Annals of causativization

From today’s AAAS Member Spotlight newsletter:

A contagious type of cancer has hit the Tasmanian devil population hard — declining wild populations by almost 70 percent.

That’s the transitive verb decline ’cause to decline’. Entirely comprehensible, but apparently a revival of a usage that went obsolete in the 18th century. Causativization of intransitives is always an option, so the way is open for new creations (though there’s considerable animosity to innovative causatives).

OED2 has causative decline ‘to cause to turn aside, to avert’ and ‘to cause to bend down, descend, or slope’ as obsolete, with the last cites in the 18th century. (Other transitive uses of decline are not marked as obsolete: ‘turn away from’, as in decline a discussion, contest, challenge, etc.; ‘refuse courteously’, as in decline to speak, decline a gift, etc.; and ‘inflect grammatically’, as in decline a noun.) But decline ’cause to decrease’ is alive and well, either as a survival that the OED compilers didn’t notice or (more likely) as a new creation. Here are a few examples with the population as direct object:

[on springtails in soil] If they really bother you, let your soil dry out more between waterings. This will decline the population drastically. (link)

If we control birth rates now, then within a few decades, the population will naturally decline. If we don’t, then Nature will decline the population for us, and it will be catastrophic. (link)

[example essay for English learners] According to the research conducted by Rachel Carson, there are several drawbacks of using the DDT. Firstly, the usage of DDT has declined the population of several species of birds such as bald eagle and peregrine falcon. (link)

Although English has a huge number of pairings of homophonous intransitive and causative transitive verbs, like break and burn, there is tremendous opposition in some quarters to the innovation of new causatives by “zero derivation” — usually on the grounds that the new lexical items are “unnecessary”, because there are already transitive verbs with the appropriate meanings (decrease, for example, in the case of decline), and anyway there are always periphrastic alternatives (like cause to decline and make decline) available. (Similar objections are raised to direct verbing of nouns and adjectives and to direct nouning of verbs and adjectives. In all these cases, you can argue that the zero conversions serve the function of brevity and in addition allow for shades of meaning that go beyond the alternatives.)

Grow. One causativization that irks a great many people is that of grow with objects other than those denoting plants and body parts, in particular in grow the company ‘make the company grow’ (enlarge is the usual suggested alternative, though it doesn’t convey quite the shades of meaning that causative grow does). Here’s Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed., p. 403) on the usage:

Although this verb is typically intransitive…, its transitive use has long been standard in phrases such as grow crops and grow a beard.

Recently, however, grow has blossomed as a transitive verb in nonfarming and nongrooming contexts. It is trendy in business JARGON: growing the industry, growing your business, growing your investment, and so on. But because many readers will stumble over these odd locutions, the trend should be avoided

Grow‘s real faults here are its claimed trendiness and its association with business talk (commerce gets a bad press from usage critics); anyone who can’t understand it, especially after several experiences with it, really isn’t trying.

Some other causativizations:

Bow. From this Language Log posting by Mark Liberman, a headline with bow ‘cause to take a bow, introduce’:

SAS DataFlux Unit Bows Unified Data Management Platform

with a comment from Electric Dragon:

“Bow” in this sense is something I associate with Variety’s own peculiar jargon (or slanguage as they call it):

bow — (n.) opening or premiere; (v.) to debut a production; “The pic’s bow was in January”; “The Nederlander Organization will bow its revival of ‘Wonderful Town’ next (link)

Deteriorate. On this blog, here.

Evolve. From a comment by Dan Bloom on Ben Zimmer’s Language Log posting of 3/5/10:

the same DN reporter writes “Mark Boal directly evolved the movie from a story he wrote for Playboy…” – Word Mavens, since when did evolve turn into a verb used this way? Species evolve, yes, and even movie scripts evolve, from first draft to final draft, but to speak of a screenwriter “evolving” his screenplay, is this kosher? Is this like “growing” a business?

Mark Liberman replied:

FWIW, the OED has examples going back to 1597 of transitive evolve meaning “To draw out, extract, release”, or “To unfold, unroll; to open out, expand; (of a thought, idea, etc.)”, or “To extract (something implicit or potential); to derive or deduce (a conclusion, law, or principle); to develop (an idea, theory, or system).”

Grind to a halt. Ben Zimmer on ADS-L 2/17/09, with a transitivization of the intransitive VP idiom grind to a halt:

Ideology, in practice, just means that even the notion of a large-vs.-small-government bill floating through Congress grinds productivity in your Capitol to a halt. (Wonkette, 17 Feb 09) (link)

Ben commented:

Fairly well attested in news stories, often in reference to severe weather conditions (e.g., “Heavy snow grinds county to a halt”) (link). And it looks like it’s nothing new:

1949 Los Angeles Times 15 July 21/1 They say higher labor costs at this time would … thus grind industry to a halt, bringing on either a deepening recession or another dizzy whirl on the inflation spiral.

Migrate. From help@alum.mit.edu (4/28/09) about alumni e-mail accounts:

I am writing to let you know we will be migrating spam management to Brightmail for all alumni in the next few weeks.

OED3 (March 2002) has this specialized computer use:

trans. To transfer (data, programs, etc.) from one environment to another.

with cites from 1983, 1989, 1994, and 2000.

And in more general use:

trans. To move or relocate (a person, object, custom, etc.). rare.

with cites from 1768-74, 1928, 1997, and 1998, from the Times of June 11 (“Documents from 1954 showed that 49 children had not been migrated because they were—in the language of the time—‘half-caste’.”).

