Does the verb 'to busy' require a reflexive pronoun?



It busied me for hours.

When 'busy' is used as a verb, does it always need reflexive pronouns? In the above sentence, I haven't used the reflexive pronoun.

I am asking because in Merriam-Webster I found the following example of usage

the video game busied the child for hours

thein lwin

Posted 2016-10-02T02:33:23.063

Reputation: 1 865

Have you looked up reflexive pronouns? Can you find some examples that you might be able to adapt for your purpose? – Mick – 2016-10-02T02:35:33.663


Cambridge Grammar (CGEL) tells us that busy is a reflexive-only verb. See this link. Your sentence is, according to CGEL, ungrammatical in English.

– P. E. Dant Reinstate Monica – 2016-10-02T03:03:33.483

1In Merriam-Webster, I found the sentence: The video game busied the child for hours. – thein lwin – 2016-10-02T03:12:36.483

Dictionaries disagree occasionally; CGEL and the Oxford English Dictionary are accepted by many as authoritative, and most dictionaries show only reflexive usages. The older meaning of busy when used non-reflexively was to afflict or trouble, and the CGEL (and other grammars') insistence on reflexive use may stem from confusion with that older meaning. – P. E. Dant Reinstate Monica – 2016-10-02T03:26:57.890

2@P.E.Dant - You can use a "more authoritative" dictionary to show that a usage works, but not to show that a usage is "not allowed". Using a more authoritatative dictionary to prohibit a perfectly common usage brings to mind a memory of riding a bike in northern Germany, with a dog on a leash trotting by my side, and being scolded by a perfect stranger that having a dog on a leash while cycling is verboten (prohibited). – aparente001 – 2016-10-02T03:27:34.863

1@aparente001 I'm willing to accept CGEL in most matters. Of all the dictionaries I can find online, the only one to show a non-reflexive use is MW. This includes the OED, with whom I prefer not to quibble. You are welcome to argue with Huddleston & Pullum and Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. By all means, send them a hot note! Sometimes "errors" become usages over time, but for now, busy is properly used as a reflexive verb. A common error is no less an error. Our objective here is to help new learners use the language according to current best practices. – P. E. Dant Reinstate Monica – 2016-10-02T03:37:33.797

@P.E.Dant - Twain, "A Tramp Abroad": If his occupation has busied him with death and funerals all the week, it will rest him to go to the theater Sunday night and put in two or three hours laughing at a comedy. ... Did CGEL say it was wrong? Did it say it was an error? Or did it just omit this usage? Those are two different things, no? – aparente001 – 2016-10-02T03:44:08.550

@aparente001 This is a different meaning of busy. It's obsolete. OED has: a. To trouble the body (only in Old English) or the mind; to afflict, worry, disturb, perplex.Obs. I doubt these kids in the MW example are afflicted by their video games. (I assume you accept the OED as authoritative?) – P. E. Dant Reinstate Monica – 2016-10-02T03:47:00.600

@P.E.Dant - I don't take the Twain sentence that way. To me it means "if his occupation has kept him busy with death etc., not "if his occupation has afflicted him with death etc." – aparente001 – 2016-10-02T03:49:23.883

@aparente001 Mr Clemens was an extremely erudite feller who would certainly have used the verb in its archaic sense. But you are welcome to argy-bargy with Huddleston, Pullum, and the OED. (Me, I'm going to see about getting that bad bit yanked from the MW online thing.) – P. E. Dant Reinstate Monica – 2016-10-02T03:51:21.363

@theinlwin Please provide some more context. Specifically, what inspired you to ask this question, and what resource are you using that leads you to ask this? – Em. – 2016-10-02T07:37:54.653

@aparente001 is correct, you can't use a dictionary to prove a negative; moreover, the OED (at least in the most recent revision) actually does support the non-reflexive usage of the verb busy in the OP's sense. – 1006a – 2016-10-02T08:11:12.637

