKlahoma, Illinois… You caint git mor 'Merkun than that!

    [(myl) Good examples. Ian Preston has some others. As I said, I don't doubt Duncan's testimony. What's interesting here is that this usage is apparently normal and common among certain groups or in certain contexts, while being very rare outside of those groups and contexts. It's an interesting and relevant problem to figure out what accounts for the difference.]

  10. Googler said,

    May 6, 2011 @ 4:55 am

    That, of course, doesn't undermine Prof. Liberman's claim that such expressions are not found in COCA.

    [(myl) I don't claim that such expression are absent from COCA, just that they weren't present in the sample of a few hundred tokens that correspond to my query patterns. There might be similar examples elsewhere in the corpus, I don't know.]

  11. army1987 said,

    May 6, 2011 @ 7:44 am

    I've seen the difference between intransitive and “middle” verbs explained as the difference between mice die easily (intransitive) and mice kill easily (middle).

    [(myl) In some languages, "middle" might refer to a distinctive morphological form. In English, it just means that in certain cases, the object of a transitive verb can also appear as the subject of an (active-form) intransitive. The causative/inchoative alternations under discussion are one example of this pattern (and under the assumption that kill = "cause to die", your case is as well).

    Note that this is a different pattern from the one in which the subject of a transitive verb can also appear as the subject of an intransitive counterpart in which a generic or contextual object is assumed: "They ate the leftovers" vs. "They ate". This is the pattern generally known as "null complement anaphora".

    And note again that in none of these cases is there any special morphological marking of the mapping of semantic roles onto syntactic roles — the cited examples are all just standard active verb forms. Thus "middle" (in this usage) is not in opposition to "intransitive" — it's just a term describing one of the ways that semantic roles can be mapped onto syntactic ones.]

  12. Glenn Bingham said,

    May 6, 2011 @ 11:09 am

    Re: Rubrick being punched

    "'The blow landed with tremendous force' sounds fine, but it's hard to imagine a punch landing without someone doing the punching."

    A punch certainly requires an agent, whereas a strike does not, even if the agent is not specified as in the example. Note:

    "The strike landed with tremendous force" seems to lack the same…punch. There is no required (understood) agent with "strike" as someone could be struck with flying debris in a tornado or struck by an idea. One can be struck by a neighbor as well, an agent. So in the case of "punch," who or what the agent is is unspecified in the intransitive use. In the case of "strike," whether there is an agent or not is unspecified in the intransitive use.

    As far as landing a fish, I read on the internet a month or so ago that a 400-pound Mako jumped into a guy's boat and he couldn't get the shark out. So he took it home. I guess the fish landed. (I saw this on the internet; therefore, it is true.)

  13. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 6, 2011 @ 1:30 pm

    I have this vague feeling I read a discussion of asterisks here that implied that one or two examples of inchoative the motion tabled might be consistent with an asterisk.

  14. Steve Kass said,

    May 6, 2011 @ 11:14 pm

    A couple of days ago ("On not allowing Bin Laden to back-burner", 5/3/2011), I noted that English (like other languages) often turns a noun denoting a place into a verb meaning "cause something to come to be in/on/at that place".


    Why are grill, land, and stage so different?

    Some observations — basically thinking out loud — but no answers: things come to be on or on the land, but not on a land; things come to be on, on a, or on the stage; and things come to be on a or on the grill, but not on grill. Could it be that the inchoative is likelier for X where things can come to be in/on/at X than it is for X where things can only come to be in/on/at a/an/the X?

    Unfortunately, it looks like the answer is no, as attempts to predict (from my armchair only) suggest, but maybe someone will find something useful here. (in / in an / in the) air: the plane aired, she aired a concern, the pilot aired the plane(on / on a / on the) perch: the owl perched (awkward), the owl perched high above the ground (less awkward?), she perched him on her lap(in / in a / in the) seat: the guest seated, the usher seated the latecomer(in / in a / in the) box: the pastries boxed, she boxed the leftovers(in / in a / in the) ditch: the plane ditched, he ditched the plane, Steve ditched his idea(on/at / on a / on/at the) beach: the boat beached, they beached the raft

    Still thinking out loud, a ser/estar (or even perhaps être/avoir) kind of distinction might also be at play. A plane that is landing is coming to be in a new, potentially permanent, state of being on land, but a steak that is grilling is not approaching quite the same sort of potentially lasting state. (A hasty check suggests that while French atterrir takes avoir today, that wasn’t always the case.)

  15. Steve Kass said,

    May 6, 2011 @ 11:22 pm

    Well, that was a mess. What you all (and I, now) see as a comment from me is a bunch of nonsense.

    I’d typed many phrases in my examples using strike-through tags, and the crossed-out phrases showed correctly in the comment preview I got to see.

    (The unordered list and list item tags I used also showed up correctly in the comment preview, but were also zapped between here and there.)

    I don’t know of an easy way to resay what I intended, except to say that what got posted isn’t what I tried to post, and that a bunch of things in my post should be crossed out to show that they aren’t actually said in English.

    With luck, the view from others’ armchairs will be the same as mine, and where to strike out things Iposted will be uncontroversial, if tedious.

    P.S. Don’t try to use HTML-ish tags you’ve never seen anyone else use here, even if they preview correctly.

