to glimpse (at)

From the front page of the NYT on September 18 (Jenny Anderson, “S.E.C. Seeks to Ban Computer ‘Flash Trading’ “):

The S.E.C. on Thursday proposed banning what are known as flash orders, which use powerful computers to glimpse at investors’ orders.

What caught my eye was to glimpse at, the verb glimpse with an oblique object (marked by the preposition at) rather than a direct object. “Use powerful computers to glimpse investors’ orders” would have been possible, but (I realized) it would have a meaning somewhat different from the “glimpse at” version.

The phenomenon is one that I’ve looked at on Language Log several times: “intransitivizing P-addition” (the version with a direct object is the historically earlier one); see the brief treatment of P~Ø alternations here, with links to some earlier discussions. It’s typical of such alternations that the two variants are subtly different semantically.

Both variants are very frequent. Here are a couple more hits for to glimpse at:

IntelliScreen® allows you to glimpse at your critical data on your iPhone “Slide to Unlock” screen! (link)

To glimpse at the ways in which science and technology open new avenues for artistic expression, look no farther than Professor Brixey’s “Epicycle” project. (link)

Here’s the history, according to OED2. It starts with older intransitive uses of the verb, in senses like ‘glimmer, glitter’ (from c1400). Then from 1779 we have transitive glimpse in its modern sense, which the OED glosses as ‘catch a glimpse of (either a material or immaterial object); to see by glimpses’ — that is, ‘to catch sight of, briefly or partially’.

A bit later (from 1833) comes intransitive glimpse in its modern sense, glossed by the OED as ‘cast a passing glance’ — that is, ‘look at briefly or partially’. The OED says this one takes at or upon (but it’s easy to find cites with into as well).

The noun glimpse is a nominalization of the verb. Such nominalizations can occur with a NP argument that corresponds to the object of the V that is nominalized. But Ns in English can’t just take NP objects, so the NP must be marked by a P. If the V that is nominalized is transitive, the default P of is supplied: a glimpse of NP corresponds to to glimpse NP (and has the ‘catch sight of’ sense).

But if the V that is nominalized is an intransitive taking oblique objects, the nominalization normally “inherits” the P of the corresponding V: a glimpse at/upon/into NP then corresponds to to glimpse at/upon/into NP (and has the ‘look at’ sense).

2 Responses to “to glimpse (at)”

  1. Jonathan Lundell Says:

    SOED cites Lamb for vi (is that your 1833?), but also says LME, with no citation.

  2. rhhardin Says:

    It sounds like a mistake for “glance at” to me, with “get a glimpse of” in mind.

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