Thursday, 15 April 2010

To grow or not to grow, that is the question.....

Having spent far too much time considering transitive and intransitive verbs (not to mention ambitransivity), I thought I would open the particular issue I was pondering up to IfL members.

This follows on from feedback from a member pointing out that IfL had used the intransitive verb ‘grow’ in an inappropriate transitive way: “we aim to grow the range of third party special offers and discounts that we offer to members and we want these to reflect your needs.” Now I understand entirely that as a professional body for teachers and trainers, IfL needs to pay particular attention to ensuring that its use and style of communication is in keeping with the expectations of its members. Language, however, evolves and it is important that communication keeps pace with the way society adapts language to meet new and emerging contexts.

‘Grow’ is, of course, both transitive (the farmer is growing carrots) and intransitive (the carrots grew rapidly). The real thrust of this debate seems to be not the transitive or intransitive nature of the verb, but its restriction in the transitive sense to contexts such as agriculture, biology and horticulture. We accept that the farmer growing carrots, the gardener growing daffodils and the scientist growing bacteria as proper transitive uses of ‘grow’, but it seems harder to accept when the object is not organic; the entrepreneur grew his business from nothing.

Now I’m no linguist (I know, it shows) and my knowledge is limited to the research and reading I carry out, but I understand that use of ‘grow’ (growan: of plants) as an intransitive verb (old English) related first to horticulture/agriculture and has been used in its this sense since the thirteenth century to relate to human beings and animals. Interestingly the OED describes the first use of ‘grow’ as a transitive verb (with an object) in an agricultural or horticultural context as an 18th century innovation, meaning to cultivate or to produce. The literature seems to describe the transitive use of ‘grow’ in contexts such as business or politics as a 20th century innovation, often citing the early 90’s political campaigning of Bill Clinton, where he planned to “grow the economy”.

I’m always happy to receive feedback from members on IfL’s communication style and this particular issue not only made me revisit language learning long forgotten, it has also encouraged me to think more deeply about the traditions of language and the way language evolves. It would be very easy to respond to this feedback by changing the ‘offending’ text to “we aim to increase the range of third party special offers and discounts that we offer to members.....” and that may well be the right thing to do, but shouldn’t a professional body also reflect language as it evolves?

I’m really keen to hear the views of IfL’s members, those with expertise in linguistics and those with an interest in language.


Ben Beaumont said...

This is indeed an interesting one (for linguists, at least), and while I generally am happy to accept language change, in this case I might be a little slow to.

The first time I heard 'grow' being used transitively in a non-agricultural sense was in a business planning meeting for a private organisation ("We need to grow the market share"). I immediately recoiled against its use preferring the more traditional 'increase'.

The fact that certain high profile characters have started to use 'grow' as a stylistic feature of their discourse seems to be part of a growth of language, encouraging greater semantic variety of particular pieces of lexis (or words!).

I suppose the question is when do we prescribe or describe language use, and indeed when do we encourage its growth across contextual fields? I have to say that on an educational institution's website, I currently prefer 'increase offers' compared to 'grow offers' but accept that in time, this innovative use of 'grow' across contexts may well be prescribed rather than described. However, I don't think we're quite there yet.

ashook69 said...

I'm no linguist, conformist or traditionalist. Hence does it really matter whether 'grow or increase' is the correct word ??? As long people get the gist of the subject context isn't that enough !!!