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Grow up

Mike Waller, the redoubtable former publisher of The Sun, growled menacingly every time he received a memo on some means to grow the business. He appointed an assistant whose task, one among many, was to keep that obnoxious construction from reaching him. A good man, Mike Waller, and — you might have guessed — a former copy editor.

This week an urgent message arrived from Editrix about grow the business: “I've found myself locked in mortal combat with some of my readers regarding this topic, and I'm curious about what your position is.”

As it happens, the worthy Kathy Schenck in Milwaukee has addressed the same point at Words to the Wise.

Here’s the deal. Grow exists in both intransitive and transitive senses. If you can grow cotton and you want to grow a business, the language can accommodate you. The latter usage may annoy you, as it does Mike Waller; but if it should stick in the language, then hard cheddar. At the moment, the people who find it a vapid vogue usage will shun it, and the people who like it will not let it go. Language permits you to choose the option you prefer.

So there’s no serious objection to it on linguistic grounds, and the objection on aesthetic grounds comes down to individual preference.

My objection to grow the business is over its meaninglessness. Does grow the business mean to increase profits? Achieve greater productivity through increased efficiency? Introduce new products or services? Expand the customer base? Introduce subsidiary operations? Some of these? All of these? Who knows?

Meaninglessness is overstated. Grow the business, like all cant phrases, does have a meaning, but it’s not the ostensible one. It is a signal for people who sit in meetings and write memos. It is like the secret handshake or the foot-tapping on the floor of the men’s room stall; it signals I am one of you, and, having accomplished that, it need carry no further freight.

I work at a daily metropolitan newspaper. I have listened to people talk about growing the business for a decade, a period during which the newspaper business, The Sun included, has steadily reduced the scope of its operations and the number of employed journalists. You will perhaps excuse me if my response to talk of growing the business is a short, sardonic bark.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:02 AM | | Comments (6)


You're right that the term is fully embraced in Businessese, although business people talking to other business people -- well, that's the way they talk, and they're not really accountable to others for it. They seem to understand what their peers are saying, at least, and too bad for us. If you can't stand the meet, get out of the boardroom, one might say. Weakly, ha.

In terms of semantics, "grow" as a transitive verb is (IMO) no weaker than phrases like "increase" used transitively or as a noun ("an increase in business"), or "grow" used intransitively ("the business grew ten-fold in a year"). Which is to say, they're all equally vague, and on that ground, one should shun (or at least define) any of them. I do hope that those who object to "grow the business" are equally vigilant in calling out the imprecision of any other such construction.

Poor John, you are far too close to the newsbiz trees to see the corporate forest.

My objection to grow the business is over its meaninglessness.

Somehow I suspect your real objection is about verbs and adjectives; and it's hardly meaningless. But it can and does get a VERY flexible and contextual usage.

Does grow the business mean to increase profits? Achieve greater productivity through increased efficiency? Introduce new products or services? Expand the customer base? Introduce subsidiary operations?

Some of these? All of these?


Who knows?

As your accountant. Better yet ask Jay Hancock. He'll sort it out, and maybe even buy the two Martini's it will take to do that explanation properly (getting us back to context and usage). ;)

People who talk about growing the business are certainly skilled at spreading fertilizer around.

Speaking of meaninglessness, it has always struck me that the term "intelligent design" is at the very least redundant. Surely any design implies some sort of intelligence behind it, doesn't it? I'm not interested in discussing the merits of the theory (an endeavor best left to scientists) but would like to know your opinion about the label itself (a label which sounds peculiarly unscientific). Thanks for any insight you can give on this possibly touchy topic.

I don't see the vagueness: growth has a pretty clear relationship to size, and so in this context it seems clear, to me at least, that growth is talking about increased turnover. This also follows from the parallelism with economic growth, a usage that I guess few would object to.

I find the phrase uncomfortable as well, though for syntactic reasons rather than semantic ones. It seems to me that transitive "grow" should take a general referent as its object, not a specific one. As John says, you can grow cotton, but is it right to say that you can grow a specific cotton plant? Maybe nurture, or tend, or even raise, but grow? It's so impersonal.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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