Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Consistently Behaving Beats Behaving Consistently

Posted by Neal on April 15, 2008

Not too long ago, somebody lost track of how low we were getting on cat food, and consequently somebody found themself having to buy whatever cat food they could find in an unfamiliar pet-supply store. After walking past the bins of live crickets in the “weird pets” section, I got to the dog section and saw this sign posted in the aisle:

We’ll help you train your dog to behave more consistently.

That could lead to trouble, I thought. Just imagine…

Customer: I want a refund for the money I wasted on this stupid training course!
Employee: I’m sorry you’re dissatisfied. Did the course not work for your dog?
Customer: Hell, no! Riley used to sometimes pee on the floor instead of barking to go outside, but now he always pees on the floor! He used to chew up the newspaper every now and then, but now he does it every single morning!
Employee: The training worked! Your dog is behaving in a much more consistent manner than he did before!

Behave is an interesting verb. It’s a good example of how there are more classes of verbs than just transitives and intransitives. Transitive verbs are the ones that have to have a direct object. To illustrate with syntacticians’ favorite transitive verb, devour, this sentence is ungrammatical:

*They quickly devoured.

For it to sound right, devour has to have a direct object:

They quickly devoured {sixteen hot dogs / the crops in the field / the cannibals}.

An intransitive verb is one that doesn’t take a direct object, for example die. Put a direct object after this verb and you get nonsense:

*Everyone died the animals.

And of course, there are many verbs that can work both ways. In fact, there are so many that it can be hard to find a verb that is obligatorily transitive, and that’s why devour is such a popular example of one. However, when a verb can be transitive or intransitive, the intransitive version sometimes has a more specific meaning than just supplying a generic understood direct object. For example, a sentence like Have you eaten yet?, with the optionally transitive eat, has a more specific meaning than just “Have you eaten something?” The question is whether you’ve had a meal, not whether you munched some Cheerios out of the box, or consumed the piece of paper with the secret password on it.

Instead of direct objects, some verbs are looking for a phrase indicating a location or direction. For example, put with just a direct object is no good:

*He put the suitcase.

Better:

He put the suitcase {on the scale / down / in the unmarked van}.

Other verbs, such as sound, need an adjective. Ungrammatical:

*That sounds.

Grammatical:

That sounds {great / terrible / like something only an idiot would do}.

These phrases, whether direct objects, locations or directions, or adjectives, provide essential parts of the meaning of the verb, whether it’s a participant in the action, or a location that is crucially involved in the action, or a property that you’re saying the verb’s subject has. The general term for these is complements.

A few verbs, as it turns out, take manner-adverb complements, and behave is one of them. Any event described by behave involves two things: something animate, and a manner in which that something conducts itself. The adverb that goes with it doesn’t modify the verb (as an undiscerning sentence-diagrammer would tell you); it provides a crucial part of this verb’s meaning. Of course, just like with optionally transitive verbs like eat, it’s possible for behave to go without its complement, like this:

You’d better behave while I’m gone.

…but when it does, it doesn’t just mean “conduct oneself in some manner,” any more than intransitive eat and drink mean just “eat something” and “drink something.” Like them, it has a more specific meaning; in this case, “conduct oneself properly”. (Behave also has a reflexive version for this meaning: behave oneself.)

If you still don’t believe an adverb following behave is a complement instead of a modifier, try this. Across languages, complements by and large have to appear next to their verbs. You can’t slip an adverb in between them unless there are special circumstances. With eat, for example:

Today, they ate the hot dogs.
*They today ate the hot dogs. [ungrammatical, but for other reasons.]
*They ate today the hot dogs.
They ate the hot dogs today.

And now look at the same pattern with behave:

Today, the children behaved atrociously.
?The children today behaved atrociously.
*The children behaved today atrociously.
The children behaved atrociously today.

There are other tests, such as the “do so” test, but I won’t get into those now. Getting back to the sign at the pet-supplies store, the meaning they must have intended was intransitive “behave yourself” behave, with a structure like the one of the left. In this tree, behave is a VP all by itself (labeled VP2); it doesn’t need any complements, and it means “behave well, conduct oneself properly”. (I put in the subscript “well” as a reminder of this meaning.) The adverb consistently is diagrammed as a modifier by having it and VP2 as (to use quasi-family-tree terms) sisters, both daughters of the VP1 node.

The uncooperative reading I got was with the behave that takes a manner-adverb complement, with a structure like the one on the right. This tree shows the adverb’s status as a complement by having it and the verb as sisters to each other, under the sole VP mother node.

So what’s the practical use of knowing these inaudible differences between intransitive behave and behave taking an adverb complement? When your child says, “Yes, I behaved while you were gone,” and after an angry report from the babysitter, protests, “But you didn’t ask how I behaved!”, and you ground them for lying, you can be secure in the knowledge that they didn’t merely mislead you; it really was a lie.

3 Responses to “Consistently Behaving Beats Behaving Consistently”

  1. The Ridger said

    I will take this – with attribution of course – for a class I’m teaching next month. Thanks!

  2. Ellen K. said

    “Die” being a homophone of transitive verb (dye), “Everyone died the animals” doesn’t actually sound particularly jarring. And there’s quite a few google hits for “died hair”, not a rare misspelling.

  3. Viola said

    “Now you behave!” has always annoyed me (not that I haven’t used those words.) I always behave, whether it be in a poor manner or proper manner. We are constantly behaving.
    This reminds me of the fact that we use the word “temperature” improperly quite often. Our family discussed that this morning. We always have a temperature. So from now on it will be, “He has a mild (high) fever.” Or, “Your temperature is 97.4 degrees, and that is normal for you.”

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