With the relatively recent proliferation in the number and variety of genders that our contemporaries willingly proclaim themselves to be or belong to, a new intransitive sense of the verb identify, not yet registered by many dictionaries, seems to have emerged.

In the Wikipedia article on Transgender, for instance, we read

transgender people may identify as heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, asexual, etc. (emphasis added).

I suspect that this usage evolved from a reflexive one. We can even see this evolution within a single article in today’s (or tomorrow’s) New York Times, “Asexual and Happy” by Kim Kaletsky:

¶15: It wasn’t until I spoke to a friend who identified herself as falling on the asexual spectrum that I realized how much the term resonated with me (emphasis added). . . .

¶26: I went on OkCupid dates with people who identified on the asexual spectrum.

(The usage of “on the X spectrum” to mean, presumably, “more or less X” is another interesting trend.)

Merriam-Webster offers only the following intransitive senses, neither applicable here:

intransitive verb
1: to be or become the same
2: to practice psychological identification <identify with the hero of a novel>

OED offers only this last as a non-obsolete intransitive sense. But it also provides the following as a reflexive sense, which seems far closer to the intransitive sense here in question.

II.5.b. refl. To prove, reveal, or declare one’s identity.

The Free Dictionary has an idiom entry for “identify as” but only as transitive, with a direct object between the two words.

Under the verb alone, it all too briefly notes an intransitive sense as

3. To self-identify

—which seems to suggest a kind of reflexive-to-intransitive evolution.

When, where, and why did this happen for identify, and is it a common evolutionary pattern for English verbs? One other much earlier example that springs to mind is bathe, for which the OED derives the intransitive sense “to take a bath” (“c1200”) from reflexive use of an older (“a1200”) transitive sense.

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    Very good question! Hadn’t actually occurred to me that this is a new thing at all. You don’t mention the semantic difference between the reflexive and the intransitive uses, though, which I think is certainly there. To identify yourself as something seems more ‘complete’, to me—you identify yourself by showing your ID and naming who you are, for instance; but to identify as something simply means that you consider that something to be a part of what makes up your self-perceived identity. There’s a difference between identifying yourself as a cop (showing your badge to the Bad Guy to let → Commented Jul 4, 2015 at 19:42
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    → him know he’s got five seconds to drop his gun) and identifying as a cop (considering police values, morals, and codes of conduct as a part of who you consider yourself to be). Commented Jul 4, 2015 at 19:43
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    As for other verbs that went from reflexive to intransitive, my gut instinct (completely untested by dictionaries or anything) tells me that it is a development particularly common in English. There are many verbs that are reflexive in the other Germanic languages, but more commonly intransitive in English (where the reflexive sounds archaic); many have to do with things you do to/with your own body, like bathe: shave, wash, stretch, lie (down), sit (down), rise (to a standing position), etc. Interestingly, bathe is—at least in the Scandinavian languages—not reflexive. Commented Jul 4, 2015 at 19:47
  • Good point about the semantic difference, @JanusBahsJacquet, though note that Kim Kaletsky seems to use the two pretty much interchangeably. As to the list, note that lie and rise take different vowels when the usage is either transitive or reflexive, and that although we may say "sit yourself down" informally, the more formal version is "seat yourself" or "be seated." Commented Jul 4, 2015 at 19:53
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    Seat is different—it's derived from the noun seat and is later. The old transitive counterpart to sit is set, which is also the one that's used reflexively in other Germanic languages: to ‘set yourself’ is to sit down. The same vowel (and sometimes consonant) variations are present in the other languages; once you set/lay yourself down/up, you sit/lie down/up, etc. Commented Jul 4, 2015 at 19:59

2 Answers 2


It's been a while since I've thought about this aspect of grammar, but I feel I can add a few thoughts to the discussion. For starters, I was surprised to initially hear that dictionaries didn't report much in the way of intransitive senses of 'identify' because the first reading that popped into my mind was the psychological sense of 'identifying with' something, which is clearly grammatically intransitive in a strict sense. Of course, one can argue for a transitive phrasal verb, but I'll put that aside.

In the Discourse Functional flavor of Theoretical Linguistics, transitivity is seen as a continuum from high to low transitivity, and one that has multiple elements contributing to the overall transitivity of a clause. This type of heuristic is especially useful when looking at how different languages treat transitivity. That is, a given event with transitive semantics might be rendered intransitive in one language and transitive in another. In English, and many other languages, reflexives are transitive, albeit less transitive than other clauses when the subject is individuated from the object. That is to say, a sentence like, 'I cut the cake' is more transitive than 'I cut myself', at least in a semantic sense. Grammatically, however, they are both transitive, subject and object are present in both.

So to answer the question more directly, I'd say that while it may be possible that reflexivity played a role, I think I'd be more comfortable saying that a semantic context arose that an intransitive reading made sense. And the full story might have less to do with etymology, and more about chance derivation or lexicalization. Coining new terms happens all the time, and it's much easier to use what's already there in a novel way. I doubt anyone can pinpoint the original pathway of the noun, action, becoming the transitive verb, to action an item.


Although I haven't researched the matter with much rigor, I remember reading somewhere about another verb that is supposed to have evolved in a similar fashion: commit oneself (to [infinitive])commit (to [infinitive]). The Oxford English Dictionary gives the reflexive definition as V. (15) a.:

trans. (refl.). To obligate or bind (oneself) to a particular course of action, policy, etc., either explicitly or by some action or statement which implies an undertaking; to take a decision, make a statement, or perform an action from which no withdrawal is possible.

1774 London Mag. Dec. 581/2 We wish to be known as persons..who are not in haste, without enquiry or information, to commit ourselves in declarations, which may precipitate our country into all the calamities of a civil war.


2015 Daily Mail (Nexis) 20 Mar. The Government has committed itself to spending at least 0.7 per cent of GDP..on foreign aid.

Whereas the related intransitive defininition is down at V. (15) d.:

intr. To make a commitment to a course of action, a contract, etc.; to pledge, give an undertaking to do something.

1982 Business Week (Nexis) 25 Oct. 15 Investors are simply unwilling to commit at fixed rates far into the future.

1989 Wall St. Jrnl. (European ed.) 14 Feb. 22/3 CBS has suggested it would commit in advance for 22 episodes, an unusually large $10 million gamble on a new series nowadays.

1997 H. H. Tan Foreign Bodies (1998) xxvi. 228 I still didn't know if I could commit. ‘I don't know. I've been to church and it doesn't do anything for me,’ I said.

2012 Atlantic June 51/1 An iPhone app asks users to commit to visiting a gym a certain number of times each week and agree to forfeit at least $5 each time they skip.

(Actually, it looks like the OED doesn't distinguish the construction with a to-infinitive from the construction where other things come after the verb. I had been specifically thinking about the to-infinitive construction, but the OED quotations don't seem to provide any conclusive evidence about whether this construction is older or more recent than the more general intransitive use of commit described by definition V. (15) d.)

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