Pause. From Elizabeth Daingerfield Zwicky on Facebook in May 2010:

Opal says “Would you mind getting me something I can pause my book with?

(referring to a bookmark).  Earlier, on her blog on 6/14/09:

As I was putting Opal to bed, she needed to go to the bathroom. She paused the CD she was listening to, and then said to me “Could you pause?” I pointed out that she’d already paused the CD. “No, could you pause yourself? So you’re there waiting when I get back?” I didn’t quite pause myself — I got her some more water — but I did come back.

These are extensions of causative pause to new contexts. For background: OED3 for pause v. trans. (draft revision of June 2008):

a. To cause to stop temporarily, esp. for thought or reflection. rare before 19th cent.

[most recent cite:] 1995 V. CHANDRA Red Earth & Pouring Rain (1996) 408 The sight of her daughter and me floating around in her pool didn’t pause her for a second.

b. spec. To stop or suspend the operation of (a device such as a tape recorder, video player, etc., or a computer application) by using a pause control.

[1965 A. ZUCKERMAN Getting Most from your Tape Recorder ix. 79 You won’t accidentally over-shoot and lose program material by ‘de-pausing’ the copying recorder too late.] 1981 T. HOGAN Osborne CP/M User Guide ii. 49 CP/M can pause the video display screen. 2000 Computer Currents (Nexis) 22 Feb. 82, I reluctantly paused the DVD, got up, walked across the room, and answered the telephone. 2003 Sun (Baltimore) (Nexis) 25 July 1E, You’re sitting in front of a TV with a Gameboy in your lap, secure in the knowledge that you can pause the action whenever necessary.

Progress. Some discussion of causative progress here on this blog (along with causative pertain to/toward), starting with

an e-mail exchange initiated by a comment from Peter Sagal (of NPR’s Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me!), who complained about Sarah Palin’s using progress as a transitive verb, as in this excerpt from her resignation speech:

It’s pretty insane – my staff and I spend most of our day dealing with THIS instead of progressing our state now. I know I promised no more “politics as usual,” but THIS isn’t what anyone had in mind for ALASKA.

Phil Resnick googled up some examples from more formal contexts, and Mark Liberman noted that the OED has an entry for transitive progress, with cites, in a variety of contexts, going back to 1780 and continuing through 2002 (plus some usage commentary on the verb).

Revert. In the sense ’cause to revert’:

While the Byxbee Park landfill is being closed and reverted back to parkland, the only site that works for composting seems to be Byxbee Park, [P.A. Council Member Greg] Scharff said. (Diana Samuels, “City staff: No good composting options”, Palo Alto Daily News, 3/9//10, p. A2)

OED2 has transitive revert ‘to cause to return to a former condition or practice’, with cites from 1973 (Nature: “[It is possible …] to revert the same area to the amorphous state”), 1975 (Daily Telegraph: “tried to revert the union to its previous system”), and 1977 (Evening Post (Nottingham): “The suggestion to revert a central site to agricultural use”).’

Surge. Neal Whitman cited this example on ADS-L on 6/18/11:

From surging police into Chicago’s high-crime neighborhoods to working to increase the classroom time for the city’s public-school students to dealing with the larger municipal deficit, Emanuel is trying to shake up a city bureaucracy that clearly grew complacent under his predecessor.

Ben Zimmer then noted:

Interesting that transitive “surge” is making the jump to civilian use. Here’s a Language Log post I wrote in Dec. ’06 when it was still mostly a military thing: (link)

Travel. Brian Hitchcock on ADS-L 6/7/11 cited

“Pall Mall! Finer cigarettes! And…! They are *mild*! Their greater length *travels* the smoke farther, on the way to your throat”

“‘Cloning’ the drive will bring along the Restore partition, so it may be possible to travel the clone, with Restore partition, from Mac to Mac.”

and commented contemptuously

It’s not surprising that advertisers (in the ‘cigarette’ example) and IT nerds (in the ‘cloning’ example) misuse the verb ‘travel’.  These groups are notorious for syntactic gaffes.  For these professions, it is indeed a “mild” misuse amid myriad manglings.

I replied:

Not a syntactic gaffe, though it obviously offends your sensibilities. This is just a causativization of an intransitive: transitive travel ’cause to travel’.

Yes, lots of people object to certain (*certain*) causativizations, like grow in grow the company ‘make the company grow’.  (It’s a mystery to me why so many causativizations pass unnoticed, while others drive some people totally up the wall.)

To recap: That’s bow, decline, deteriorate, evolve, grind to a halt, grow, migrate, pause, progress, revert, surge, and travel. Causativization marches on.

3 Responses to “Annals of causativization”

  1. Rick Wojcik Says:

    My area of specialization for a couple of decades now has been in writing standards for technical English (especially the aerospace controlled English called “Simplified Technical English”), so I have some sympathy for prescriptions against causativization in contexts where the reading audience has a lot of non-native readers. In fact, the majority of English speakers are now non-native speakers, so prescriptivism has become even more of an issue in international organizations, where documents are either kept in their original English for the reading audience or translated into a different language. I have always been high on causatives (since my graduate days at OSU), but I now have a greater appreciation of why people get so wound up by functional shifts in English part-of-speech usage. English isn’t just for native speakers anymore.

  2. The Ridger Says:

    I really dislike advice like Garner’s “But because many readers will stumble over these odd locutions, the trend should be avoided”. How will people learn not to stumble if they never encounter anything “odd”?

    It boils down to “it’s fine, but yield to the prejudices of others.”

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