Stay the course is a fixed expression, but I'd like to know how to analyze the course. At first blush, it seems to be complement of the verb stay.

But then, you have a similar-looking example stay the night, where the night seems to be an adjunct.

So I'm torn between the two. Which do you think is correct, and why?

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    I'm inclined to say that despite its idiomatic meaning "the course" is Od of "stayed", though some might say it's an obligatory complement. "The night" is,as you say, probably best analysed as a duration adjunct (cf. "stayed for the night).
    – BillJ
    Commented Apr 11, 2020 at 8:51
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    @LPH Sorry, but that's incorrect. "I want you to leave" is a complex catenative construction, where it's just the intervening noun "you" that is the object of the matrix verb "want". "to leave" is a separate constituent -- the catenative complement of "want"
    – BillJ
    Commented Apr 11, 2020 at 11:05
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    @LPH Don't use dictionaries for grammar! Of course it can be analysed. In a catenative construction like "I want you to leave", "you" is the syntactic object of "want" and the semantic subject of "leave". "You" is called a raised object because the verb it relates to syntactically is higher in the constituent structure than the one it relates to semantically.
    – BillJ
    Commented Apr 11, 2020 at 11:15
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    @LPH To be clear, "you" is parsed as direct object of "want" and "to leave" is parsed as complement of "want". "Want" has three complements ("I", "you" and the infinitival) but only two arguments ("I" and the infinitival -- "you" is not an argument), thus proving that "you" is a raised object. Complex stuff perhaps, but that's English syntax for you!
    – BillJ
    Commented Apr 11, 2020 at 11:33
  • 2
    Matthews in The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Linguistics defines a complement as ‘A syntactic element seen as completing the construction of another element’ (the syntactic concept construction is preferable to the semantic concept meaning). He goes on to say, more specifically, that it applies to elements other than the subject which are within the valency of a verb or other lexical unit. And his entry for 'valency' is: 'The range of syntactic elements either required or specifically permitted by a verb or other lexical unit’ – which is equivalent to licensing.
    – BillJ
    Commented Apr 12, 2020 at 12:38

2 Answers 2


Neither is correct. "Stay the course" is an idiomatic expression and therefore the verb "to stay", as far as its use in that expression, is not classified as a transitive verb or an intransitive verb (ref.); in consequence it is not possible to say whether "the course" is an object or an adverbial.


Here is a complement to consolidate the notion that the grammatical analysis of idioms is not really possible. It is contrary to the notion of compositionality (ref.).

Compositionality is the key notion for the analysis of idioms. This principle states that the meaning of a whole is constructed from the meanings of the parts that make up the whole. In other words, one understand the whole if one understands the meanings of each of the parts.

This is what can be read in a pdf on idioms available in The International Journal of English Linguistics.

They are expressions, not subjected to analysis, only some syntactic changes may be carried out in them. Moreover, the diagram from the same source shows clearly the non grammatical approach on the left for the idiom and the usual grammatical analysis on the right for the "regular" meaning of this phrase.

enter image description here

  • 1
    Where in the reference is it claimed that 'stay' is neither transitive nor intransitive?
    – listeneva
    Commented Apr 11, 2020 at 8:49
  • @listeneva Look up the numbers (1, 2, …) before the section on idiomatic phrases. You should see that only there you find the labels "transitive " and "intransitive".
    – LPH
    Commented Apr 11, 2020 at 8:54
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    That doesn't mean that 'stay' used in idioms is neither transitive nor intransitive. You're reading too much into it.
    – listeneva
    Commented Apr 11, 2020 at 8:58
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    Your reference similarly doesn't say anything about "take it or leave it" under take, and that is clearly transitive. You're reading too much into it, as @listeneva says. Commented Apr 11, 2020 at 11:38
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    There are several understandings of "idiom" - the main two are (i) a commonly used phrase or clause (ii) a phrase or clause whose meaning is not literally obvious. -- The essence of an idiom is that it arises from a common understanding or reference, e.g. "I'd put my shirt on it's winning." There is never anything "ungrammatical" about idioms when the omissions and or references are understood by the listener: "stay the course" is not an "idiom".
    – Greybeard
    Commented Apr 12, 2020 at 10:03

The original meaning of "stay" was

I. intransitive. To cease moving, halt.

1640 tr. G. S. du Verdier Love & Armes Greeke Princes i. xxii. 96 Their Bark (= boat) staying at an Island,..they went on shore.

