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Is it incorrect to say that a "dietary supplement claims to treat" a condition, or that a car "claims to get 40 mpg"?

I thought that as these are inanimate objects, you would need to say "a supplement with claims to treat..." or a "the manufacturer claims the car gets 45 mpg..." but I hear this phrase frequently, where an object "claims" something. Which is correct?

Thanks!

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This question appears to be off-topic because it looks like a peeve. –  FumbleFingers Jan 5 at 16:16
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@FumbleFingers what is a peeve? the OP is clearly excited to find the website and is thanking us in advance. –  jlovegren Jan 5 at 16:19
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@jlovegren: The OP appears to be asking ELU to back up his "prescriptive grammarian" position that inanimate objects can't be the subject of "intentional performative verbs" such as claim. Since the reality is that native speakers routinely ignore this principle, I think the question serves no purpose. You could say it's POB, I suppose. But I think peeve is a better description. –  FumbleFingers Jan 5 at 16:25
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@FumbleFingers Your remarks astonish me. This newcomer has asked, in all good faith if an inanimate object can 'claim' something. That seems the type of question which gets answered on the site every day of the week. Besides, if we are going to scream 'prescriptive grammarian' every time someone asks a question what is the point? The only grammar rule which will apply will be whether a large enough population of speakers actually use the term. To my mind that is not a satisfactory criterion for the acceptance of language. It wouldn't satisfy the GCSE examiners and it doesn't satisfy me. –  WS2 Jan 5 at 16:55
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"A car claimed to achieve 45 mpg" is an unremarkable and unexceptionable phrase; might some of the uses of claims be mishearings of this, either by potential customers or by advertisers? The question then becomes at what point an eggcorn becomes an idiom, or even a proper construction; a question often discussed but never satisfactorily answered. –  TimLymington Jan 5 at 17:16

4 Answers 4

In my opinion, the usage is incorrect, yet, well-accepted. That would be my short answer.

It's a personification of an inanimate object or concept. I think it boils down to a style choice that has run amok . . .

By assigning a human quality to something, authors (especially advertisers) believe it to make the reader more receptive to the idea they are putting across.

The test for all of these is just as you stated above: Is there is someone else who is really doing the claiming? And, for an inanimate object or concept to claim anything, there must be someone else behind it.

Granted, there might be special exceptions: Large entities such as corporations, countries, famous attractions, etc. These may claim things on their own as they are often thought of as already being personified. But, I would argue that they are doing their claiming stylistically (and occasionally legally) rather than animately.

So, as with most aspects of an evolving language: It is incorrect until enough people use it to make it correct. Grammarians and professorial types hate that answer, but, unfortunately for the defenders of the cause, it is a losing battle.

I hope this is helpful.

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This is a middle voice construction. Read "...dietary supplement claims to treat..." as "...dietary supplement is claimed to treat...". Compare the two following sentences, the first containing a middle voice construction and the second passive voice:

The recliner breaks down into a loveseat and ottoman to meet your family's needs.
The recliner is/can be broken down into a loveseat and ottoman to meet your family's needs

I include some other examples from the Corpus of Historical English in case they may be of interest.

" In a country with fifty-nine million single people and a magazine like Bride's that claims to reach just over three million, it stands to reason that there's got to be a big lesbian audience out there somewhere, " Maxi answered, trying for a tone of sweet reasonableness. (c.1980)

This view of Greece, though it can not claim to be considered a regular description, leads us to several remarks, which may perhaps throw some light on the history of the nation. (c.1820)

Besides, the translation does not claim to be anonymous. (1829)

[I]t becomes more and more apparent that the Eastern world can not claim to be the only cradle of human culture.

EYEDROPS that claim to get the red out may wind up making eyes even redder(1997)

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Again, I don't agree with the middle voice analysis. 'Dr Kildare claims to treat 40% of patients with ottomanitis successfully' is not middle voice, and 'Ottybotty claims to treat 40% of patients with ottomanitis successfully' is an identical construction. It's personification, with an understood unreduced sentence 'The manufacturers of Ottybotty claim that it treats 40% of patients with ottomanitis successfully'. –  Edwin Ashworth Jan 5 at 16:52
    
@EdwinAshworth i think there is room for debate here. you suggest that claim is akin to seem (roughly, "X seems to Y" is interchangeable with "it seems that X Y"). –  jlovegren Jan 5 at 17:17
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"The overlapping distribution belies crucial differences in the verbs' thematic properties." Seem is a raising verb (It seems to us that John is clever) whereas claim is a control verb (John claims that John is clever), though the distribution is identical (John seems / claims to be clever). –  Edwin Ashworth Jan 5 at 17:59
    
@EdwinAshworth so do you propose that the construction the OP asks about is possible due to claim's status as a control verb? –  jlovegren Jan 5 at 21:26
    
I agree with @EdwinAshworth. It is personification. Especially in the case of corporations and countries. Those are always referred to as entities. Many of the examples used above are stand-ins for the actual people doing the claiming. A magazine like Bride's = The editorial, writing, publishing, printing, distribution, etc. etc. staff of Bride's magazine. It's an attempt to avoid being cumbersome. –  David M Jan 6 at 0:28

The usual subject of 'claim' would indeed reference an agent. However, it is not a vast step from

Dietitians claim that co-enzyme 534, found in aardvark milk, makes waists hairier.

to

This article / magazine claims that co-enzyme 534, found in aardvark milk, makes waists hairier.

(short for the authors / editors of this article / magazine claim that co-enzyme 534, found in aardvark milk, makes waists hairier.)

and thence to

'Cozy 534 claims that its aardvark milk extracts make waists hairier'.

It's a fairly common type of idiom, a type of personification.

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The Oxford English Dictionary’s third definition of the verb claim is:

Of things: To call for, demand, or require; to be entitled to, deserve, have a right to.

The earliest citation is this from Shakespeare’s ‘Antony and Cleopatra’:

Octauia . . . whose beauty claimes

No worse a husband then the best of men.

Other citations in which the subject of claim is an object, include one from Milton and one from Robert Browning.

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I don't agree that this is the same sense, Barrie. OP has claims (that) = makes the claim that (it ...). –  Edwin Ashworth Jan 5 at 16:33
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Nor do I. But OP's question was 'Can an inanimate object “claim” to do something?' –  Barrie England Jan 5 at 18:14
    
Yep. It might be an idea to have a 'body text and title disjoint' flag. –  Edwin Ashworth Jan 5 at 19:23
    
Is Octuaia's beauty not "claiming" men in the sense of capturing them rather than making a claim? –  ejrb Jan 6 at 13:34
    
Perhaps, but it doesn't invalidate my answer showing that not only people can claim. OP should perhaps have asked the question more specifically. –  Barrie England Jan 6 at 13:40

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