Transitive Twist on “Agree”

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A DWT reader wonders about the following uses of the verb agree in a British publication:

In a November white paper laying out its vision for independence, Scotland said it would expect to agree a mechanism with London, whereby it would gradually refinance its share of the UK’s debt as gilts matured.

Under the proposed legislation, the US would place even tougher international restrictions on Iranian oil exports if it fails to agree a final nuclear deal over the next six months.

Says the reader,

In both, “agree” is used without a preposition following it. To my Canadian ears, this sounds odd. Is this a chiefly British use or did I simply miss that grammar class? When must one use a preposition with agree and when is it best avoided?

Until this reader pointed it out, I’d never noticed this usage. A cursory web search leads me to believe that it is an aberration of British English and may be creeping into American usage by way of journalists who cover European news for the international market.

I found this naked agree in respected British publications:

Blackberry and Foxconn agree a five-year deal –BBC News Business

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger could agree a new three-year contract as early as this week as Stan Kroenke jets in to London –The Independent

Belfast pub bosses quit over a failure to agree lease –Belfast Telegraph

I found the usage on a British banking site:

Agreeing a formal overdraft is fee free and keeping within your limit is a cost-effective way to manage your account.

Agree your overdraft limit in advance.

It occurs in a headline about U.S. affairs at an international news site:

Democrat and Republican negotiators agree a new spending bill to put before Congress –Euronews

And it occurs at Forbes.com in a headline over an article written by a European correspondent:

Time For ECB To Agree A New Plan For Cyprus

It has even found its way into the OED in a quotation from 2007:

This does not stop retrials being ordered where the jury has failed to agree a verdict. –C. Elliott & F. Quinn Eng. Legal Syst. (ed. 8) iv. xxiv. 549.

I find this usage not only odd, but extremely disagreeable. For me, agree is an intransitive verb. It does not take an object. A jury agrees on a verdict. Friends agree with each other. Countries agree to a plan.

So far, the transitive usage that has countries “agree plans” and bank customers “agree overdraft limits” is distinctly British usage. May it remain so.

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18 thoughts on “Transitive Twist on “Agree””

  1. Heavens, yes! “To agree” is always an intransitive verb.

    Hence: { agree about, agree concerning, agree on, agree to, agree upon }. Here would be an interesting self-contradictory one: “agree against”.

    I believe that the root cause of the problem is that so many millions of writers and speakers do not know the difference between “transitive” and “intransitive” anymore. They just do not have a clue!

    To me, this is like not knowing the difference between a personal pronoun, and interrogatory pronoun, and a relative pronoun.
    This reminds me of a recent article about “personal”. There really are such things as “personal pronouns” and “personal checks”.

  2. It sounds as if these writers have confused “agree” with “approve”, and they need to be told that it’s wrong. I have never heard a British person use “agree” as a transitive verb in spoken English, and I can’t imagine I ever will. It definitely should not be used as a transitive verb in written English either.

  3. Actually, I don’t believe this is even British English. It is suspiciously identical to the Spanish usage of the verb (acordar), which can be transitive: “acordar un plan” (agree on a plan), “acordar una suma” (agree to a sum). I would suggest this is creeping into the language from writers and “editors” whose native language is not English or who are being influenced by writings of others who are not fully conversant in English (or by bad translations into English).

    An EnglishSpanish translator

  4. I had also never noticed, or rather stumbled upon, this transitive twist to the intransitive ‘agree’. Oddly enough, it would seem a direct transposition from Spanish, where the corresponding verb “acordar” is, by contrast, always transitive, as in all the cited examples. For instance: “they agreed on a truce” would be in Spanish “acordaron una tregua”; truce being the direct object of the verb. Had I seen one of the exemplified sentences before reading this post, I might have even thought that the author was a native speaker of Spanish and making a mistaken calque in English of the Spanish sentence construction.
    Which goes to show you, fact is stranger than fiction…even language-wise!

  5. That is unequivocally awful. Awful. I might have to breathe into a paper bag for a moment, here. And let us note, boldly, it is the British who are perpetrators of this illiterate offal. I need to sit down.

  6. Although this usage does make me pause when I see it, it has been standard in the UK for decades. No problem, as far as I’m concerned. It fills a need.

  7. What need? There is a need to omit a pronoun after agree? Agree salaries has a meaning that agree ON salaries doesn’t? What? A need is when there is nothing sufficient available to accomplish the task. There is no need to be sloppy or lazy. Me good talker. Me like way that. Is that next? Let know.

  8. @Todd: That is my impression too. They mean approve, not agree.
    @Jeffrey and Nelida: I think that’s probably the case. In other languages, there are words that have the preposition (or whatever the other word is) “built into” the verb. So while in English we have to say “to listen TO” something, Spanish has “escuchar.” It automatically means “to listen TO,” so it’s incorrect to say “escuchar a…”. That seems to be the same as the issue with agree/acordar. To agree does not mean “to agree TO,” you have to add the TO in there, in English. But acordar means “to agree TO,” so that is all you need. I mean, besides love.
    @venqax. Me agree you.

  9. As a Canadian living in Europe, I found it strange at first. But I see if quite often. I don’t actually mind the naked “agree” anymore and have used in on occasion in a business document myself… Although my American colleague noted the omission of “on” as part of our standard document review process.

  10. The transitive use of “agree” is in the same category as the expression “graduate high school,” a Britishism one hears more and more in the U.S. (shudder).

  11. “Great Britain and the United States are nations separated by a common language.
    — George Bernard Shaw (though some attribute it to Twain or Churchill)

    The problem is, when Americans speak British colloquialisms, they sound stuffy and prentious, even when aping British slang. Which is why Yanks like me feel a spot of bother when reading or hearing such colloquialisms. It comes across as superior-sounding, though I can’t explain why. It’s enough to send me to hospital. (Admittedly, in the U.S., we say “go to jail” the same way Brits say “go to hospital”–they’re just colloquially different — i just hope they remain endemic to their native countries. That way, no one will try to correct me and tell me I’m wrong when in fact being correct on these matters depends on who’s saying it and where they are saying it.

  12. This is British or American English. It is Headline English. One may be able to find examples from years ago, but this usage is mainly driven by journalists aiming to sound “fresh” and trend-setting. Sometimes their inventions become standard, which encourages them to try to coin new ones. Reporting events in plain English must get dull day after day. Coining new lingo is a way to become part of what is happening, and not merely report on it. Sometimes their inventions spread to the broadcast both (e.g., use of the infinitive as a verb, “Rooney to take!”). More and more journalist-speak will influence enough speakers to become standard. This is especially true with emphatic forms (“every single”, “actually”, “very first,” “best-ever”, etc.). Other recent examples of journalist-speak spreadig include “existing” instead of “current”, “as well” instead of “also” or “too”, “simply” instead of “just” or “merely”, and many others.

  13. I agree you! See how utterly stupid that sounds… Right now we’re in the middle of Brexit hell, and I see this usage on a daily basis. It’s all over the British press and creeping into North American press, I assume, via foreign correspondents (writing about, of course, Brexit). Yet another reason to have disdain for Brexit. I don’t want to agree disagree! (Is that a real phrase now too?) Using “agree” without a preposition is idiotic. Please stop.

  14. This article focuses on “agree” without a preposition, but I’m beginning to notice a similar usage with other verbs in constructions that usually take an object or a particle.

    For example, this morning (18Feb2019) I read an article in the NYTimes telling readers they should use Presidents’ Day to do something different from their usual work: “Give yourself permission to plant in front of the TV today…” Seems to me it should be “plant yourself in front of the TV.”

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