Reversed CLEAR verbs

While doing one of my many daily Google searches, a pop-up software ad appeared on my screen, advising me:

Please consider cleaning your Mac from junk. (link)

My first reading was that I had some junk, and this software would clean my Mac out of it. But, wait, that can’t be right! This must mean that I have a Mac, and this software will clean junk out of it. That’s what I’d say as

Please consider cleaning junk from your Mac.

with junk as DO (direct object) and your Mac as PO (prepositional object). The ad has the two NP arguments reversed in function.

[Side note: yes, that first sentence has a “dangling modifier” in it. That’s the way I wrote the sentence, and I decided to stick with it. Most people will understand the sentence correctly without reflection and won’t notice the non-canonical SPAR in it — unless they’ve become hypersensitive to such things.]

In standard English, clean is one of what Beth Levin (English Verb Classes and Alternations, 1993) calls (p. 52) CLEAR verbs (clear, clean, drain, empty), which have two argument-structure variants:

the locative variant: clear X from Y [other Ps are possible: off of, etc.] (clear junk from the atticclean junk from your Mac, etc.)

the of variant: clear Y of X (clear the attic of junkclean your Mac of junk, etc.)

In more detail:



The software ad has a third variant, a combo of the other two:


The reversed variant has the same assignment of semantic roles to syntactic functions as the of variant, but the P (from) of the locative variant.

I didn’t recall having seen the reversed variant before, but examples abound. Here are a few:

[clean] Clean your disk from junk files and installed software (link)

[clean] How do I clean my computer from dust? (link)

[clear] The two round loops don’t offer any discrimination but detect deep objects. Therefore, if you clear the area from junk, you can be assured that deep signals indicate good targets. (link)

[drain] Cook for 25 to 30 minutes or until a skewer pushes easily into the stem. Drain artichokes from liquid and allow to cool. (link)

[empty] This enables the patient to empty the colon from its contents completely by doing the enema via the fistula orifice every 48 hours. (link)

(I’m still getting accustomed to the reversed variants of CLEAR verbs. It takes a while.)

So we now have three variants for CLEAR verbs, rather than two. This pattern is parallel to the variant argument structures for the verb substitute. As detailed here (with references to the descriptive literature), the three variants are:

standard substitute: substitute NEW for OLD (substitute turkey for chicken in chicken Tetrazzini)

encroached [or innovative] substitute: substitute OLD with/by NEW (substitute chicken with/by turkey in chicken Tetrazzini) [disparaged in many handbooks, but it’s been common for a long time]

reversed substitute: substitute OLD for NEW (substitute chicken for turkey in chicken Tetrazzini) [combo of the previous two, with argument assignments as in the second – substitute OLD P NEW – but the P of the first; genuinely recent, and wildly disparaged]

Now we see the same development for the CLEAR verbs. (Nobody says you have to use the reversed variants, but it’s pointless to insist that they’re incomprehensible and somehow should be made to go away.)

Appendix: the verb rid. Along with the alternating verbs in the CLEAR class, Levin lists several types of non-alternating verbs: those with the from variant only (the REMOVE, BANISH, and STEAL verbs) and those with the of variant only (the CHEAT verbs, including rid). Rid, at least, is much more complicated than that. (Brief discussion in a handout here; more details in MWDEU (p. 821), Levin (1993:secs. 2.3.2, 10.6).)

The variants are as with the CLEAR verbs:

locative (from) variant: rid CONTENTS from LOCATION (rid rats from the garden)

of variant: rid LOCATION of CONTENTS (rid the garden of rats)

According to MWDEU (1989),

Rid is now almost always used with of

At one time rid was commonly used with from, but the combination now seldom occurs

As I said on the handout (in 2008),

I can recall teachers complaining about rid from, but I haven’t found it (yet) in the manuals. Meanwhile, despite what MWDEU says, the number of {“rid * from”} examples on the web is gigantic; some are from older literature, and some involve reflexives (a special case), but many are straightforward rid Y from X.

Now you know what I’m going to say next: Not only is there a from variant out there, there’s now a reversed variant,


which is amply attested. A few examples:

some software that promises to rid your computer from Spyware actually installs it instead. (link)

How to Rid Your Home from Unwanted Pests (link)

Buy cheap Nitrofurantoin online to rid your body from this painful infection while saving money. (link)

Reversals march on.

One Response to “Reversed CLEAR verbs”

  1. Two remarks on reversals « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] up on my “Reversed CLEAR verbs” posting (with a section on reversed substitute): a remark on motivations for reversal in CLEAR verbs, plus […]

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