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According to the English dictionaries, to engage in, as an intransitive verb, means to begin an activity (Merriam-Webster), which is sensible for "to engage in the discussion with someone on some topic".

However, a search in books.google.com suggests many authors use the following expression engage the discussion.

For example, "To engage the discussion about the impact of such a pervasive epidemic as HIV/AIDS from a perspective ..." https://books.google.com/books?isbn=1134656556

I cannot find an appropriate definition of this usage (maybe except definition 7? see below), as most examples suggest the object should be a person, not a thing

So what is "to engage the discussion" ? Or is it a misuse of the verb to engage

(Merriam-Webster)

engage, transitive verb

1 : to offer (something, such as one's life or word) as backing to a cause or aim : to expose to risk for the attainment or support of some end

2 : to attract and hold by influence or power
: to interlock with : mesh; also : to cause (mechanical parts) to mesh

3 : to bind (someone, such as oneself) to do something; especially : to bind by a pledge to marry

4 a : to provide occupation for : involve
b : to arrange to obtain the use or services of : hire

5 a : to hold the attention of : engross
b : to induce to participate

6 a : to enter into contest or battle with
b : to bring together or interlock (weapons)

7 : to deal with especially at length

1

If I heard to engage the discussion, I would assume that it's mistakenly used instead of to engage in the discussion.

However, if it's not actually a mistake, and it's use is intentional, then I would say it's the sense 6 a as provided by Merriam-Webster. But you neglected to quote an example sentence that helps clarify it:

6 a : to enter into contest or battle with · engage the enemy

The reason that it sounds odd, however, is that you don't normally find yourself "in battle" with a conversation.

Nonetheless, it could be used in a metaphorical sense. For instance, it could be a particularly long, complex, and tricky discussion. In which case, you could (metaphorically) take a deep breath, psyche yourself up, and engage the discussion in a contest of wits . . .

Incidentally, the example you provided from Google doesn't appear to be using it in a metaphorical sense. Therefore, it's likely a misuse.


After further consideration, it's possible that engage is being used idiomatically (although incorrectly in terms of existing word definitions) as a synonym for start.

So, when some people say I'm going to engage the conversation, what they're really expressing is I'm going to start [a] conversation.

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I would classify this as an uncommon, and likely improper use of the verb "to engage".

Such uncommon usage is very common in academic works - my theory is that professors often choose difficult and uncommon usages to make their work sound more important. In fact, it just makes things less clear, especially for English language learners!

These authors are certainly guilty of this linguistic sin. For example, look at the beginning of the paragraph, just above the very sentence you reference in your question:

An essential point to consider about this chapter is our attempt to foreground and integrate the empirical work of Howe and Strauss...

Their use of "foreground" as a verb is odd, uncommon and probably does not correspond with most dictionaries. I see what they mean - they are working to bring a topic to the forefront. But, in my opinion, they are being needlessly innovative at the expense of clarity.

  • @scylla- although maybe uncommon (hard to quantify), its use as a verb is listed in most dictionaries – B Chen Jul 3 '18 at 11:19
  • "To engage" certainly a common verb. "I am engaging in a flame war". Or even, from Star Trek TNG, "Engage!" The odd usage here is using the phrase "to engage the discussion". As a native US-English speaker, I can assure you that engaging a discussion is something that I've neither said, nor heard. – ScyllaGreg Jul 3 '18 at 17:00
  • I meant to comment on your example regarding "to foreground", not on the example of "to engage the discussion". – B Chen Jul 3 '18 at 20:14

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