Verbal Energy

Intransitive verbs and the campus shortcut

A sentence in a technical manual reminds the Monitor's language columnist how usage changes under pressures of time and space.

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Have you ever seen people vote with their feet for a certain path across a stretch of green, on a campus, perhaps, or in a public park? They will cut corners and prove that the hypotenuse of a triangle is shorter than the right-angled official walkway.

Eventually the shortcut may be legitimized with paving, perhaps after the head of the grounds department lets it be known that his crews are tired of trying to make grass grow where people obviously want a path instead.

Something similar happens in language all the time. There's an official right-angled way, sanctioned by the dictionary, usage guides, and your boss or professor. But under pressure of time and space constraints, and of frequency of usage, something gives. Someone finds a simpler way to say it, and once the shortcut is established, it becomes hard to stick to the longer way.

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These observations were prompted by a passage in a technical manual I was looking over: "These panels install easily." Hmm, are we sure? I've just checked several different dictionaries. All define install as a transitive verb – that is, a verb "expressing an action carried from the subject to the object," as the American Heritage Dictionary has it. An intransitive verb involves action, but no direct object. ("He sings beautifully" versus "He sings mostly art songs.")

The "panels" are the grammatical subject but logically the object of the action of installing. There is no "object," in a grammatical sense.

We might get the point across more correctly with "These panels are easy to install." This keeps "panels" as the subject and leaves open the question of who will install them. Or we might address the reader directly: "You should be able to install these panels easily."

Ah, but these "correct" versions are longer, aren't they? Is this beginning to sound like a case of the right-angle walkway versus the shortcut?

Another factor is at work, too: In a technical manual, the focus may be on the things rather than on the human actors. If it's about the panels, they should simply "install" and not have to fuss with "being installed." Or so, I imagine, it appears to the typical installer.

Install means generally to place someone somewhere ("installing himself in his hotel room"); to put something in – wiring, carpeting, software; or to place someone in a high office. Both carpets and college presidents, in other words, get installed.

None of the dictionaries I checked explicitly identified install as an intransitive verb. However, Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary gives this sample usage: "The software installs easily on your hard drive."

Other languages handle this kind of idea with phrases that mean essentially, the software "installs itself," or "lets itself be installed."

The Economist's cover story for Feb. 12 was "the new manufacturing technology that will change the world." The cover showed a violin made with "an EOS laser-sintering 3D printer (and it plays beautifully)." There's that usage again. The violin may play beautifully, but not in the sense that Joshua Bell plays beautifully. The violin lets itself be played.

After the elaborate description of the "printer" who would argue with the simplicity of "it plays beautifully"? But meanwhile, I'm going to make sure that my "panels" are "easy to install."

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