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It seems obvious that undertake is intransitive in such sentences as

undertake to learn to swim

State senators undertook to use federal funds for improving schools.

To join the club, you have to undertake to buy a minimum of six books a year.

However, this is belied by several dictionary sources, including Merriam Webster and Macmillan, which define the verb along with this usage as transitive. Why is that?

  • transitive means: takes a direct object. Your examples do not contain direct objects. They contain to-infinitives, fyi, – Lambie Mar 10 '18 at 17:23
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    @Lambie Hence my question... – user253154 Mar 10 '18 at 17:26
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    @Lambie No, to-infinitives count as substantives here, and thus as direct objects. See Oxford. – tchrist Mar 10 '18 at 17:26
  • "Undertake" is without a doubt intransitive in your examples. It's a catenative verb and the infinitival clauses are its catenative complements, not direct objects. "Undertake" can, though, be transitive, as in "We enthusiastically undertook the new project". – BillJ Mar 10 '18 at 17:45
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    Undertake has an infinitive object complement in each of the examples given, a syntactic noun clause, and hence is transitive under the definition that says taking a direct object is the criterion. If you have a better definition of "transitive verb", now is the time to present it. – John Lawler Mar 10 '18 at 18:04
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If the verb is intransitive, then the senators merely undertook. Period. That doesn’t sound right. You have to undertake something. It takes an object and so is therefore transitive.

OLD gives these three transitive examples:

  • A firm of builders undertook the construction work. (DO = noun phrase)
  • The firm undertook to keep price increases to a minimum. (DO = infinitive clause)
  • Truck driver implicitly undertakes that he is reasonably skilled as a driver. (DO = noun complement clause)

It doesn’t matter whether the direct object is a noun phrase or pronoun, a non-finite verb clause like an infinitive or a gerund, or a noun complement clause joined by things like that or whether, it’s still the syntactic constituent that is acting as the direct object.

And so the verb must therefore still be transitive in all three such cases.

  • In the UK at least, you can (usually illegally, as well as transitively) undertake a vehicle in front of you on the motorway. – FumbleFingers Mar 10 '18 at 17:33
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    Funny, you say substantives, then say noun phrase, which here functions as a direct object, then you say: infinitive clause, saying that too is a direct object. Basically what I said. And in any event, there is a quite a big difference in meaning between undertake [a thing] and undertake [to do] a thing. To undertake a job is do it. To undertake to do a job is legalese for agree to do a job. – Lambie Mar 10 '18 at 18:56
  • @Lambie And what pray tell does that have to do with transitivity? What's your point? – tchrist Mar 10 '18 at 19:35

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