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Some comments on “comment”

June 8, 2015

My old friend Bruce Dessau writes to say that someone recently filled out a Q&A for his website (it’s a super website all about comedy at http://www.beyondthejoke.co.uk) on condition that he published it unedited. Which he largely did, except that the writer at one point seemed to have forgotten a preposition, writing “I commented this show” or some such; and Bruce inserted the missing “on”. But the writer got angry about this, claiming their usage was perfectly correct. Is it?

I had never heard this usage before and I must say it doesn’t sound perfectly correct to me. In English there are two sorts of verbs, transitive and intransitive. Transitive verbs, such as kick, take a direct object. You can’t just say “I’d like to kick” and leave it at that. You have to kick something – him, or the habit, or whatever.

Intransitive verbs such as smile, on the other hand, don’t take a direct object. They are freestanding. You can just say “I smiled” and stop there. If you want to involve an object it will be an indirect object, mediated by a preposition: “I smiled at her.”

I’d have said comment belongs to the intransitive group, because it can be used without an object: “I’m not going to comment.”

However, in American English, intransitive verbs do sometimes turn into transitive ones. In British English write is an intransitive verb: you can just write, or you write to someone. But Americans use it transitively: “Why don’t you write me?” as Simon and Garfunkel sang. The verb protest is also used transitively in American English (“Republicans protested Obama’s healthcare legislation”), whereas we British protest at or against things.

So I’d imagine this new, transitive use of comment is of American origin. I can’t say I like it, and I think Bruce was right to correct. It.

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