In Merriam-Webster, I found the sentence: The video game busied the child for hours @thein Iwin As per usual, I am going to ask my stock question. Did you copy the example sentence exactly and correctly from Merriam Webster? I've just done a quick Google check, and the only results for It busied me for hours are precisely four. And three of them direct back to this question. – Mari-Lou A – 2016-10-02T09:24:05.213

I've added the M-W citation :) – Mari-Lou A – 2016-10-02T09:31:58.720

1Collins also says that busy is not always reflexive: (transitive) to make or keep (someone, esp oneself) busy; occupy. esp oneself means especially oneself, but not always oneself. 'Busy' is not always used as a reflexive verb. – Alan Carmack – 2016-10-02T14:17:25.347

@P.E.Dant - "Mr Clemens was an extremely erudite feller who would certainly have used the verb in its archaic sense." As you charmingly point out, Clemens was both sophisticated enough to be familiar with a variety of archaic expressions, and down to earth enough to use colloquialisms to great effect in his writing. But how do you get "would certainly have used the verb in its archaic sense"? Have you made some sort of séance connection with him? He departed this world quite some time ago and is unfortunately not around to clarify his intention to us (in person). – J. Doe – 2016-10-02T19:39:51.083

@P.E.Dant - "I assume you accept the OED as authoritative?" When I come across something that seems contradictory, I like to consult more than one source. I'm glad you asked. We have uncovered a basic difference of approach between us. Which is okay. ("Different strokes for different folks.) – J. Doe – 2016-10-02T19:41:36.000

1@J.Doe Tesla and I met with him just last week! (But for certainly, how about quite conceivably? The connotation is that if anyone would consciously use a verb in an archaic sense, 'twould be Sam.) – P. E. Dant Reinstate Monica – 2016-10-02T19:42:31.793



Compare:Merriam -Webster verb Definition of busy

busied busying transitive verb

: to make busy : occupy

The video game busied the child for hours (The game kept the child busy)

You don't need a reflexive pronoun.

To busy oneself is to make or keep yourself busy : to occupy (oneself) with work or an activity.

The children busied themselves with puzzles all day.


Posted 2016-10-02T02:33:23.063

Reputation: 6 933


In addition, the OED clearly states that busy is not always reflexive; as does Collins: (transitive) to make or keep (someone, esp oneself) busy; occupy. esp oneself means especially oneself, but not always oneself.

– Alan Carmack – 2016-10-02T14:20:01.487


V.V. is correct, you don't need a reflexive pronoun. It is both grammatical and idiomatic to say (something) busies (someone) to mean (the something) kept (the someone) busy. I write to add some support and context for this.

From the OED Online:

busy, v.

  1. trans.

    a. refl. To occupy (oneself) in an active way; to keep or make (oneself) busy with (also in, about, †mid, †on) or doing something (now often some trivial, mechanical, or unnecessary task that serves as a temporary focus). Formerly also with infinitive. [examples omitted]

    b. To keep (someone or something) busy in this way; to occupy (a person, the hands, the mind, etc.) with some activity.

    [selected attestations, emphasis added]

    a1500 Ratis Raving (Cambr. Kk.1.5) l. 1530 in R. Girvan Ratis Raving & Other Early Scots Poems (1939) 43 Thar propre accioune..Wyll besy thaim.

    1690 W. Temple Miscellanea II. iv. 29 Before the Discourses..of Philosophers began to busie..the Græcian Wits.

    1914 Gilded Chrysalis ii. 55 She busied her fingers with the cups and the sugar-tongs.

    2010 W. G. Regier Quotology 103 The reformation of pagan poetry into Christian texts busied the eminent.

    c. In pass. To be occupied or kept busy, esp. with (in, †mid) or doing something.

("busy, v." OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2016. Definition 1.a-c. Unfortunately, this is a subscription service, so I can't effectively link to it directly.)

Note that while definition 1.a. is listed as reflexive, b. and c. are not. (Also, of course, there are further definitions, but these seem most relevant to your question.)

