LINGUIST List 11.2454

Sun Nov 12 2000

Sum: "I forget"

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. HMooney, "I forget"

Message 1: "I forget"

Date: Wed, 8 Nov 2000 12:30:02 -0800
From: HMooney <>
Subject: "I forget"

Query: 11.2401

Thanks to all who responded to this query. Mark Mandel, Frank Gladney, Gerald
Mathias, John Koontz and Christian Huber were among the respondents, but I know
there were others whose names I didn't keep track of, so thanks to them too.

The general sense seems to be that expressions like "I forget", with *nothing*
following, refer to mental states. Other words that act this way are "I wonder,"
"I think," "I see," "I understand."

The fact that the words refer to mental states seems to be the reason the
expressions occur in 1st person singular form mostly, since it would be unusual
for a person to claim to know the mental state of another person.

It was pointed out, however, that in dealing with children or mentally deficient
people, non 1st pers. sing. forms would be acceptable. e.g.:

(speaking to an Alzheimer's patient"
What's your name?
You forget, don't you?

(speaking to a group of children who have obviously gotten separated from their
teacher on a field trip)
What's your teacher's name?
We forget!

At least one respondent seemed to think that a 3rd person form would be
acceptable as in:

 "Hi, Sue. I need Bob's Social Security number for this form."
 "Hang on, I'll ask him. [away from handset:] Honey, what's your Social
Security number? ...
 [into handset:] He forgets. Can he get back to you in five minutes?"

Frankly, as a native speaker, this doesn't work for me. I would be likely to say
"He's forgotten" or "He doesn't know". But it's a judgment call.

My summing up would be as follows:

A small set of otherwise transitive verbs in English can be used as
intransitives in the 1st pers. sing. pres. to describe the mental state of the

(I know some people would argue that the verb is still transitive, with the
object deleted, but I don't like that analysis.)

These expressions differ from ordinary 1st pers. sing. present tense usage in
that they use the simple present tense, in a language whose default present
tense form is a compound (I am working, etc.) form. They also differ in being
rarely used in any other person, esprecially third, where at least some native
speakers would instead use a past or perfect form.

Thanks again to all who responded.

Hank Mooney
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