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The other day I was speaking to a neighbor, and he mentioned he was running a camp and had several kids signed up. His daughter piped up and said "I interested them in signing up", to which her father corrected her "You can't say 'I interested them'. Say 'I got them interested'".

I still haven't determined who was right. Clearly, there is an acceptable usage for the word interest as a verb: eg. for a waiter to say "Can I interest you folks in one of our desserts". Is saying "I interested them in buying a dessert," the same thing? On reflection, it does sound a little off, but I may be overthinking it.

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    Your "gut feel" is quite correct. The verb to interest is primarily used in the passive They're interested in signing up. The polite / deferential Can I interest you in X? is something of an "idiomatically established" form that doesn't naturally transform into contexts like I interested him in X. But this isn't really a matter of "grammatical rules" - it's just a matter of which forms are or aren't idiomatic / natural. And to some people my last version will be "okay" (it's certainly "grammatical"), but to others it'll sound a bit odd (or even "totally weird"). – FumbleFingers Jul 18 at 17:22
  • Possible duplicate of Interest ( someone ) in ( something ). Though mainly addressing the fixed expression "Can I interest you in ...?", Kris in a comment has 'According to the ODO ...interest VERB 1.1 (interest someone in) Persuade someone to undertake or acquire (something): efforts were made to interest her in a purchase'. – Edwin Ashworth Jul 18 at 18:21
  • @FF I'd beseech – nay, implore – you to give this as an answer if this weren't a duplicate. This is a textbook (or rather in all probability an extra-textbook) example of something that's 'grammatical' but ... er ... wrong. And so many questions recently have hinged on this distinction, between grammaticality and acceptability. The overlap isn't perfect. – Edwin Ashworth Jul 18 at 18:29
  • I'm not sure I understand why this would be a duplicate of the other question. Certainly it is related, but I think it raises the distinct issue of whether the past tense of the idiomatic Can I interest you in X? is acceptable. I definitely do agree that @FumbleFingers 's comment hits the spot, and if it were an answer I would mark it correct. – Yaakov Saxon Jul 22 at 18:09
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The relevant definition #2 in the full Oxford English Dictionary is...

interest - To cause (a person) to have an objective interest or concern in the progress or fate of a matter; to involve;
chiefly in passive to be interested.

That preference for the passive, and the fact that as John Lawler says, transitive to interest [someone] [in something] is "most comfortable in a subordinate clause", mean that OP's "active" example doesn't sit well with many native speakers.

But this isn't a matter of "grammatical correctness" - it's just a matter of which forms are or aren't idiomatic / natural. And to some people OP's example will be "okay" (it's certainly "grammatical"), but to others it'll sound a bit odd - or even "totally weird".

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This use of interest as a verb has a Causative/Inchoative sense: 'cause s.o to become interested in s.t'. Almost any word in the English lexicon can be used as a verb, noun, or adjective, in the appropriate context.

You can tell it's causative because it has a human agent subject, and the s.o appearing as indirect object is also the patient subject of (become) interested. This is a standard B-Equi configuration, but it seems to be most comfortable in a subordinate clause, viz:

  • I tried to interest them in signing up for camp, but I failed to get any signatures.
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Interest can be used a verb and "I interested them in signing up" is grammatically correct. There is nothing odd about it and it is acceptable. One such similar sentence which you would have come across is, "Maths has always interested me" . You can also have a look at the below link for more details: https://www.macmillandictionary.com/dictionary/british/interest_2

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    There is a difference between "Math interested me when I lived in Topeka" and "Mr. Kelley interested me in math when I lived in Topeka." The second is wrong. – jejorda2 Jul 18 at 17:28
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    I find "I interested them in signing up" sounds unnatural to my ears, pgupta ... I'd expect "I got them interested in signing up". – Edwin Ashworth Jul 18 at 18:27
  • American Sheldon M Glashow said "From an early age, I knew I would become a scientist. It may have been my brother Sam's doing. He interested me in the laws of falling bodies when I was ten". The British Sir Mark Elder said "I buy wine through a wine merchant and over the years he's interested me in different things." Very normal, and not odd at all. – Michael Harvey Jul 18 at 20:02
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    I find nothing at all strange about X interested Y in Z. I've used it (and heard it used) in such a verbal way for as long as I can remember. – Jason Bassford Jul 19 at 5:09
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    @Michael Harvey But I'm with 'Copyright' at Word Reference Forums: ' I don't view "He interested me in ..." as idiomatic. Looking at Google results, I see 82 results for "he interested me in" – some old, some foreign, some by English speakers, of course, but the 50 or so is too small a sample for me to consider it regular.' On the other hand, J Lawler's '... it seems to be most comfortable in a subordinate clause' I can agree with; I'd say this (eg 'He tried to interest me in ...') now becomes idiomatic. – Edwin Ashworth Jul 23 at 13:47

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