I recently read in a book about someone who "procrastinated her tax return", which seemed very strange to me. Is this usage common, and if so is it considered correct?
In the 19th century and before, the transitive use of procrastinate in the sense ‘delay, postpone’ is quite frequent:
This motion was opposed as tending to procrastinate the funding business, and as leading to excite invidious comparisons respecting the relative merits and exertions of the several States. — Gazette of the United States (New York) 24 April 1790.
… too long had Bonaparte procrastinated the ULTIMATUM, in hopes of favoring the arrival of his homeward bound ships, many of which have long before this found their way into British ports. — Sydney Gazette, 22 Jan. 1804.
… that policy of Spain which has hitherto procrastinated the amicable adjustment of these interests … — Genius of Liberty (Leesburg VA), Number 12, 31 March 1818.
The inclemency of the weather while on his journey and several disappointments and delays in business procrastinated his return ... — The Western Register and Terre-Haute Advertiser, 3 Dec. 1823.
Uncertainty as to her fate, and the solicitude of preparation, had hitherto procrastinated the thought of leave-taking. — Epes Sargent, Fleetwood; or, The Stain of Birth. A Novel of American Life, 1845. COHA
Over the course of the century, however, transitive procrastinate suffers a dramatic reduction in frequency, virtually disappearing by the 1960s, as this NGram suggests:
This usage, though now infrequent, could still make an appearance in 1953:
Since the fair and reasonable over-all proposal on the Political Conference was put forward by the Korean-Chinese side on November 30, the United States side has again created unnecessary arguments and has procrastinated the discussions for five days, and there is no solution in sight as yet. — American Consulate General, Survey of China Mainland Press Issues 698-718, 54. 1953. Typescript
Note that this query will also result in false hits such as procrastinated the whole afternoon or “procrastinate. The” despite the claim that an NGram search is case-sensitive. Results after about 1945 are mostly of this nature. The modern use of transitive procrastinate is actually less than the graph would indicate.
A procrastinator, someone who habitually delays completing expected tasks, is usually met with disapproval:
The incorrigible procrastinator had had his only son unsuccesssully inoculated for the small-pox. — Sydney Smith, The Edinburgh Review: Or Critical Journal, 1804.
And although I wrote him twice, I got no answer; but I knew him for an idler, and a procrastinator, and suffered no astonishment from his silence. — The Metropolitan Magazine 9 (1843), 423.
Procrastinators habitually procrastinate, and this action — or rather inaction — is intransitive.
Intransitive procrastinate means either putting off some task or merely stalling for time, today by far the more frequent usage of the verb:
… although they doubtless wish to procrastinate, the more securely to carry on their piracies.— Gazette of the United States & Daily Advertiser (Philadelphia) 1800-1801, 3 July 1800.
I did not sleep well that night. How could I? Things were come to a bearing, I knew my father's temper too well to think that he would wait any longer. By one means and another I had procrastinated and put off for more than a twelvemonth, and a greater delay was impossible to expect. — Indiana Palladium (Lawrenceburg) 4, 16, 26 April 1828.
What is the trouble— are we snoozing, or just procrastinating? — Liaison: The Courier of the Big Gun Corps, 98, 1918.
To contemporary native speakers, many of whom will only be familiar with the intransitive “procrastinator” meaning of the verb, suddenly being confronted with a transitive procrastinate will likely seem grammatically incorrect or at best archaic. Certainly a revival of the transitive use should only be attempted in a higher register and not by forcing the intransitive to take an object. If you don’t want to do the dishes or clean out the basement, you’d best be advised to postpone, delay, or simply put off the task rather than procastinate the doing or cleaning.
Although the word is listed only as an intransitive verb in a majority of dictionaries, Merriam-Webster does have the following:
Definition of procrastinate
: to put off intentionally and habitually
So does Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged:
: to put off intentionally and usually habitually and for a reason held to be reprehensible (as laziness, indifference to responsibility) : postpone, defer
< procrastinated his return on various pretexts — W.H.Prescott >
< a procrastinated attack >
Personally, I've also seen it used as transitively in quite a few, though not a majority of, pieces of text.
It's not wrong. According to at least Merriam-Webster, it's both a transitive and intransitive verb. And I managed to track down an actual example of it being used in the way that the book uses it.
For as long as the verb procrastinate has been in English, it has been used both transitively and intransitively, meaning the word works two ways: (1) not acting directly upon anything (e.g., I had a lot of homework, but I procrastinated all night), and (2) acting directly upon something (I procrastinated my homework all night).
Still, many writers seem uncomfortable using procrastinate transitively, often inserting unnecessary prepositions (usually on or about) to keep procrastinate intransitive.
I've never heard it used that way before, and it was interesting discovering that it could be. Before I looked into it further, my own thought processes went something like this (which I now know to be partly wrong):
Considering what it would actually mean, it implies that she somehow imparted the quality of procrastination to her tax return. (Like "she painted her tax return," changing its colour.) But a physical object can't be procrastinated. Only "procrastinated her tax return filing" makes sense, and even that's unusual.
Of course, when I hear "tax return" without the word filing, I think of a physical tax return form. But I suppose it could be taken to mean the filing instead. We sometimes say, "my tax return is late," and I take that to mean that my filing is late, not the form itself. So, let's assume that this phrasing actually refers to the filing.
But I still go back to even that formulation being unusual—mainly because of the use of the specific verb.
Consider "delayed her tax return." That doesn't sound so odd to me. Also, it more naturally implies the missing filing piece.
But I've never heard anybody say they "procrastinated X." I often hear "procrastinated doing X." So, to me, it's unusual.