by Colin McIntosh
Thirty years ago this phrase would have been meaningless to most British people. Not that 1980s trendy lefties were shy about expressing their opposition to Margaret Thatcher’s attempts to shrink state spending. It’s just that they would have said they were protesting against the cuts, rather than protesting the cuts. The transitive use of protest was reserved for phrases like protest your innocence. Now phrases like this are all over the media, imported from the US thanks to the recent exposure given to movements like Occupy Wall Street protesting (against) corporate greed and shady banking practices. The usage has recently spread to the UK, and has been taken up particularly by commentators in the media, no doubt helped by the fact that it makes sense to have a single, global (and shorter) hashtag on social media.
This fluidity in grammar patterns associated with verbs is not new. British English traditionally used the infinitive with to after help. The Royal British Legion says comfortingly but somewhat staidly:
We can help you to manage your debts… and deal with unexpected expenses
whereas the more dynamic-sounding sellmyhouse-fast-london.co.uk says:
We can help you sell your house fast!
It helps that the usage without to is the preferred form in America, making it sound snappier to British ears, and it is consequently the preferred form of all good marketers.
Teaching English in Italy I often had to correct students who said “we discussed about…”, based on an entirely logical analogy with “talk about”, and reinforced by the Italian usage, which requires a preposition with the equivalent verb. According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, discuss can only be used with a direct object, not a prepositional phrase. Despite my correction, though, my students continued to say it. Now ”discuss about” can be heard and read regularly. On Google there are around a million hits for “discussed about the issue(s)/question(s)/topic(s)”. It seems to be most frequent amongst those whose first language is not English, but examples can be found from native speakers as well. Is this usage creeping into British and American English?
Usages like these don’t change overnight, and neither do they change at the same pace amongst all sections of society. Young people, city dwellers, gay people, and people who work in the media tend to be early adopters of new trends in grammar, leaving the older generations and the less hip and trendy behind with their old-fashioned forms. Then, as the early adopters grow up and the conservative users gradually die off, the innovative usage becomes the new standard.
These changes taking place in British and American English underline the importance of keeping the dictionary up to date. Protest as a transitive verb is now marked as “especially US” (instead of simply “US”). The situation of help with or without to is now so fluid that it would be impossible to give a particular recommendation for British or American English, except to say that the use with to is less frequent in American. The time has not yet come to give the thumbs-up to discuss about, but we’re keeping an eye on the situation, and you will be the first to know of any updates!