Ed Miliband accuses David Cameron of not wanting to “debate him”.
It’s a strange one. I – and many others, judging by my Twitter conversations on the subject – would have thought you debate something, not someone. In other words, the object of “debate” should be a topic, not a person.
A similar issue was raised a few weeks previously over the use of “protest” with a direct object – e.g. “they are protesting cuts”. Many would suggest this makes no sense – you protest for something, or you protest against something, but surely you cannot protest something?
What is the linguistic issue here?
The issue concerns something called valency. To explain this, let is deal firstly with something else, related, called transitivity.
Verbs (in English and most similar languages, anyway) are either transitive or intransitive.
Those which are intransitive, such as sleep or rain, cannot take a direct object at all: ‘I am sleeping'; ‘It rains on the roof’.
Those which are transitive, such as like or break, can (and, generally, must) take a direct object: ‘I like it'; ‘I spoke English to the woman’.
There are some verbs which may be used transitively but it is not obligatory: ‘I helped him’ (transitive), ‘I helped with the move’ (intransitive).
There are also some verbs in Modern English which can be transitive or intransitive: ‘I’m boiling the water’ (transitive), ‘The water is boiling’ (intransitive). In older Germanic, such verbs were distinct from each other, and occasionally this distinction is retained, although usually unstably: the ‘sit’ versus ‘set’ distinction is now regarded as having developed to a semantic distinction (specific versus general); the ‘lie’ versus ‘lay’ distinction is very unstable in contemporary Spoken English, with the latter generally taking over from the former. [German retains, more stably, the specific original intransitive versus transitive distinction: ‘sitzen’ versus ‘setzen’ and ‘liegen’ versus ‘legen’.]
Then there is the issue of valency, which includes the subject plus any other “argument” that can follow the verb. For the sake of this post, we will limit these to indirect objects, which in Modern English must be introduced by a preposition: ‘I am sleeping’ (valency=1); ‘I like it’ (valency=2), ‘I spoke English to the woman’ (valency=3). Typically, valency=3 includes a subject (‘I’), an unmarked direct object (‘English’), and an indirect object marked by a preposition (‘to the woman’). An object is always required with transitive verbs, but with some verbs this need not necessarily be a direct object – ‘I spoke English’ (direct object) is a complete meaningful clause, but so is ‘I spoke to the woman’ (indirect object).
However, valency=3 is arguably possible even with intransitive verbs, for example ‘I went to Belfast by car’.
It is generally accepted that the maximum in Modern English is valency=4: ‘I bet him fifty quid on Arsenal’ (the four are ‘I’, ‘him’, ‘fifty quid’ and ‘on Arsenal’). This is odd, however, because ‘bet’ appears to have two direct objects – ‘him’ and ‘fifty quid’. Many languages would not allow this (and would require it to be rephrased), but Modern English now appears to.
Some other verbs are unstable here: ‘He gave the chair to him’ is standard transitive valency=3; however, ‘He gave him the chair’, with word order changed, is now valency=3 but with what appear to be two direct objects. One analysis is that ‘him’ is still an indirect object (in this and the ‘bet’ example above), even though it is unmarked – its status as indirect object is arguably marked by word order, with the indirect object always appearing in English before the direct object (you can also say ‘I gave the man the chair’ and ‘I gave him it’).
[Fellow Germanic language, German, allows this but marks it not by word order but by using a different case for each of subject, direct object and indirect object (underlined): ‘Er gab ihm den Stuhl'; ‘Er gab dem Mann den Stuhl'; ‘Er gab ihn ihm‘ (the word order is actually different when two pronouns are used versus two nouns; pronouns always appear before nouns regardless).]
So, what about debate and protest?
In prescriptive grammars and dictionaries, debate is like help – it may be used transitively or intransitively. However, according to both the Oxford English and Webster Dictionaries (perhaps the best authorities in British and American English respectively), its transitive meaning refers to a topic, not a person: to ‘debate David Cameron’ therefore means to debate about the Prime Minister, not with him, in both varieties. It would be possible to ‘debate with David Cameron’ or perhaps even ‘against David Cameron’, thus making him an indirect object, but the preposition is required if he is to be the opponent rather than the topic. Valency=2 either way, but the transitive meaning is specific to a thing rather than a person; of course debate could be used with valency=3: ‘Ed wants to debate the standard of living with Dave’ – a subject, a direct object, and an indirect object marked by a preposition.
According to similar authorities, protest is intransitive in British English but transitive in American (inherently, in American, it means specifically ‘protest over’ in British). Thus, ‘protest cuts’ is good American English, but would (prescriptively, at least) be ‘protest over cuts’ in British English. Valency=2 either way, but one is transitive and the other is not.
That said, the above usage is prescriptive – it is laid down by academic authorities, but there is no “Academie Anglaise” to enforce it. If the British decide to adopt the American usage of ‘protest’ to mean inherently ‘protest over’ (thus becoming transitive), it will not be the first time and the dictionaries and grammars will soon catch up.
The usage of ‘debate’ with a personal direct object will probably become common too. It is possible for verbs to move from requiring clearly marked indirect objects to allowing the indirect object to appear direct (as we saw above with ‘I gave the chair to him’ and ‘I gave him the chair’). It is even more common in American English, where this is allowed for standalone indirect objects: British English has ‘write a letter’ but ‘write to me’ (indirect object clearly marked with preposition), but American allows ‘write a letter’ and ‘write me’ (presumably an indirect object, but deemed obvious from the context). This is probably why ‘debate me’ sounds like an Americanism. Its future is less certain in British (which, after all, has not yet adopted ‘write me’), but if the Leader of the the Opposition is using it, it will probably become common over the next generation. In fact, I bet you fifty quid on it (valency=4)…