background image 131

A reader has a question about the use of the transitive verb express:

Is there something wrong with a phrase like this: “He expressed that he was tired”? It seems odd to me, but I can’t figure out why or if I’m just off base. It seems like you could say, “He expressed the idea that he was tired.” Yes, the sense is slightly different, but is one right and the other wrong? Is the issue that “express” is a transitive verb?

The literal meaning of the verb express is “to press or squeeze out.” For example:

Water may be expressed from a wet towel by twisting the towel.

Breast milk may be expressed manually or with a mechanical device.

Amorphous metal tapes are produced by expressing a metallic melt in a supply container through at least one nozzle opening.

Express has more than one figurative use.

In one sense, express is “to portray” or “to represent,” either physically or symbolically. For example, artists express the human figure in drawing and in sculpture; mathematicians express one quantity in terms of another quantity.

Express can mean, “to manifest or reveal by external tokens.” For example, “Ancient Roman aqueducts still in use express the genius of Roman engineering.”

Another meaning of express is “to put into words”:

True wit is nature to advantage dressed,
What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.—Essay in Criticism, Alexander Pope

This meaning of express is also used reflexively, as in the titles of songs by Madonna and Ice Cube: “Express Yourself,” i.e, “say what you think.”

These definitions do not exhaust the uses of express, but they do bring us back to the reader’s question: “Is there something wrong with a phrase like this: ‘He expressed that he was tired?’ ”

The answer is “Yes, there’s something wrong.” It’s not idiomatic.

Express is transitive, but that is not the problem. Other transitive verbs, like say and admit, can take a noun clause as their objects:

He says that he was there, but I did not see him. (noun clause, direct object of says)

I admit that I was wrong. (noun clause, direct object of admit)

When express takes a direct object, however, the object cannot be a clause. For that reason, the reader’s first example (He expressed that he was tired) “sounds wrong,” but the second example (He expressed the idea that he was tired) “sounds right.”

Why? It’s a matter of idiom. I can only say with Professor Brians (Common Errors in English Usage),

You can express an idea or a thought, but you can’t ever express that.


Stop making those embarrassing mistakes! Subscribe to Daily Writing Tips today!

You will improve your English in only 5 minutes per day, guaranteed!

Each newsletter contains a writing tip, word of the day, and exercise!

You'll also get three bonus ebooks completely free!

3 thoughts on “Express”

  1. Aside from the bottom line of this post (Professor Brian’s rule), which really says it all, it is true as you say, Maeve, that the phrase in question (“He expressed that he was tired”) is not idiomatic and sounds wrong. It sounds like overkill as well. Expressing something is more than just saying something. If you have something simple to say, like “I’m tired,” you just say it. You might admit it. You might sigh it. You might even shout it. But you would not express it. You wouldn’t even “express the idea that” you were tired. Being tired is not an idea. It is a state of being. Either you are tired or you’re not. People can usually see if you are tired, overjoyed, peeved, etc. There is no need to “express” these states of being. However, someone might need to convert an inner (invisible) emotion into something visible, perhaps in a concrete way, so that they can express that invisible emotion. You can express your joy for someone else’s success by giving them a hug. You can express approval of someone’s behavior by giving them a reward. These things (the hug and the reward) are tangible expressions of inner emotions. I might not be expressing myself (and my inner thoughts) well here because I often find it hard to put into words why something sounds wrong or right. You (Maeve) do a much better job. I am always feeling as if i just can’t put my finger on it, whereas you do it so well. But there you have it.

Leave a Comment