Are there any single intransitive verbs that mean 'to be withOUT'?

Example: 'lack' is transitive and can't be used transitively: ✗ A parsnip lacks. ✗.
Rather, the present continuous must be used: ✓ A parsnip is lacking. ✓

closed as unclear what you're asking by Janus Bahs Jacquet, Drew, tchrist, FumbleFingers, Rory Alsop Jan 19 '15 at 17:06

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  • 1
    Lack is the shortest. Though the syntax and semantics of lack, be missing, be without, and not have is very quite peculiar. For instance, how many fingers are there on his left hand in the following? He lacks a finger on his left hand, He is missing a finger on his left hand, He is without a finger on his left hand, He doesn't have a finger on his left hand. – John Lawler Jan 16 '15 at 2:08
  • @JohnLawler Thank you. I just updated my OP to clarify it, in view of your comment. – Greek - Area 51 Proposal Jan 16 '15 at 2:26
  • is lacking sounds weird to my ears; how about is missing. – Barmar Jan 16 '15 at 19:09
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    Exist does not mean ‘be with’, and is lacking does not mean ‘be without’. There are no intransitive verbs that mean ‘be without’ because be without itself is inherently transitive. “A parsnip is without” makes no more sense than “A parsnip lacks” (unless you’re thinking of the rarer sense of without, meaning ‘outside’: “A parsnip is without” would in that case make sense, but mean “There’s a parsnip outside”). – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 17 '15 at 0:24

Several dictionaries list lacking as an adjective, separate to (albeit derived from) the verb lack:

Oxford (en-GB & International), Oxford (en-US), Collins, Cambridge.

As such, we'd be left to conclude that the answer to "must any intransitive use of 'lack' be in the present continuous?" is to say that your second sentence isn't in the present continuous at all, but is saying the parsnip is lacking much as we could say the parsnip is tasty.

But there's something else going on here. MacMillan includes a note that this adjective is "never before noun".

And sure enough:

*The lacking parsnip failed to improve the dish.

doesn't sound correct.

Which is what we would expect if your initial analysis was correct and lacking was indeed a participle used in the present continual.

So which is it?

A man in whom awe, imagination, and tenderness lack. — Charlotte Brontë, Shirley, 1849.

Note that it's not that the man lacks awe, etc. (a transitive use), it's that the awe, imagination and tenderness are the things that lack. It's pretty much being used as you were using it with parsnip, without satisfaction.

So good enough for Charlotte Brontë, good enough for us, and "the parsnip lacks" is correct?

Not quite. That quote is taken from the OED entry for a sense of lack marked as obsolete and indeed Brontë was apparently being a bit old-fashioned in using it in 1849.

But this is the sense that lacking as an adjective comes from. Or perhaps I should say lacking as a sort-of-adjective sort-of-comes-from.

Really, it isn't quite as neat as the dictionaries are claiming; it's not quite a normal adjective (the only-after-noun rule is unusual), it's not quite a normal verb (or "the parsnip lacks" would have no problem) and it's not quite an obsolete verb (or you couldn't use "the parsnip is lacking" at all).

It's somewhere in-between; a verb sense that is obsolete except when its participle is used adjectivally.

  • (Not that I'd use the "good enough for…" argument with one of the Brontës anyway. They had some strange usages that are not easily emulated. Consider sister Emily's "escaping into the free air, now clear, and still, and cold as impalpable ice"; perfectly evocative and absolutely nonsense (how could it be cold and implacable). When things don't make logical sense but work anyway, it's hard to emulate them.) – Jon Hanna Jan 17 '15 at 0:18
  • “How could it be cold and implacable?” — I’m tempted to quip, “Ask my ex-wife!”, despite having never been married! – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 17 '15 at 0:29
  • Also, and more relevantly, “The lacking parsnip” doesn’t jar (much) with me, though the sentence as a whole exceeds my ability to think logically at 1:30 AM after 11 hours of on-off coding. The OED does have a few citations for attributive lacking, though the most recent is from 1838: “… in the light of a lacking tributary” (1838), “The lean and lacking corners of the empire …” (1805). Google does give a usable number of hits for “his lacking courage” (including at least some where it’s definitely not a gerund), so I’m not the only one who finds attributive lacking normal enough. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 17 '15 at 0:34

I think "lacks" is intransitive in your example - and probably one of few possible solutions to your question.

  • Do you mean that 'A parsnip lacks.' is right? – Greek - Area 51 Proposal Jan 16 '15 at 21:34
  • Yeah... It's just an old-fashioned way of saying "is lacking", as in "it isn't here." (Now it sounds funny to me... maybe it's a regional holdover that's now obsolete?) I'm searching for a clue... – Oldbag Jan 17 '15 at 1:44

Not an English scholar but Absent comes to mind..

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