And some further examples of modern usage, found via Google Books:

They bought three or four miles of rope, and made all kinds of preparations to carry out their scheme. This busied them all day (Samuel Jacques Brun, Tales of Languedoc, 1899)

Doll- house projects, farmyard scenes and other fascinating plans busied the children in various rooms (Milton Bradley, American Childhood Vol. 15, 1929. Snippet view.)

Out on Nolan Creek, far from the sorrows and needs of humankind, the charities that had busied her for so long ceased to have meaning. (Sally Zanjani, A Mine of Her Own: Women Prospectors in the American West, 1850-1950, 2000)

Plans to emigrate or visit the country busied him right up to his last days (From Prague poet to Oxford anthropologist: Frank Baermann Steiner celebrated: essays and translations, 2003, Google preview)

A brief note:

The fact that some dictionaries omit this usage isn't surprising; the English language is vast (as are all established languages), and dictionaries don't claim to capture all nuances and variations. The OED, for example, in its Preface to the Third Edition, notes that

A number of factors have led to the revision of particular definitions. The principal factor has been the reanalysis of the documentary evidence available for each term, which has sometimes indicated nuances of meaning which were either formerly overlooked (or not present in the language when the entry was previously edited) or which are now seen to be more significant than was previously thought. This applies both to the definition of modern terms and to the definition of historical vocabulary. (John Simpson, Chief Editor, Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford, March 2000.)

apparently acknowledging the fallibility of the institution (at least in previous editions) while, of course, striving to represent the language as accurately as possible.


Posted 2016-10-02T02:33:23.063

Reputation: 4 000

Why the downvote? – 1006a – 2016-10-02T13:35:25.343

1+1 because busy is reflexive only when the subject of the clause is also the object of the verb. In other words yes *'I busied me with video games' is ungrammatical in standard English. It should be, in standard English, 'I busied myself with video games'. But if the direct object is not the same as the subject, then it's not reflexive: 'The video games busied me for hours.' Note that other native uses to this effect can be found on Google books in addition to those this answer lists. – Alan Carmack – 2016-10-02T13:45:21.783


In further evidence, Collins says 6. (transitive) to make or keep (someone, esp oneself) busy; occupy. Note the especially oneself; it does not have to always be oneself (ie, be reflexive). Add M-W and a probable correct interpretation of CGEL (even those who quote it cite "virtually the only type of object permitted") and I don't see what the controversy is.

– Alan Carmack – 2016-10-02T14:11:52.950


Is it "grammatical?"

Your example sentence is:

It busied me for hours.

According to some current grammar sources (which are always subject to change) your sentence could be termed "ungrammatical" because it uses the verb busy without a reflexive pronoun as its object.

Some accepted references in standard grammar hold that there are a very few verbs in English that we should use only reflexively. If you were taught that busy should only be used with a reflexive pronoun, this may be the reason.

For example, Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CGEL) presents (on p1488) the following verbs as having "a reflexive as the only (or virtually the only) type of object permitted."

  • absent (from)
  • avail (of)
  • busy
  • comport
  • ingratiate

To this list, Collins Cobuild English grammar adds:

  • pride
  • content

Collins Cobuild English grammar goes on to tell us:

true reflexive verbs

3.28. Note that the verbs 'busy', 'content, and 'pride' are true reflexive verbs: they must be used with a reflexive pronoun.
He had busied himself in the laboratory.
Many scholars contented themselves with writing textbooks.
He prides himself on his tidiness.

We would not usually say this in English:

I was contented to be home again.
They prided on their beautiful car.
The soldier absented from the battle.
We availed us of some food.
It busied me for hours.

Instead, we would normally say:

I contented myself to be home again.
   (or I was content adjective to be home again.)
They prided themselves on their beautiful car.
The soldier absented himself from the battle.
We availed ourselves of some food.
I busied myself for hours (with it).

This doesn't mean that a student of English, or a native speaker, will never employ or encounter usages like the first examples in everyday speech and writing. It's easy to find them with any search engine. What it does mean to a student of English is that the examples above demonstrate a "proper" use of these verbs according to some accepted sources. If you're learning English, it's a good idea to learn the use of these particular verbs as shown in the counterexamples.

