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In the following sentence, the object it is necessary, isn't it? But why?

a. The milk was so hot that I couldn't drink [it].

The verb drink has an intransitive use, not necessarily related to alcohol.

The baby still drinks from a bottle.

He opened the can and drank thirstily.

She filled the glass and drank.

So why is the object necessary in (a)?

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  • You're right - it totally sounds weird without the "it", even though it is perfectly clear from context what you couldn't drink. I'll be interested to see if anyone can explain this.
    – cruthers
    Nov 25, 2021 at 1:40
  • The milk was so hot that I couldn't drink. is valid, if you are trapped in a cabin in the woods where there is nothing to drink but that hot milk. Nov 25, 2021 at 2:01

2 Answers 2

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Your example (a):

The milk was so hot that I couldn't drink [it].

would be valid if phrased as:

(a1) The milk was so hot that I couldn't drink.

However, either is really short for:

(a1) The milk was so hot that I couldn't drink the milk.

When "drink" is used as an intransitive verb, the sentence does not explicitly indicate what is being drunk. Sometimes it is unclear or unknown, and he speaker may not care; sometimes it is implied.

Let's look at your examples:

(b) The baby still drinks from a bottle.

Here the baby may be drinking milk, or water, or juice, or something else. We don't know, and the speaker doesn't care.

(c) He opened the can and drank thirstily.

It may be soda or beer or something else. Previous context may have made this clear, but for the purposes of this sentence, we don't know or care.

(d) She filled the glass and drank.

This is the same situation.

Now let's look at some other examples:

The animals came down to the waterhole to drink.

Here it is clearly implies that the animals drank water, so any object would be redundant.

(e) Mary takes great pleasure in eating and drinking.

Here any and every kind of beverage is meant, so no object is needed.

(f) John has quit drinking.

Here the clear implication is "drinking alcoholic beverages" so an object would again be redundant.

(g) I'll drink to that!

Here the meaning of "drink" is different, it means offer or join in a toast. Here the object is almost surely "an alcoholic beverage", and neither speaker nor reader cares which one, particularly if the drinking is only metaphorical. Indeed "drink to" could be thought of as a phrasal verb related to but not the same as "drink".

The above examples are largely taken from or modified from these two dictionary definitions:

Similar examples could easily be found in other dictionaries or elsewhere.

Conclusion

It would seem that a good rule of thumb (not an absolute rule) is that the verb "drink" may be used without an object when either any plausible liquid is meant, or other contest has already made it clear what liquid is meant, so an explicit object would be redundant

As I wrote above, I think (a1) with the final "it" is perfectly acceptable, and it does not sound "weird" to me. However, I am confident that the form with "it" is much more common. Why? I am, not sure. Perhaps because the implied object "milk" is separated from the verb by an number of words, and is in a different clause. Perhaps because milk is less likely to be hot than coffee, tea, or soup.

(h) The tea was so hot that I couldn't drink.

The sentence (h) seems more plausible to me than (a1) does, but even here an "it" would often be added. I cant specify any wider principle that explains this.

In a comment, user Maciej Stachowski suggests that the ending of (a1) "...that I couldn't drink." can easily be read to mean "I was unable to drink anything at all. Indeed I can imagine a context in which (a1) took this sense. For example:

(i) I gulped the heated milk. It seared my throat. I tried to ease it with some cold water but i couldn't. The milk was so hot that I couldn't drink.

So this would suggest that the use of the "it" is preferred, that (a) is preferred to (a1), because it avoids the ambiguity demonstrated by (i). This is in line with my rule of thumb because it means that here the listener does care what liquid is meant.

Or, as Maciej Stachowski put it, (a1) is a valid sentence with a completely different meaning, nd the "it" in (a) is needed to rule this out.

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  • 1
    I don't think this explanation works. The way I read (c) and (d), it is perfectly clear without any further context that the specifically referenced beverage in the can / bottle is what is being drunk. Yet "it" is not required. In the case of (a), I think that context makes the thing being drunk - milk - very clear as well, yet omitting the "it" would sound strange.
    – cruthers
    Nov 25, 2021 at 1:44
  • @cruthers I have edited to address this, but i don't fully agree that omitting the "it" from (a) sounds strange. I could imagine myself saying or writing (a) without the "it" Nov 25, 2021 at 1:50
  • I find (a) to be perfectly valid grammatically, but making no sense semantically - the milk being hot does not prevent you from drinking in general, it prevents you from drinking that milk specifically. Cf. My teeth hurt so bad that I couldn't drink - which makes much more sense. (In other words - the it is required because omitting it results in a perfectly valid sentence with a different meaning) Nov 25, 2021 at 1:55
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    @Maciej Stachowski Intersting. Certainly "...that I couldn't drink." could be read as meaning "...that I was unable to drink anything at all. This again fits my general rule, here an object is needed to avoid ambiguity. I will add that to my answer. Nov 25, 2021 at 1:59
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    @Maciej Stachowski I have edited the answer to refer to your suggestion. Nov 25, 2021 at 2:12
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The sentence without "it" is also grammatically correct, but the meaning is not what you intend.

The milk was so hot that I couldn't drink it.

This means "The milk was so hot that I was unable to drink the milk."

The milk was so hot that I couldn't drink.

This means "The milk was so hot that I was unable to drink anything", or "... that I wasn't able to drink alcohol". It doesn't make a lot of sense. From the context, I might understand that you're talking about the milk, but if you are, that sense of "drink" must be transitive because you're drinking something specific, so it's a grammar error.

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  • Does the following sound OK without an object following "drank"? "The restaurant provided free mineral water, so she filled the glass and drank."
    – Apollyon
    Nov 25, 2021 at 14:09
  • @Apollyon Yes, that's correct and natural. We understand everything from the context.
    – gotube
    Nov 25, 2021 at 22:01
  • But "The milk was so hot that I couldn't drink. I drank after 10 minutes" is also understandable from context, yet somehow the object "it" is still needed. There's something more than context to this issue.
    – Apollyon
    Nov 25, 2021 at 23:28
  • @Apollyon If the intent is "I couldn't drink the milk", then the problem is pure grammar. It literally means, "I was unable to drink anything" or "I was unable to drink alcohol". There's no other meaning for intransitive "drink" in that context that I know of.
    – gotube
    Nov 25, 2021 at 23:46
  • I suspect specificity plays a role in licensing the use of the intransitive "drink."
    – Apollyon
    Nov 26, 2021 at 4:56

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