We say: "Our collection of art is growing," and "Our collection of art is increasing."

Also, we say: "With more money, we could increase our collection," but it seems incorrect to say: "With more money, I can grow my collection of art." Why?

Deborah Mitchell


In current usage, the verb grow sometimes presents problems.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (Houghton Mifflin, 1996, p.801) lists seven entries under grow as an intransitive verb (a verb that doesn't take a direct object). The first is: "To increase in size by a natural process." The second is: "To expand; gain" as in: "The business grew under new management."

The first two sentences that Deborah sent—"Our collection of art is growing," and "Our collection of art is increasing"—show "grow" as an intransitive verb. These two sentences certainly fit in perfectly with the second meaning—to expand or gain. There is no problem with using grow or increase interchangeably when the verb has an intransitive meaning.

There is a problem, though, as Deborah senses, when grow has a transitive meaning. Under transitive verbs (verbs that take a direct object), this dictionary lists two uses of grow: (1) to cause to grow, to raise, as in "grow tulips"; (2) to allow something to develop or increase by a natural process, as in "grow a beard." It is important to remember the word "natural" here.

The transitive verb grow is—or has normally been—restricted in use to refer to nature or to living things or to parts of living things. This restriction does not apply to the verb "increase" as a transitive verb, which is defined simply "to make greater or larger." There is no restriction to nature or living things with the verb increase.

Addressing your question specifically, The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage (Times Books/Random House, 1999, p. 149) gives us a good guideline in this excerpt:

Grow can be used without a direct object in many contexts: flowers grow; unemployment grows; businesses and governments grow. With a direct object, grow sounds natural in references to living things: grow flowers; grow wheat; grow a beard; grow antlers. The newer usage of grow to mean expand (grow the business; grow revenue) is business jargon, best resisted.

So, the sentence that Deborah finds incorrect—"With more money, I can grow my collection of art"—is indeed awkward; according to the description in the New York Times style book because a collection of art is not a thing of nature, not a living thing. It also doesn't fit The American Heritage Dictionary's requirement for the transitive use of grow—that the direct object refer to something in nature. However, the verb increase, as well as other verbs such as expand, and augment, have no such restriction, and thus we can comfortably use your sentence: "With more money, we could increase our collection."

For a related article, go to the message "Formerly instransitive verbs."

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