I am looking for an example of a transitive verb with an ambiguous meaning that is determined by its subject.

To explain what I mean, here is an example of a transitive verb whose meaning is modified by the object to which it is applied: to bend. You can bend a bow or you can bend the truth. Arguably, these give two different meanings of the same verb.

Now, can you think of a similar effect induced by the subject that performs the action of a verb? I am looking for a similar case where the change of meaning comes from the subject.

I hope this is clear. Thanks!

(For those interested in why I need this, I am researching a specific model in computational linguistics and want to test it on such a verb, if it exists.)

  • The defensive line rushed the quarterback. Later, at dinner, when his wife called for the check he said, "Don't rush me!" Commented Aug 5, 2014 at 14:57
  • Are you looking for a [verb] that changes its meaning depending on how the subject [verb]s, or are you looking for a [verb] that changes according to what the subject is?
    – SrJoven
    Commented Aug 5, 2014 at 15:00
  • @user2370114 I am looking for the latter. Commented Aug 5, 2014 at 15:15
  • 2
    Every word (with rare exceptions) defines its contextual meaning from various elements of the sentence, and also from the broader context. Verbs are one example of the general phenomenon. Practically, no English word stands by its itself semantically.
    – Kris
    Commented Aug 5, 2014 at 15:39
  • 1
    Also, The bow bends. The truth bends. Now the object is a subject, right?
    – SrJoven
    Commented Aug 5, 2014 at 15:44

3 Answers 3


The computer runs a program. The river runs a waterwheel. The racer runs a race.

For many transitive definitions of run there are variations based upon subject and object.

  • transitive verbs?
    – user312440
    Commented Aug 5, 2014 at 15:51
  • @user312440 right. Needed an object. Thanks :)
    – SrJoven
    Commented Aug 5, 2014 at 15:59

You probly need to read about how Metaphors work.
As you point out, bending the law is not the same as bending a bow.
But that's because bending the law is not really bending.

Bending has a physical sense of torsion caused by stress, archetypically provided by human agency.
Anything that can be bent is not rigid -- rigid things break under stress.
There is already a metaphor breaking the law, meaning to disobey it.

Bending the law is an extension of that theme, since things that are bent are not broken.
But they do change their shape, and may allow other things to pass without breaking.
And that's why bend the law means what it does -- not because it says so in the dictionary,
but because that's the way people extend the meaning metaphorically.

Virtually all extra non-physical senses of any word (particularly verbs) come from metaphor,
whether they're obvious like this one or covert. Once you see how it works, they're easy to identify.

  • Thank you for your answer. I understand that, in most cases, the behaviour I am describing comes from a metaphorical use of a transitive verb. Our mind works by analogy. My question is: can such metaphorical use of a verb arise from the subject and not the object? Commented Aug 5, 2014 at 16:30
  • 1
    Wrong question. It doesn't arise from either subject or object. It arises from the verb. Verbs determine what kinds of subjects and objects they can have, and whether they can have objects at all. Nouns are just placeholders for identification; predicates (verb phrases, verbs, predicate adjectives, predicate nouns) are where the meaning is. Subjects and objects may identify a particular metaphor theme in use, but so can adverbs, articles, or anything else that evokes a different metaphoric frame. Commented Aug 5, 2014 at 16:45
  • I agree that we can infer the meaning of the verb from its common physical sense - we are shown examples of what bending an object is and are able to associate this experience to our mental representation of the word. By analogy, we extend its meaning to other - more abstract - objects (like the law or truth). But, at the root of all this remains our shared experience of what bending is physically, unifying all possible uses of the verb. However, by saying this, we admit that there are at least two distinct ways in which we can describe the use of the predicate: it can be metaphorical or not Commented Aug 5, 2014 at 17:17
  • (i.e faithful to some original meaning, more immediately grounded in our common experience as humans). Thus, if I write "you bend a stick", I know that I am using the verb in the latter sense. If I write "you bend the law", I use it metaphorically. Now, we understand this immediately. But modelling what happens precisely is difficult and determining whether the use of a verb is metaphorical or not is a non trivial task for a computer. Typically, it is the object that gives us the essential clue in discriminating between possible uses of most verbs. Commented Aug 5, 2014 at 17:17
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    @Robin: these comments finally provide some clarification for me, but even so — isn't the answer like pretty much any verb ever? I am playing in my room, the radio is playing in my room. I fly to Africa, this bird flies to Africa. I dance, my thoughts dance. My nose smells, my armpit smells. I open, the door opens. I run, the PC runs. Really you could be doing this for hours. It might be harder to come up with a verb that cannot have two different meanings based on the subject.
    – RegDwigнt
    Commented Aug 5, 2014 at 22:22
  1. Westerners who don't know societal norms in China can easily suffer loss of face.
  2. Those who play with fire can easily suffer loss of face.

right? The subject controls the meaning of the object and the verb. You could say that, stripped of its noun clause, #2 is weak because "those" is just a pronoun. And, who is to say that the antecedent it not "Westerners".

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