  16. bloix said,

    May 7, 2011 @ 8:34 am

    A google search for "punch landed" turns up many examples from the boxing world, e.g.:

    "He set a good game plan and fought well. … I thought my good conditioning would make a difference… Unfortunately, that punch landed …"

  17. Bill Walderman said,

    May 7, 2011 @ 10:03 am

    Thanks for a very interesting discussion about English verb categories.

    I had a thought about the intransitive verb "back-burner" that I posted, probably too late, in the comments on the earlier post on this topic, but I thought I might repost them here in the hope that they might still elicit a comment:

    Why is there any reason to suppose that the intransitive verb "back-burner" is necessarily related to the transitive location verb "back-burner" in the same way that intransitive "boil" is related to transitive "boil"? Maybe intransitive/ "back-burner" is simply a separate denominal verb derived from "back-burner" meaning something like "to sit on the back-burner" that has nothing to do with transitive/location "back-burner" other than being derived from the same noun.

    The lack of an elaborate nominal and verbal morphology in English offers almost unlimited opportunities to verb nouns, and contemporary colloquial English seems to aggressively take advantage of them. In a very informal context, for example, someone might say that a student is off "librarying," meaning "studying or researching in the library," and while this might strike you as very strange in a formal written context, it would be understood as a clever, creative neologism in conversation. This verb could co-exist with an entirely different, transitive/location verb "to library," meaning to place a book in a library."

    So why not "back-burnering"?

    [(myl) From an empirical point of view, you're asking about a distinction without a difference, or nearly so. All we really have to go on is distributional evidence — which words are used in which ways — and these patterns don't tell us directly whether the causative and inchoative versions of denominal verb are related by some particular process, or indeed by any process at all. In fact, in order to frame the question in way that has an answer, you'd need to make some non-obvious assumptions about the psychology and sociology of word-formation,

    In this case, the facts (according to the literature) are that it's fairly common in English to have causative locative verbs corresponding to nouns for places, such that "X Ys Z" means something like "X causes Z to come to be in/on Y"; and that the inchoative pattern "Z Ys" meaning "Z comes to be in/on Y" is relatively rare in comparison. This is different from the case for de-adjectival verbs, where both patterns ("Z Y-ens" meaning "Z comes to be Y" and "X Y-ens Z" meaning "X causes Z to come to be Y") are often found.]

  18. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 7, 2011 @ 1:43 pm

    Since adjectives can turn into inchoative verbs, I wonder whether the rare inchoative back burner could come from the rare adjective back burner, as in this example: "…most of these companies have claimed to be working on it for a few years now so if it is happening it is very back burner."

    I suppose you'd have have to look at the adjectival uses of other nouns that have verbed. But this sort of thing isn't common enough for COCA. I found only one use of attributive back burner (a "deep back burner issue"), and I doubt that would count as an adjective for this purpose.

    [(myl) You're conflating function (e.g. serving as a predicative in e.g. "it is __", or as a prenominal modifier in "a __ issue") with lexical category. It's normal for nouns to be used with modifier or predicative function, and even sometimes (when used in those functions) to be modified by intensifying adverbs. Some examples from COCA:

    The 47-year-old actor is very Louie De Palma right now
    This is a totally fantasy passport
    A Very Brady Christmas
    On a very sideline issue
    a really quality product
    a totally Austin touch

    That doesn't make them adjectives.]

  19. Bill Walderman said,

    May 7, 2011 @ 1:44 pm

    @myl. Thanks for taking the time to respond to my naive question. Your answer brought the entire discussion into sharper focus for me.

  20. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 8, 2011 @ 1:45 pm

    @myl: Thanks for explaining that. I'm now wondering whether the rare uses of back burner as an adjective, even modified by intensifying adverbs, have anything to do with the origin of the rare inchoative verb back burner.

    My questions about the difference between a noun turning into a verb and a noun being used as an adjective will wait till I have the chance to look at the CGEL or something.

  21. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    May 9, 2011 @ 10:51 am

    I agree with Andrew Dowd and other commenters in distinguishing regular inchoatives from the so-called middle voice. "The plane landed" means roughly "[someone] landed the plane", but "chicken grills nicely" does not mean "[someone] grills the chicken nicely". As the CGEL explains, English's so-called middle voice is not actually a voice; but it's real nonetheless, and it's typically much more sharply restricted than other sorts of intransitives (for example, in having to be used in fairly abstract or generic way).

  22. Jonathan Michaels said,

    May 10, 2011 @ 9:27 am

    "To plateau" is exclusively intransitive, right?

    [(myl) Seems that way to me. And the obvious searches don't turn up any causative uses on the web.]

  23. JimG said,

    May 10, 2011 @ 12:27 pm

    People who deliver newspapers to subscribers' homes use "to porch" as in "You should porch Mr. Brown's paper, so he can get it without coming down the steps."

  24. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 10, 2011 @ 12:54 pm

    Here is a transitive plateau—I'm not sure whether to call it causative—and here is a causative one. But certainly it's far less common than intransitive uses.

  25. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 10, 2011 @ 12:58 pm

    Oops. Correct link to the causative one. "The treatments, along with the medical protocol of Dr. Roger Clemmons at the University of Florida, plateaued the DM and allowed Ragnar to have a quality life." (DM is degenerative myelopathy.)

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