22

I've tried looking this up and I've read somewhat unhelpful advice like "to bemoan something is to moan about something".

I am mostly aware when one feels correct, and when one does not, but I'm not sure why.

I bemoaned my fate.

I moaned every day and night for the last month.

I moaned my fate.* (wrong)

I bemoaned every day and night for the last month.* (wrong)

(Taken from this related question)

45

"Bemoan" is a transitive verb which takes an object so you can "Bemoan your fate" but not just "Bemoan" in the abstract or "Bemoan about your fate".

"Moan", however, as an intransitive verb which does not take a direct object so you can't "Moan your fate" but you can "Moan" in the abstract or "Moan about your fate".

  • 2
    Thank you. I will now read more about transitive and intransitive verbs. – Dave Dec 3 at 16:34
  • 17
    It might be worth pointing out that example four in the OP is correct, but means something different to example 2. – nick012000 Dec 4 at 6:05
  • Transitive: subject verb object, where subject and object are nouns or noun phrases. Intransitive is subject verb without an object. The tricky bit is knowing which verbs are which sort. A native English speaker "just knows". – nigel222 Dec 4 at 11:00
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    @nigel222 Many dictionaries (Merriam Webster and Oxford are examples) describe verbs as "transitive or intransitive" or "with or without object". A non-native speaker who wants to understand the difference needs access to a dictionary that does this. – BoldBen Dec 4 at 22:11
9

As suggested in the following extract bemoan is a transitive verb whose object is generally an abstract concept (absence, lack, failure etc.) while moan is an intransitive verb:

Bemoan is one of a group of English verbs starting be-, where the effect of the prefix is to turn an intransitive verb into a transitive one. So to wail is to cry out in pain or sorrow, while to bewail something is to complain strongly about it. Bemoan fits with this pattern:

to moan is to complain, and to bemoan something is to complain about it. The ‘something’ is important: typical objects of the verb are nouns like ‘lack’, ‘dearth‘, ‘absence’, ‘decline’, ‘failure’ and ‘loss’, along with ‘fact’.

You do not usually bemoan people, yet the other day I saw someone hoping she would not turn into ‘a decrepit old woman bemoaning young people with their whole lives in front of them’. The writer seemed to be using bemoan to mean ‘moan at’ or even ‘nag’, rather than ‘complain about’. I haven’t yet seen this meaning used widely, but it will be interesting to see if it catches on.

(macmillandictionaryblog.com)

  • Very helpful, thank you. – Dave Dec 3 at 16:37
  • Taking bemaon to mean, essentially, "to moan about", I don't see this as a different usage. The hypothetical old woman is moaning about young women with their lives in front of them. Implicitly about being reminded that she is no longer one of them. The subtext is a more general feature of language and not specifically about the word bemoan. – Ponder Stibbons Dec 5 at 22:29
4

Besides the already mentioned transitive/intransitive difference, another difference is that the word moan is usually associated with making an audible noise, whereas this is not the case with bemoan.

For example, Merriam-Webster mentions audible noises in both verb definitions of moan, but not at all for bemoan.

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    I'd dispute this. Moan also has the meaning of making an incoherent noise because of pain, but that's a separate meaning to moaning about something in speech or in writing. – nigel222 Dec 4 at 10:47
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    @nigel222 Not all moaning is associated with pain... – Darrel Hoffman Dec 4 at 16:26
  • @nigel222 you can dispute it, but it's a fact that dictionaries consistently mention moaning (v.) as being associated with moans (n.)--that is, the sound of moans. Another example is from dictionary.com, where again bemoaning is basically a subset of the definition of moaning for the specific cases where one laments without specifically invoking moans (n.). – spacetyper Dec 5 at 2:23
  • 1
    I was going to mention the "Moans of the Britons", when they complained about the Roman legions going home. But it's groans, so I won't. But it (moan) can definitely apply to silent communication - "another moaning email from the finance director". – Bloke Down The Pub Dec 5 at 10:37
  • I was disputing that "moan" was usually associated with making noise, as opposed to speaking or writing. Certainly, moaning in mock pain at (say) somebody still beating a dead horse is common enough. But so is moaning in print or by text message .... – nigel222 Dec 5 at 10:57

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