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cambridge.org:
(1) Black holes are left behind by exploding stars called supernovas.
collinsdictionary.com:
(2) A school bus was hit by gunfire which exploded the fuel tank.

Why is it correct to say "to explode a bomb / fuel tank / star", but incorrect to say "to explode a car / bridge / building"?
What is the difference between these two groups?

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  • Better is to ask about explode as an action verb: A bomb explodes, a fuel tank explodes and a star explodes. Likewise, a car explodes, a bridge explodes [if explosives are rigged under it], and a building [also if explosives are rigged in it] explodes. Gunfire exploded the fuel tank. The to-infinitive you use just complicates this as they don't work much of the time.
    – Lambie
    Dec 2, 2023 at 19:16

1 Answer 1

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The first example has a participle "exploding" which is describing the star. You could rephrase as "stars that explode", and you can see that the understood subject of the verb "explode" is "stars". So one can say that "stars explode".

But explode is also a labile verb, and like other labile verbs, it can also be used transitively. Thus "I exploded the bomb" means "I caused the bomb to explode. This is how "explode" is being used in he second example. The gunfire causes the fuel tank to explode.

Now bombs, fuel tanks, and stars are things that can explode. They have the fuel or explosive. All they need is the right trigger. But bridges, buildings and the like generally cannot explode. You need to put a bomb on the bridge. The bomb explodes, and blows up the bridge. So it sounds odd to say "I exploded the bridge", since the bridge didn't explode! Instead it was blown up by a bomb.

Cars are an edge case. They can explode if the fuel tank breaks, but many car explosions in the news are due to bombs exploding, not the car itself.

So the difference between the two groups is that stars, bombs and fuel tanks can explode, but bridges, buildings and cars are blown up by bombs or fuel tanks.

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  • exploding stars= exploding is an adjective. A building can explode if rigged with bombs.
    – Lambie
    Dec 2, 2023 at 21:04
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    participle/adjective I find the distinction artificial in such contexts. I wouldn't say that the building exploded. I'd say that the building was blown-up. Though there is clearly overlap, and "The building exploded" might be a slightly imprecise way of saying the same thin - understood from contex.
    – James K
    Dec 2, 2023 at 21:53
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    This ngram would suggest that the transitive use of explode (cause something to explode) had its heydey in the middle of the 18th c. Nowadays it is usually intransitive and the transitive use sounds marginal to me. books.google.com/ngrams/… Dec 2, 2023 at 23:52

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