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Intransitive verbs and the campus shortcut

A sentence in a technical manual reminds the Monitor's language columnist how usage changes under pressures of time and space.

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Have you ever seen people vote with their feet for a certain path across a stretch of green, on a campus, perhaps, or in a public park? They will cut corners and prove that the hypotenuse of a triangle is shorter than the right-angled official walkway.

Eventually the shortcut may be legitimized with paving, perhaps after the head of the grounds department lets it be known that his crews are tired of trying to make grass grow where people obviously want a path instead.

Something similar happens in language all the time. There's an official right-angled way, sanctioned by the dictionary, usage guides, and your boss or professor. But under pressure of time and space constraints, and of frequency of usage, something gives. Someone finds a simpler way to say it, and once the shortcut is established, it becomes hard to stick to the longer way.

These observations were prompted by a passage in a technical manual I was looking over: "These panels install easily." Hmm, are we sure? I've just checked several different dictionaries. All define install as a transitive verb – that is, a verb "expressing an action carried from the subject to the object," as the American Heritage Dictionary has it. An intransitive verb involves action, but no direct object. ("He sings beautifully" versus "He sings mostly art songs.")

The "panels" are the grammatical subject but logically the object of the action of installing. There is no "object," in a grammatical sense.

We might get the point across more correctly with "These panels are easy to install." This keeps "panels" as the subject and leaves open the question of who will install them. Or we might address the reader directly: "You should be able to install these panels easily."


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