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According to many dictionaries including merriam-webster, update is a transitive verb. So I expect the following sentence (used in Firefox) to be incorrect:

Please wait while Firefox is updating.

I think Firefox is the object of this sentence and it should have been used like this:

Please wait while Firefox is being updated.

Is the first sentence grammatically correct?

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3  
merriam-webster needs to update :)... I have written an article on transitivity recently and I have to say that, especially in English, assigning the term to verbs themselves rather than to the use case doesn't make sense. The reason is that MANY English verbs can be used in either way and should thus be called ambitransitive... however, this term is not used so the category "transitive" can only apply to a use case. –  Emanuel Apr 27 '12 at 19:27
    
I'd like to add that maybe update used to be a transitive-only verb, but as the use "some program is updating" is now kind of established... why not change the status of update... transitivity is a de not a prescription –  Emanuel Apr 27 '12 at 19:32
    
The word "update" is actually a very new word; I think it's only been around since the 1970s or early 1980s. I guess it's still finding its niche in the English language - whether to be strictly transitive or whether it will become optionally intransitive. –  user16269 Apr 28 '12 at 0:23
    
What's also relatively new is software which can update itself. In computing and technology in general, update has traditionally been transitive: update the screen, update the record on disk. –  Kaz Apr 28 '12 at 4:30
    
Well, everyone. I think I'm going to, err, sleep my computer now. :) –  Kaz Apr 28 '12 at 4:37

3 Answers 3

up vote 7 down vote accepted

"To update" is an example of an ambitransitive verb, which can be used with or without an object.

In the intransitive case, it certainly feels like the pronoun "itself" is implied, but that's not generally how this kind of phrase is considered. Consider a more commonplace, less technical example, "to shave":

  • In Penny Lane, the barber shaves another customer.
  • John is shaving right now.

In other languages - Spanish comes to mind - you would need a reflexive pronoun (se) in the second sentence (and in your Firefox sentence), but in English it's not necessary.

After a bit of reflection, it occurs to me that the heart of the question is "why does Merriam-Webster only list 'update' as a transitive verb?" And the answer, I think, is that the concept of a self-updating program (a self-updating anything, for that matter) is only a few years old. This is a new context for "update" - but I suspect that the next edition of MW will list "update" as both transitive and intransitive.

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You are correct that update is a transitive verb, which is usually followed by a noun. In your example, the object is understood (Please wait while Firefox is updating the files on your computer.). This is a common construction.

Here are examples of sentences with a transitive verb and an understood object. (I picked a likely object for the examples):

I ate. (food or a meal is understood)

I answered. (the question is understood)

He understood. (the explanation is understood)

She scored. (a point is understood)

Grandma bakes. (cakes is understood)

Here is a thorough discussion of understood objects.

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Aha! "Understood" is the word I was looking for; I was stuck on "implied" and couldn't find anything useful. –  MT_Head Apr 27 '12 at 20:00

The sentence "Please wait while Firefox is updating" is actually a condensed form of "Please wait while Firefox is updating itself"

So, to answer your question, yes, update is transitive, but modern usage has rendered some parts of the grammar as obsolete, as is evident from the sentence you gave as an example because it shortens it without actually compromising on the relevance and meaning of the sentence.

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Alternate form: please wait while Firefox is updat*ed*. –  zpletan Apr 27 '12 at 19:20
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I don't quite buy this because there are intransitive forms of update which are not reflexive: something updates, but it does not update itself! It updates passively, through some external agency. It may be that "Firefox updates" means "updates itself". But how about "the display of flights at the airport updates every so often". This is something that the display does, but it's not necessarily doing it to itself. It cannot because it receives the update from somewhere else. If we say "updates itself" I think we are only referring to the visible act of replacing the text with new text. –  Kaz Apr 28 '12 at 4:39
    
@Kaz I guess I have to agree with you on this. My example of itself was just one way of explaining things. It might very well have been the way that zpletan says above. But all the same, it still proves that update is transitive. –  Pawan Apr 30 '12 at 14:45

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