I Hope You -- and This Column -- Read Well
"Citrucel absorbs readily."
When Les Krumm, a retired pharmacist from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, heard this line in a radio commercial, he wrote to ask, "Shouldn't that be 'Citrucel is absorbed readily'"?
Now that's an absorbing question! True enough, it's the digestive system, not the Citrucel, that's doing the absorbing.
But some verbs, unlike conscientious pharmacists, have a way of straying from their prescriptions. When we say, for instance, that a car "drives well," we don't literally mean that the car is driving itself." "Drives well" is simply shorthand for saying, "The car feels smooth and responsive when I drive it."
I call verbs that reverse the action of the sentence "reverbables." Think of a wrestling match in which Horrible Hunk has Vinny Virtue pinned to the floor. Then, suddenly Vinny escapes, and now he's got the Hunk pinned to the floor. Reverbable!
Other examples of reverbables are "assimilate," "read," "play" and "interview." When we use "assimilate" as a transitive verb, for instance, we say a society "assimilates immigrants." But when we use "assimilate" as an intransitive verb, we say immigrants "assimilate into society."
Likewise, we might remark that a book reads well, a golf course plays well, or a job candidate interviews well, even though we're the ones doing the reading, the playing and the interviewing.
When an English teacher recently told me that a certain novel "teaches well," she didn't mean that the novel teaches her students something; she meant that it's easy for her to teach because it's well suited to being understood and appreciated by her students.
(Old reverbable joke: A man confesses to a priest, "Father, I have entertained unclean thoughts." The priest replies, "But have they entertained you?")
Sometimes reverbables change history. The story goes that a Supreme Court justice had made a decision about a certain case, but then changed his mind when he found he just couldn't write a cogent argument for his position. His original opinion, he explained, "wouldn't write." In this case, doing the "write" thing led to the right thing.
One verb in the process of becoming a reverbable is "graduate." Originally, a college "graduated" students. Then students "were graduated from" or "graduated from" college. But, today, many people say, "I graduated college," a complete reversal of the verb's original meaning.
Based on the increasing popularity of reverbables, I'd say they're absorbing readily.
Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. His book, "Mark My Words," is available for $9.99 on Amazon.com. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to WordGuy@aol.com or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.
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