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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

  • 1
    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 Oct 2 '16 at 3:03
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    In Merriam-Webster, I found the sentence: The video game busied the child for hours. – thein lwin Oct 2 '16 at 3:12
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    @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 Oct 2 '16 at 3:27
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    @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 Oct 2 '16 at 3:37
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    Collins 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 Oct 2 '16 at 14:17
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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.

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    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 Oct 2 '16 at 14:20
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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.

  • Why the downvote? – 1006a Oct 2 '16 at 13:35
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    +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 Oct 2 '16 at 13:45
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    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 Oct 2 '16 at 14:11
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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.

  • 1
    You're being too pedantic and prescriptive. I assume that Wilma Jean Kahn and Robert Lecker are native speakers. – Alan Carmack Oct 2 '16 at 5:16
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    @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 Oct 2 '16 at 6:45
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    Great finds with the reflexive-only verbs. Though "I was contented to be home again" sounds fine to my ear. – Hatshepsut Oct 2 '16 at 8:28
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    Collins 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 Oct 2 '16 at 13:54
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    @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. Oct 2 '16 at 21:12

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