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You have to look at the evidence

For prescriptivists, the difficult thing is determining whether there is an actual basis for one’s preferences in language. Take deteriorate.

I have no difficulty with the verb in the intransitive sense. English has not deteriorated over the past century. That is what I take from my reading to be the normal usage. Whenever I encounter it in the transitive sense—Peevers like to sneer that the Internet has deteriorated the English language—it just looks off, sounds off, seems off.*

But the OED has citations of the transitive sense going back to the sixteenth century, with later examples from Cowper, the Duke of Wellington, and Matthew Arnold. And a check of a handful of usage manuals, including Garner, MWDEU, Fowler, Bernstein, Follett, and Bremner, finds that all are silent on the subject.

So I am left with a strong preference but no warrant for it.

Well, not entirely. A quick look at the Corpus of Contemporary American English, not a systematic analysis of the 971 entries for deteriorate, but a scan of several pages of examples, suggests that the intransitive sense has become dominant, by a substantial margin. Perhaps there is something to my perceptions.

But even if the transitive sense is slowly losing out to the intransitive, it’s still there. I may not prefer it myself, but I’m not in a position to forbid it to anyone. Not even a reporter. Damn.


*I most often encounter the transitive in reporters’ writing, which reinforces my intuition that anything that turns up mainly in newspaper writing is likely to be wrong.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:21 AM | | Comments (2)


>" that anything that turns up mainly in newspaper writing is likely to be wrong."

I think (?) you might be contradicting yourself. Reporters are writing in colloquial English (assuming basic English competency), and that's the descriptive basis for determining the current state of the grammar. If the issue is that reporters write demotic English but the paper has guidelines for SWE that prohibit certain usages, that's ok, but then we're obliged to admit that we're playing by a rule book that is in a certain sense arbitrary. And in that case, you can easily establish a rule that "deteriorate" is intransitive only until some Garner-type authority grants it acceptance into the club. Thots?

I don't think newspapers writing can be identified with colloquial or demotic English. It's its own beast, complete with idiosyncratic constructions ("John McIntyre Friday blogged about prescriptivism") and loads of jargon and other pet words and phrases (like "ouster" or "temblor").

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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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