Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Growing Pains

The Wall Street Journal reported a company’s “attempts to raise funds to grow the business had been unsuccessful.”  In the Chicago Tribune a banker said, "We're not going to be able to grow the economy fast enough.” The use of the verb grow in a transitive sense, meaning to cause something to increase, is both recent and archaic.  Howzat again?

As we all knew in the third grade, but may forget unless we remind ourselves every day, transitive verbs are those that take a direct object: I make trouble. Intransitive verbs are cleverly defined by grammarians as those that do not take a direct object: I persist. Some verbs, of course, are both transitive and intransitive: I drink. I drink gin.

Grow is a verb that can be both, but its transitive sense for most of recent history has been limited to either cultivating crops (I grow corn) or allowing something to develop on one’s body (I grow a beard).  To use grow to mean “increase or enlarge” something is both a very old usage and a relatively new one.  The Oxford English Dictionary  says such usage is obsolete, and it lists as its most recent instance a 1481 document in which King David grew Jerusalem.

Nowadays, however, grow has reasserted itself in a broadly transitive sense. Until quite recently, you would simply do what you could to help your business or your nest egg grow, all on its own. But starting a few years ago you had to get up out of the executive chair and grow it yourself. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary cites as authority for such usage a writer named J. L. Deckter—who (based on results of a Google search) exists only in the pages of Merriam-Webster.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, against all advice, has persisted himself to come up with this supplication:

     Please thrive me in the bloom of health,
     And flourish me with whiter dentures.
     And while you’re at it, grow my wealth
     And prosper me with prime debentures.   

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