The confusing language lesson bewildered John.
Detective Frey believed the suspect's story.
You're trying to befriend someone who doesn't trust you.

If the examples above are correct, this one should be as well, right?

*The car keys belong him.

But it's not. The correct sentence would be "The car keys belonged to him.". In fact, this is a very common mistake for ESL learners to make, especially considering the fact that the equivalent of the verb "belong" tends to take an object in their native language.

Why is this?

  • 2
    This question can't really be answered. Some verbs require prepositions. Some don't. I doubt there is any overarching rule that will help define which is which.
    – Andrew
    Jun 3, 2019 at 21:19
  • 1
    You can be betrothed to a person and be besotted with someone, too
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 3, 2019 at 21:21
  • @Andrew not all "why" questions need to go back to the roots of existence ;) I was thinking of something along the lines of explaining the morphology and why that's how one of the roots works. (Yes, I researched and found out the answer, yet found the question important enough to exist on ELL)
    – M.A.R.
    Jun 3, 2019 at 21:26
  • @M.A.R.ಠ_ಠ All I'm saying is that there is that while it would be nice if there was a reason, I think the best you're going to get is an opinion. But in any case this surely can't rank as the most confusing idiosyncrasy about the English language. Far worse must be how words are all too frequently spelled differently from how they are pronounced. If we are looking for things to "fix" about English we should probably start with making Sean Bean's name rhyme.
    – Andrew
    Jun 3, 2019 at 21:58
  • @Andrew what I mean is that the ultimate answer to all language questions would indeed be "because that's how it came to be", but that's not as far as a learner necessarily needs to go to be satisfied. I don't see this much different than a tense/aspect question. "Why use present perfect" would be followed by an explanation of uses of present perfect and common patterns, but that's not really a "why" either. Anyway, I posted my findings, I hope I'm not too far off the mark :) (Also demonstrating what I was looking for in an answer before I more or less found out)
    – M.A.R.
    Jun 3, 2019 at 22:11

2 Answers 2


That would be because "be-" is a prefix that is almost always added to verbs and makes nouns and verbs. It means something along the lines of "cause".

It is, by no means, a recent one, so you're bound to come across examples where the verb is no longer distinguishable and doesn't exist in modern English, as is the case with "believe". The most common examples of verbs with the prefix are transitive verbs ("become", "betray", "behead1" etc.), unsurprisingly, considering the meaning the prefix conveys.

It would then follow that "belong" be, in fact, "be-" + "long". "long" is an intransitive verb originating from an older "longen" which meant "to go along with", and "causing to go along with". If "belong" were to be used in a similar fashion to verbs like "believe", the sentence would have looked like

He belongs the car keys.

Instead, the usage is such that the thing that is owned, and is a property, comes first.

Why it wasn't seems to be just a matter of how language evolved, and not something strictly logical, as @ColinFine's answer points out. However, there is no possible scenario the sentence "* The car keys belong him." would be correct, as it would be nonsensical.

1: If interpreted this way, this verb was probably meant to convey "make someone a head", which is an interesting thought!


Because that is how the English verb "belong" works. There's no particular logic to it: it's just how it is. Languages are as they are, not as somebody thinks they ought to be.

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