The fish are biting

(Vex, vex. I had almost all of this posting put together when — despite automatic saving in WordPress — most of the file vanished, so I had to reconstruct almost everything, including the links, from scratch. Sigh.)

Yesterday’s Calvin and Hobbes from the past:

Two different intransitive verbs bite here: one in panels 2 and 3, another in Hobbes’s question in panel 4. The first is straightforward transitive bite with omitted direct object (yielding one type of intransitive). The second — “[no obj.] (of a fish) take the bait or lure on the end of a fishing line into the mouth” (NOAD2) — seems to be more complicated, but its historical source seems pretty clearly to involve a semantic extension, from a verb referring to using the teeth to cut into something in order to eat it to one referring merely to taking something into the mouth in order to eat it.

Background. Traditional terminology on argument structures involving objects is somewhat confused and certainly inadequate for the purpose of describing the attested types of argument structures (and the verbs partcipating in them).

One simple, but grossly inadequate, approach is to say that an instance of a verb is transitive if it occurs with an overt direct object, intransitive otherwise. This is the distinction made in NOAD, but with the terminology with obj. and no obj. instead of transitive and intransitive.

(This discussion will be complex enough as it is, so I’ll disregard here so-called ditransitive verbs and indirect objects (or second objects)).

First, there are what are sometimes labeled as absolute intransitives, verbs that normally do not occur with a direct object, at all or in particular senses.  Semantically, these are of several types:

state: abound, stink

event, process: ensue, happen

change of state: vanish, fall

activity: run  ‘move at a speed faster than a walk, never having both or all the feet on the ground at the same time’, jump ‘push oneself off a surface and into the air by using the muscles in one’s legs and feet’ [glosses from NOAD2]

(Many change-of-state and activity intransitives have transitive causative counterparts: She jumped her game piece over his ‘She made her game piece jump over his’.)

Next: A great many verbs occur with complements that would otherwise be classified as objects (rather than adjuncts) but are not direct objects, because they are marked by prepositions; these should be classified as verbs taking oblique objects, but are ordinarily just labeled as intransitives. So from NOAD2:

verb [no obj.] (adhere to)

So far we have three types of verb lexemes: -Obj verbs (absolute intransitives), DirObj verbs (the classic transitives), and OblObj verbs.

Then there are further possibilities for verbs with objects (of whichever type): alongside examples with overt objects, there can be otherwise identical examples with covert, omitted objects (“understood objects”, for some writers). For general English, these omissions fall into two broad types: definite object omission (DefOmit) and indefinite object omission (IndefOmit). Since such examples have no (overt) direct objects, they too are often labeled as intransitives.

On DefOmit, a note on Language Log on 10/04/08:

There’s some literature on “pragmatically controlled zero anaphora” (as Chuck Fillmore termed the phenomenon in a 1986 Berkeley Linguistics Society paper). For direct objects, omissibility depends very much on the verb; find out allows omission (Kim found out can be interpreted in context), while discover does not (*Kim discovered).

Some varieties of English have gone further with DefOmit, as I reported in a NWAV 31 handout (of 10/11/02), citing Joel Wallenberg (2002), on what he playfully calls JOO (Jewish Object Omission). An example:

[child asks for item at Izzy’s Bagels] A: They don’t have ∅. (where the omitted material ∅ is understood as ‘it, the/that item’)

In addition, DefOmit has been extended in certain special instructional registers of English, in particular the recipe register, as discussed in the handout for my BLS 31 paper of 2005, citing Culy’s (1996) analysis. Consider:

Take 3 radishes. Rinse ∅ in cold water. (where the omitted material ∅ is understood as ‘them, the radishes’) [ROO, or Recipe Object Omission]

And recall Sadock’s 1974 CLS paper on medicine-bottle instructions (and similar labels), like:

Take ∅ with food. Use ∅ with caution. (where the omitted material ∅ is understood as ‘this (medicine)’)

Note that DefOmit is available for oblique objects as well as direct objects, as in:

Sandy tried to paste the paper onto the block, but it wouldn’t adhere ∅. (where the omitted material ∅ is understood as ‘to it, to the block’)

So much for DefOmit. IndefOmit, as in Robin ate ∅ (where the omitted material ∅ is understood (very roughgly) as ‘something, things’) is in many ways similar. Like DefOmit, IndefOmit is lexically specific:

Robin sat down and (hungrily) ate ∅.

*Robin sat down and (hungrily) consumed ∅.

Object-omission occurrences of verbs are so common — not fully productive, but still in the higher regions of productivity — that the practice of dictionaries (other than the most compendious) is mostly inconsistent as to which of these senses/uses they list under a headword.

Now, back to the C&H cartoon, in which the images in panels 2 and 3 can be seen as setting up an object-omission reading for Hobbes’s question in panel 4, with

The fish are biting ∅.

understood either as a DefOmit example, with Calvin as the specific target of the fish’s biting, or as an IndefOmit example, with people in general as the fish’s target (Calvin being merely the person who happens to have presented himself to the biting fish).

But Hobbes clearly means his question to be jokingly ambiguous, as between this reading and one involving a conventionalized extension of bite to fish taking a bait or lure into their mouths — which I’ll call the “angler’s reading”. In fact, OED2 has the first attestations of this reading in two cites from Izaak Walton’s famous 1653 treatise on angling; though today most occurrences of this usage seem to be in the progressive (using the PRP form of the verb), as in the cartoon (“Are the fish biting?”), early cites use other verb forms: PST, PRS, and BSE in will bite.

OED2 has an account of the angler’s reading which treats it as an object-omission case, based in fact on an oblique object (so it’s got pretty much everything I’ve discussed here in it):

intr. Of fish: To seize or snap at the bait of the angler.

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