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A writer I work with keeps using the phrase "wonder the question" -- as in, "Scientists have wondered this question for years." It totally rubs me the wrong way, perhaps because it's contrary to the normal use of "wonder" and the phrase "ponder the question", but is it truly an improper use of "wonder"?

  • Whilst you have my sympathy in having constantly to hear this, it does seem as though wonder "ought" to have a transitive form - like ponder. Interestingly (and I hadn't realised this before you asked the question) wonder and ponder are of entirely different etymology. Whilst the former is Old Saxon, the latter is of Latin origin ponderare, reinforced by Middle French - ponderer. It is remarkable to think that the facility of individual words we use every day is determined by the way they entered the language of these islands literally millennia ago. – WS2 May 20 '19 at 22:32
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This is not a proper use of "wonder."

When used as a transitive verb, "wonder" takes an interrogative clause ("if," "whether," or the "wh-" words) as a direct object, but not a noun phrase such as "the/this question."

Relevant excerpts from the Oxford Manual of English Grammar:

7.3.1.2.2 The pattern ‘WONDER [ clause whether/if/wh -phrase …]’ This pattern involves subordinate interrogative and exclamative clauses functioning as Direct Object. As we have seen, closed interrogative clauses are introduced by whether or if , whereas open interrogative clauses are introduced by a wh -phrase which is headed by a wh -word… Subordinate interrogative clauses differ from main interrogative clauses in lacking Subject–auxiliary inversion.

Also, as a contrasting example:

7.3.3.5 Free relative clauses

100 I wondered [interrogative clause what he said].

101 I rejected [free relative clause what he said].

Because WONDER does not normally take an NP as Complement, and because free relative clauses resemble noun phrases in their distribution, the bracketed string in (100) must be an interrogative clause. Conversely, because REJECT cannot take a regular clause as Complement, but does take an NP as Complement (e.g. he rejected the proposal ), the bracketed string in (101) must be a free relative clause.

One exception would be the use of a pronoun to represent the clause (e.g. "I myself wondered this"), but that is also not the same construction as your colleague is using.

  • Normally, wonder takes a direct object with a transitivizing preposition like about, similarly to other mental predicates like worry, think, etc. For example, these are grammatical: Scientists have wondered/worried/thought about this problem for years. – John Lawler May 20 '19 at 17:47
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    Naturally, that's common usage, but I would parse that as an intransitive verb modified by a prepositional phrase, rather than an object. Or as you put it, I suppose, the PP does the "transitivizing" rather than the usage of the verb itself. – geekahedron May 20 '19 at 18:05

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