Bestow Is a Transitive Verb

By Maeve Maddox

The following use of the verb bestow in an article about Harper Lee in The Washington Post caught my attention:

But for Christmas 1956, a wealthy couple who doted on the struggling young writer bestowed her with enough money to take a year off and write.

The verb bestow has been in the language since Chaucer’s day. It derives from an Old English verb meaning “to place” or “to put.” The meaning that survives in modern speech is “to confer as a gift or as an honor.” The thing being conferred will be the direct object of bestow. Here is the Harper Lee quotation rewritten:

But for Christmas 1956, a wealthy couple who doted on the struggling young writer bestowed enough money on her to take a year off and write.

Here are two more examples that demonstrate the correct use of bestow:

In 1938, Harvard bestowed an honorary degree on Walt Disney. 
The object of bestowed is “an honorary degree.”

The prior year, the Belgian government bestowed a set of six medals on the pair for their work with undernourished children.
The object of bestowed is “a set of six medals.”

One source of error is in the use of bestow is to treat it as if it were an exact synonym for give:

The village has also bestowed her a new clinic

The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce bestowed her a star on the Walk of Fame.

Each of these sentences uses her as if it were the indirect object of bestow, but bestow does not take an indirect object.

Note: An indirect object stands between a transitive verb and its direct object. Either the preposition to or for is “understood” when an indirect object follows a transitive verb:

She sent me a letter. She sent [to] me a letter.
He built the child a tree house. He built [for] the child a tree house.

The preposition that goes with bestow is on.

The previous sentences may be rewritten in one of two ways:

The village has given her a new clinic.
or
The village has bestowed a new clinic on her.

The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce gave her a star on the Walk of Fame.
or
The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce bestowed a Hollywood Walk of Fame star on her.

Another error with bestow may result from confusing it with endow:

Incorrect: Johnny Carson bestowed him with the nickname “Excitement.”
Correct : Johnny Carson endowed him with the nickname “Excitement.”

Incorrect: And this genetic trait bestowed him with a gorgeous, spicy-colored ginger coat and big, bright sapphire eyes.
Correct : And this genetic trait endowed him with a gorgeous, spicy-colored ginger coat and big, bright sapphire eyes.

I can’t think of any explanation for this example I found on LinkedIn:

Her experience has bestowed her a notable leader as a seasoned Real Estate Professional.

The intended meaning seems to be “Her experience has transformed her into a notable leader as a seasoned Real Estate Professional.” 

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7 Responses to “Bestow Is a Transitive Verb”

  • David Knuttunen

    I suspect people are actually confusing “bestow” with “endow”, which of course does not sound the same, but has a similar, formal, legalistic, archaic tone. And to endow someone with something is basically the same as to bestow it on them.

  • kelly

    Thanks for this useful article. I learned about transitive verbs today. I love learning new stuff 🙂

    The rewrite of the sentence about Harper Lee somehow doesn’t feel right to me, but I can’t figure out why. I would write:

    “But for Christmas 1956, a wealthy couple who doted on the struggling young writer bestowed on her enough money to take a year off and write.”

    Is it correct to write, for example, “Mary bestowed on Harper enough money to do X” instead of “Mary bestowed enough money on Harper to do X”? To my ear, “Mary bestowed on Harper money” scans horribly, and I’d write “Mary bestowed money on Harper” in that case. But for some reason when “enough” is added to make the noun clause longer, I seem to favor “Mary bestowed on Harper enough money” over “Mary bestowed enough money on Harper”.

    The longer the sentence gets, the more I seem to prefer putting Harper before the money. I can’t figure out why, though.

  • Cesar

    I thought the only proper way to use “bestow” was following it with “upon”… but upon is not even mentioned here! 😛

    Come to think of it, I really don’t get the difference between “on” and “upon”… 🙁

  • venqax

    I think the biggest red truck in this whole piece is that the cited amateurish misuse of bestow comes from the Wash Post. The Wash Post– which fancies itself not only a serious and professional newspaper (though I’m not sure why; that’s another question), but one of the 2 or 3 most important newspapers (a creeping oxymoron?) in the country. I use the adjective amateurish purposely. Someone who no doubt considers himself a top-tier professional journalist produced this linguistic crap, and an untold number of editors who surely see themselves as at least equally excellent at their craft passed this right on with a bright “ready for print” stamp. I really, really hope that surgeons and airline pilots are not held to professional standards as low as print journalists obviously are. How degenerate is the writing profession, exactly? It seems to just get more embarrassing with time.

  • AnWulf

    I think you’re wrong on this one. We find this kind of noting all the way to Chaucer himself.

    Reeve’s Tale Prolog
    3981 His purpos was for to bistowe hire hye (His purpose was to bestow her high) http://sites.fas.harvard.edu/~chaucer/teachslf/rvt-par.htm#PROLOGUE

    Nothing more than a lingering note of the Old English dativ case which we still see today. … Woe is me; I bought him a book; Cry me a river; and so forth.

  • Maeve

    Anwulf,
    The line you quote from The Reeve’s Tale (not the prologue) does not contradict what I’ve said in the post. “Hire” (her) is not in the dative here. The miller in the tale is thinking about his daughter. He wants her to make a good marriage. He wants to bestow her on a mate from a good family. The “her” is the direct object of “bestow.”

  • AnWulf

    You’re right if we take the meaning of bestow to be “put, place” which is one of its meanings. And reading further, it does fit better.

    However, I don’t think its wrong without the preposition ‘upon’ or ‘on’ or rather ‘with’ insted of ‘upon’. It does’t hurt my ears at all and that’s likely owning to that is common in English to note the word order to drop the proposition … ‘Giv me the ball’ for ‘Giv the ball to me.’ Thus, an English speaker doesn’t find anything wrong with ‘Bestow him with courage’ rather than ‘Bestow courage upon him.”

    You’re also fighting that bestow + obj. pronoun with the other other meanings is right. So once one starts saying bestow + obj pronoun he keeps going with another prep. ‘with’ to make it fit. I don’t see this as wrong, only another way to do it.

    “I’ll bestow him well.” — Hamlet [dispose of]
    ” … and I’ll bestow him according to his merits.” — The Widow

    Bombers bestow him with World Series ring — 2010 [Newspaper headline]

    Dear God, Bestow me with the courage to forgive those who hurt me –2014

    Losses began to pile up when Owens was unwilling to retrieve a football, which had gone over the playground fence into a neighbouring yard, which was enough for analysts to bestow him with the rating of Chicken. — 2015

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