English is always changing, and there is no "official" authority on correct English grammar and usage. Rather, "correct" usage is put forward as an occasionally fractious consensus among

  • linguists
  • editors
  • professors
  • writers
  • students
  • bloggers
  • lexicographers

...and finally, and most importantly, the hundreds of millions of normal people who are none of the above!

Over time, spellings, meanings, and usages achieve the status of correct, and the spellings, meanings, and usages are published in dictionaries and grammars. It used to be that a new word, meaning, or usage could be years in this process of discussion, consideration, and finally publication. But because it now takes only a few minutes to publish a revised spelling, meaning, or usage, and because the number of English speakers in the world is growing so fast, what is correct today may be less correct tomorrow. As a student of English, your best bet is to master the current "correct" usages first. Remember this short list of reflexive-only verbs!

Tha above is a paraphrase and expansion of this answer to a question at our sister site ELU.

P. E. Dant Reinstate Monica

Posted 2016-10-02T02:33:23.063

Reputation: 9 373


You're being too pedantic and prescriptive. I assume that Wilma Jean Kahn and Robert Lecker are native speakers.

– Alan Carmack – 2016-10-02T05:16:58.647

@AlanCarmack If you'll look at most of those busys, you'll see that they are other meanings of the verb (as I noted in comment above.) I don't see how much more I can equivocate here than to include a whole paragraph devoted to nothing else! Criminey, you believe the CGEL, OED, and Colliers Cobald have it wrong? (Anyhow, you'll disagree with me if I claim that the sky is blue and cite Einstein.) – P. E. Dant Reinstate Monica – 2016-10-02T05:32:47.337

The authors of CGEL would cringe at seeing their work used in the way you are using it. You keep lining up a bunch of reference books versus what people actually say. To that end, CGEL is not infallible in its descriptive linguistics. – Alan Carmack – 2016-10-02T05:37:19.027

Many new learners of English are going to be tested by people who, and using exams which, rely on sources like the OED and CGEL, cringe though you may. In this very case, the question itself likely arose because the OP was taught that 'busy' is a 'reflexive-only' verb, and may even be judged according to how it is used before a Torquemada of the ITEP, TOEFL or IELTS. I want the best for these NNLs. If you want to contend, then contact Geoff Pullum and tell him to edit permitted to recommended. -30- – P. E. Dant Reinstate Monica – 2016-10-02T06:08:30.773

1@P.E.Dant I understand that CGEL says it. But it's in the context of reflexive pronoun. It says the pronoun should have to be anaphorically linked to the antecedent. That antecedent should be the subject of the matrix clause. In cases where such anaphoric link is not present between the pronoun and its antecedent, the question of reflexive pronoun doesn't appear. I think that sentence is not wrong. Nor it uses any archaic meaning of busy. – Man_From_India – 2016-10-02T06:45:41.603

@Man_From_India CGEL (and OED, and Cobald) are clear as day here. The OP's usage is as "incorrect" (by current standard usage) as "It availed us of some food." If the usage evolves over time (see impact, v.) then that will be reflected (we hope) in current grammars. For now, I think it ain't. – P. E. Dant Reinstate Monica – 2016-10-02T06:56:56.380

@P.E.Dant in 1006a's answer he quoted an OED example sentence that is from 2010. How can then it be concluded that such uses are old? – Man_From_India – 2016-10-02T07:18:45.813

@Man_From_India The 2010 usage is obviously as in OED's 2. trans. a. To trouble ... the mind; to afflict, worry, disturb, perplex. An ecclesiastic, an officer of the church, would be understandably perplexed at the reformation of pagan poetry into Christian texts! (The preservation of obsolete and archaic usages is something of a tradition amongst ecclesaistics. That's why Latin has stuck around for such a long time!) – P. E. Dant Reinstate Monica – 2016-10-02T07:26:14.947

1Great finds with the reflexive-only verbs. Though "I was contented to be home again" sounds fine to my ear. – Hatshepsut – 2016-10-02T08:28:35.630

