Prices continue to rise

This morning I puzzled over a report of a “rule” saying that the (intransitive) verb rise can occur only with animate subjects, so that Speed limits rise is incorrect (also Prices rise and The standard of living has risen). I appealed to readers for some insight into this nutty non-rule, adding that I recalled some past discussion of Prices rise, but couldn’t pin it down.

Jan Freeman came to the rescue, exclaiming:

This is the LL post I thought you must mean, but it’s yours! (On “rise” v. “increase”)

Oh my, the pitfalls of memory!

First, I didn’t recall the source. In my defense, over the past ten years I’ve written probably 10,000 items: publications, postings in various places (blogs, newsgroups, mailing lists, Facebook), and messages of various sorts (e-mail and non-e mail), not to mention face-to-face discussions with friends and in classes; it’s hard to remember what I said where. (In fact, I often fail to recognize things I’ve published or recall their content.)

Second, I misremembered (oh, fickle memory!) what I’d said earlier about “The standard of living has increased” (with, note, an inanimate subject) — where the claim (from a Canadian source) was, preposterously, that increase was incorrect and rise correct:

What about the syntax of the increase/rise sentences? A prohibition against increase is news to me; I can’t find it in any advice manual, and don’t recall anyone having mentioned it to me. The increase version sounds fine to me (as it does to so many baffled Canadians), as does the rise version. You can google up plenty of examples of increase in combination with standard of living in serious writing, including some from British sources (like the Daily Telegraph and the Guardian). One of NOAD2’s definitions for rise in fact glosses it in terms of increase — ‘in number, size, amount, or quality’.

But another of the uses of rise is in the sense ‘improve’, as in NOAD2’s example living standards have risen (though this sense isn’t easy to distinguish from the ‘increase in quality’ subsense). This use is remarkably restricted; all sorts of things that can be said to have improved — health, fitness, eyesight, disposition — cannot be said to have risen. That is, it’s easy to find collocations of rise ‘improve’ with standard(s), but not with other nouns. My hypothesis is then that it’s not so much that standard (of living or whatever) requires rise, but that rise ‘improve’ requires standard. Maybe someone got the relationship backwards.

Otherwise, both rise and increase can be used to mean ‘increase’, qualitatively or quantitatively. There might be some preference to use rise for qualitative increase and increase for quantitative increase, but the usages can overlap

Note that such a slight preference, for some speakers, would carry over to the Prices/Speed limits rise case, and favor (for those speakers) increase over rise, but entirely on the basis of the semantic details of the verbs and not the animacy of the subject.

How, then, would the animacy “rule” have come about? One possibility is that someone, sometime, had a twinge about Prices/Speed limits rise, labeled it incorrect, and, casting about for some generalization to cover their judgment, fixed, alas, on the inanimacy of the subject.

Another possibility is that someone, sometime, identified yet another semantic feature of rise (vs. increase and go up): although it occurs with non-agentive subjects (which are typically inanimate), it can be understood as implicating some unmentioned agent as the cause of the rise (while increase and go up are “pure” change verbs). That is, rise with non-agentive subjects is like the detested passive constructions of English in failing to specify the agent in some event, and so would be condemned as “passive”. Sigh.

2 Responses to “Prices continue to rise”

  1. Éamonn McManus Says:

    The sun increases in the east and decreases in the west, and anyone who tells you otherwise is an idiot.

  2. live close? « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] The source of proscriptions. Contamination is one source of proscriptions, but it’s often hard to discern where these “rules” come. From last year, this find: a “rule” saying that the (intransitive) verb rise can occur only with animate subjects, so that Speed limits rise is incorrect (also Prices rise and The standard of living has risen). (link) […]

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