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Transitivity in Grammar and Science

Updated on November 9, 2016

Friends of the Rational Scientific Method (RSM) have many conversations about language with emphasis on the difference between verbs and nouns. This is very important in communicating, especially ideas in science, as all words resolve to either an object or a concept. It is crucial to understand the difference.

Here, our friend Kobus refers us to a paper entitled, “Transitivity in Grammar and Discourse”:

“The paper is long but most of the juicy details are in the first few pages. The rest of the paper gives examples for their case. Again, transitivity is either naturally developed in grammar regardless of the language used or it is not!

“As I understand it, transitive verbs require a minimum of two objects in a sentence: one to do the action (verb) and another to receive the action performed. Intransitive verbs require only one object in a sentence and cannot be used to express an action to any significant degree. The transitivity of the object is low.”

We discuss nouns and verbs at Rational Scientific Method FB Group a lot. They are important, and so are their mates; adjectives and adverbs. Understanding what we are saying is important if we wish to communicate clearly, isn't it? As we learned in the chapter of my book, Rational Science Vol. IV, "Words Mean Things." In ordinary conversational language we can be less strict in the use of our terms, but in the scientific context, we must be precise. Precision is precious!

So what is transitivity? From the article:

"Transitivity is traditionally understood as a global property of an entire clause, such that an activity is 'carried-over' or 'transfered' from an agent to a patient. Transitivity in the traditional view thus necessarily involves at least two participants and an action which is typically EFFECTIVE in some way."

This article is way over my head, and I would read it all if I had access to my nephew who is a linguist and con help me parse this verbage and nounage. Unfortunately, he is in China confusing the Chinese, and therefore not available for my edification.

There is a list of properties for transitives, a sort of scale or hierarchy, so to speak. I find the first one interesting.

(A) Participants: No transfer can take place unless at least two participants are involved.

That I think I understand because I assume that all phenomena are the result of surface to surface contact between two or more objects. What is meant by transfer, however, is not clear. Physicists may collide two particles and in the aftermath of the collision transfer energy to a magnetic coil of wire, for example. While this may be grammatically correct, it is nonsensical in a purely scientific context, because energy is not a THING which can be transferred, transported, exchanged, loaned or borrowed.

I liked this comparison of a particular set of individuated and non-individuated terms:

individuated : count
non-individuated : mass

Remind you of anything? I am referring to how the modern Phiz Whiz confuses amount of matter with properties such as weight. See the chapters on mass in Rational Science, Vol. I.

The article continues explaining that there are degrees of transitivity all the way to something called CARDINAL Transitivity. I suppose that that means it has all or the most of the known properties of transitivity, though I can not be certain. My MonkEmind began to shut down when I could not locate a glossary of terms within the article. In particular, since great emphasis is made on the importance of foregrounding/backgrounding, and I could not find a definition of these terms, I can't really say I understand what their conclusion is. This is typical in academia. I was told by 5 of the largest and most recognized Universities in America, that a glossary of terms is NOT permitted, and will actually count against a participant in the their thesis, unless the term is used in a different way than the "accepted" norm of the term. Everyone should already understand the meaning of the terms being used, it is claimed!

Pulling from Wikipedia, I gleaned this:

"Foregrounding is the practice of making something stand out from the surrounding words or images. It is "the 'throwing into relief' of the linguistic sign against the background of the norms of ordinary language."

"Backgrounding is a beef production system that involves maximal use of pasture and forages from the time calves are weaned until they are placed in a feedlot."

OK, now THAT I understand. In the former case, we wish to distinguish a term from its use in ordinary language, and in the latter we wish to get the most of our natural resources before placing our calves in the feedlot. Seems reasonable. I do hope I am being clear when ordering a cheeseburger at Mickey D's so that I get the Big Mac, and not McNuggets.

I like this particular example of relative transitivity.

a.Jerry likes beer
b. Jerry knocked Sam down.

We are told that higher in transitivity than a. because it displays a higher count of properties, including ACTION, for instance.

I'd add : c.Jerry knocked down some beers.

Transitivity is therefore a continuum where it may rate higher or lower depending on the number of properties. For instance, "a sentence with two participants may rate lower than a sentence with a single participant." But in the scientific context, especially in physics, there is no continuum. A verb always qualifies a noun, and a noun is always an object. There is no degree of verbness in science, and an action, or phenomenon, always requires objects.

I prefer the language of science which is illustration. Then when I am at McDonald’s I just look at the picture and point to it, saying, "Give me that!" This seems to eliminate any confusion as to what I hope to eat. It gets quite a bit more complicated when I want Number 1, but ask them to hold the MAYO. This can require discussion for clarity. In point of fact, one time I ordered a McBLT, and asked that it NOT have tomato on it. I was promptly told by the server, that McBLT's have bacon, lettuce, and TOMATO on them. I told the server that she could make the BLT as normal, and then just remove the slice of tomato before giving it to me. This required a discussion with her manager, who was able to delegate some authority. He assured her that it was quite OK to NOT put the tomato on my McBLT.

Simple rules for dealing with verbs in physics:

Each verb requires at least two nouns.
There are no transitive or intransitive verbs, there are only VOIBS.
There is no degree of VOIBness, It is either a voib or it's a noun!


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