@Hatshepsut At the end of my answer, there's a little discursion on how language, usages, and "correctness" evolve. Without a doubt, this verb is in the process of evolving in usage, but its current state is as described in CGEL and Cobald, at least insofar as new learners in English should be concerned. They are liable to be tested on these usages based on the current "correct" usage. As I see it, our best practice is to give them the best chance of doing well in those examinations. – P. E. Dant Reinstate Monica – 2016-10-02T08:37:46.630

1Collins lists busy as transitive: verb Word forms: busies, busying or busied 6. (transitive) to make or keep (someone, esp oneself) busy; occupy. Note the especially oneself. It does not have to be oneself. – Alan Carmack – 2016-10-02T13:54:08.527

In addition, the OED does not support your answer. I, like 1006a, have a subscription to the OED and 1006a is correctly quoting it. Definition "1b. To keep (someone or something) busy in this way", ie in the same way as the reflexive meaning of definition 1a.

– Alan Carmack – 2016-10-02T14:22:47.640

1I'd like to see everybody take a deep breath here and turn down the volume. Pedantic, criminey, cringe... next you'll be calling out your seconds (or whatever the phrase is when you challenge someone to a duel). Here's something to focus on: "I want the best for these NNLs" -- is that something we can all agree on? But@P.E.Dant, let me ask you -- how likely is it, really, that an NNL is going to do badly on a TOEFL because he writes that a new video game had busied his nephew for hours the previous Saturday? – J. Doe – 2016-10-02T19:57:40.513

2@J.Doe and everyone, I think it's quite interesting that I was just asked by a learner if there's any errors in He behaved me as if he is my boss in our chat room. (I think it was from a mock exam question.) Personally, I think the example sentence for busy in M-W is a bit unexpected. It sounds like something old, like writing I know not of ... FWIW, I'm not sure if a learner will get a good score if they write I know not of his busying her for months in these exams. – Damkerng T. – 2016-10-02T21:12:44.250

@DamkerngT. +1 If you read my answer, you'll see that this is exactly why I wrote it. Some fusspot in a test setting is going to grade the OP down for using busy without the reflexive prn, and the only retort the OP will have is but these people all told me it was okay! (cf. J.Doe ref. "best for these NNLs.") – P. E. Dant Reinstate Monica – 2016-10-02T21:15:58.613

@DamkerngT. - Oh dear, I'm afraid "I know not of his busying her for months" is bringing to mind something other than jam-making.... – J. Doe – 2016-10-02T23:03:14.703

@J.Doe Oh, dear. I hope you infer here that the speaker had no idea that the subject had been afflicting, worrying, disturbing, or perplexing this unfortunate woman for months. – P. E. Dant Reinstate Monica – 2016-10-02T23:10:53.493

@DamkerngT. - Are these all multiple choice or is there an essay component? – J. Doe – 2016-10-02T23:29:57.513

@J.Doe As far as I know, most if not all reputable tests cover all skills, so I think it's rather safe to assume that our learners will find both multiple choice and essay writing tasks in their tests. The example of error finding (aka "sentence correction") in my comment above is multiple choice. – Damkerng T. – 2016-10-02T23:39:10.870

@DamkerngT. - Sorry, I should have asked this before, is the concern about a test-taker running into trouble with a non-reflective busy more about the multiple choice or the essay? – J. Doe – 2016-10-03T01:29:21.810

@J.Doe I think it could happen in many possible ways, in all tasks. For example, some tests are designed to elicit learners' prior knowledge about these minor "rules", e.g., Few people were present, were/weren't they? (even though this is rare in AmE), or No boy in the class is as tall as James is supposed to be an error (the test taker's supposed to know that it should be No other boy). These subtleties could happen in speaking tasks (e.g., Personally, I don't think it's a good idea to use busy someone else in speaking/writing tasks.

– Damkerng T. – 2016-10-03T11:12:35.373

1@DamkerngT. That is the point made in my answer, and precisely why I wrote it; but, unfortunately, as sometimes happens, concision here is preferred to mentation. – P. E. Dant Reinstate Monica – 2016-10-03T17:12:01.823