In Defense of a Populist Grammar--
My blog today will not be popular with most of my audience (ironically, given its title). I invite all who disagree to post their responses in Chaucerian English.
And that introduces my point, when is a language supposed to stop adapting itself? Twice last week I came across conversations involving transitive and intransitive verbs, specifically vilifying those (like me) who have started to use some transitive verbs as intransitive.
Quick refresher: Transitive verbs take direct objects, as in "Joe hit the ball." Intransitive verbs do not take direct objects, as in "The light shines." Some can do either, as in "Mary played the piano" and "Billy played all day." So my first point is how seriously should I take a rule when the mother tongue herself seems a bit ambivalent about it?
The issue is around transitive verbs that get used in intransitive ways, for example, "The error message displays in the status bar," or "Do not close the connection until the document prints."
This is an interesting usage and one I think has some positive aspects. It is also closely aligned with the disdain many hold for the passive voice. The trend I see is that certain transitive verbs are becoming intransitive when the logical subject (had it stayed transitive) would have been the computer. In short, we do not care about the ghost in the machine. I know the computer prints the document, but I don't care or I don't want to talk about the computer. So I make the verb "print" intransitive to mean "gets printed." Agency (whodunit) is lost, but we know (or don't care) what printed it. Same thing with error messages that display.
A positive aspect is that this construction makes it easier to treat the object of interest as the topic (subject) of the sentence. This construction is similar to passive voice (which I think writers and editors unfairly eschew). I had an editor today change my sentence from "the user's focus is distracted away from the text by the radio buttons," to "The radio buttons distract the user's focus away from the text." No big deal, but I wanted the sentence to be about user focus, and now it is about the radio buttons.
There seems to be a humanistic need to ignore the computer as doer (controller?), and this move to intransitize verbs seems to be an adaptation to that need. I think "The error message displays in the status bar" is a better sentence than the "The system displays the error message in the status bar." For one, it keeps the sentence about the error message, and secondly, we know the computer does it so no information is lost. And for purists who love active voice, it does it without resorting to the passive form, "The error message is displayed..."
Just one little problem. Display is a transitive verb (well, it does have an intransitive use that deals with birds and animals behaving in ways that tip off others what species they are). One solution is to recognize that there is a trend to downplay the computer as agent and shift agency to objects by treating heretofore transitive verbs as intransitive. A useful device. But to whom do we write in order to make that change official?
Well, I would look to the bard for that answer:
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes.
Clear enough for you?
Conclusion: Let the language adapt to our changing needs and perspectives. The grammar books and dictionaries are history books after all--how the language was spoken. As long as meaning and clarity are not lost, what harm is done? Only English teachers get confused by the sentence "The error message displays in the status bar," sitting in front of the documentation asking, "Displays what? " Everybody else gets it and looks in the status bar to see if the system is displaying an error message.