Note that “He stayed the night” can be rendered as “He stayed for the night” or “He stopped the night” or “He stopped for the night”.

or transitive = to cause to halt:

1816 "The History and Antiquities, Ancient and Modern, of the Borough of Reading" By John Man "And also his majesty further stayed his horse until the mayor had taken his horse."

In most cases, this meaning gave way to the idea of “remaining” and, in this sense, both of your examples are much the same and basically carry the meaning of “to maintain or remain or endure in a constant state or action. [1]

In both cases, the verb acts only on the subject: neither “the course” nor “the night” experience being “stayed”. Thus, in these cases, the verb “to stay” must be intransitive.

There is no reason why a word cannot be both a complement and an adjunct: in your case, what follows ‘stay’ can also be described as a dative (= for the course / for the night)[1] Thus in all cases, the noun in question becomes a modifier/adjunct.

The OED describes the verb “to stay” (the course/the night) as

6.a. With predicative complement:* To remain in the specified condition.

And gives examples:

1640 J. Suckling Ballad on Wedding 38 Her finger was so small, the Ring Would not stay on which he did bring, It was too wide a Peck.

1871 B. Taylor tr. J. W. von Goethe Faust II. ii. iii. 150 She grows not old, stays ever young and warm.

In the entry for “to stay the course” we have:

12.a. Sport. To last, hold out, exhibit powers of endurance in a race or run. Also, to hold out for (a specified distance). [? Derived from sense 7b[2]]

1860 Rous in Baily's Mag. I. 18 There is another popular notion that our horses cannot now stay four miles.

1897 T. C. Allbutt et al. Syst. Med. II. 841 [Alcohol] may enable a man ‘to spurt’ but not ‘to stay’.

[1] II. quasi-transitive and transitive uses derived from I.

17.a. quasi-transitive. To remain for, to remain and participate in or assist at (a meal, ceremony, prayers, etc.); to remain throughout or during (a period of time). *= to stay for —— vb. at sense 14. *

1599 J. Hayward 1st Pt. Henrie IIII 26 The rest of the lords departed, except the Earle of Darby, who stayed supper with the King. 1888 G. Gissing Life's Morning II. xi. 135 I'm obliged to ask them to stay tea.

17.b. to stay the course: to hold out to the end of a race. Frequently figurative. 1885 Daily Tel. 11 Nov. 3/7 Doubts are also entertained..concerning her [sc. a horse's] ability to stay the course.

1966 Listener 10 Mar. 365/3 There was much to be learnt from this programme—about metal fatigue, for instance—for those who could stay the course.

[2]7. With emphasis or contextual colouring:

7 b. To stand one's ground, stand firm (as opposed to fleeing or budging). Now rare.

a1616 W. Shakespeare Henry VI, Pt. 3 (1623) ii. iii. 50 And giue them leaue to flye, that will not stay . [ And give leave to flee to them who do not wish to remain here.]

1851 E. B. Browning Casa Guidi Windows i. xxvii. 74 Who, born the fair side of the Alps, will budge, When Dante stays, when Ariosto stays, When Petrarch stays, for ever?

  • So you're saying that the course is an adjunct and that stay is intransitive?
    – listeneva
    Commented Apr 11, 2020 at 9:54
  • Yes, that would be the conclusion.
    – Greybeard
    Commented Apr 11, 2020 at 10:50
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    The original meaning of stay the course was to halt something, in other words to stop something in its tracks. All the uses in Google books before 1800, and many in the 19th century, seem to have this meaning. So for this meaning, the expression is transitive; the course was really being stayed. From your references, the use of the expression with the opposite meaning seems to have arisen in the late 19th century, probably independently. Commented Apr 11, 2020 at 12:06
  • @listeneva OED here claims that 'He stayed the course' displays a quasi-transitive usage, This means that their analysis deems 'transitive / intransitive' labels inappropriate here. But the very term 'quasi-transitive' means that the usage is closer to transitive than to intransitive usages, and that one might expect a direct-object-like 'completer'. Commented Apr 11, 2020 at 13:15
  • @Greybeard If the course is an adjunct, it should be able to be placed after another adjunct, right? But I can't think of any such other adjunct that could intervene between stay and the course. (ex) *I stayed often the course. *I stayed here the course. *I stayed adamantly the course.
    – listeneva
    Commented Apr 12, 2020 at 9:36

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