attribute (v.) [<--] late 14c., "assign, bestow," from Latin attributus, past participle of attribuere "assign to, add, bestow;" figuratively "to attribute, ascribe, impute,"
from ad- "to" + tribuere "assign, give, bestow" (see tribute).

Since Latin predated English and French, ad- "to" pre-existed TO and À in the the English and French transitive indirect (derivative) verbs: to attribute X TO Y, or attribuer X À Y.

Because ad- "to" already means TO and À, TO and À seem redundant.
So why is 'attribute' not a ditransitive verb?

Also, please advise of any books or resources that may help with such questions.

  • 1
    If you're not tired of me citing Varro, here's another one. Varro LL 5.181 says that the 'ad' in attributum comes from the fact that tributes were 'ad-' tributed. Book and resource? Hum... Varro LL 5.181? May 26 '15 at 19:57
  • @AlainPannetier +1. Thanks for the recommendation.
    – NNOX Apps
    May 27 '15 at 0:24

Ad has no independent meaning in attribute. None at all.

Attribute, v. is always transitive: you attribute some quality or act or whatever to somebody. You ask why it does not take an indirect object. According to your line of reasoning the ad- prefix carries the sense of direction to a recipient, so casting the recipient in a preposition phrase should be redundant. We should be able to say

Some scholars attribute Shakespeare this play instead of
okSome scholars attribute this play to Shakespeare.

But this is to mistake a Latin construction for an English one. When the word came into English it already had ad attached: ad was (and is) part of the verb, not the prefix it had been a thousand years earlier. It had (and has) no prepositional sense whatever to anybody except etymological scholars, for ad is a Latin preposition, not an English one.

And when the word came into English it was already at least three hundred years since English had routinely employed prepositions as prefixes on verbs, as Latin did and as German still does. Moreover, it was just about as long since English lost its case-endings, which served (among other things) to distinguish indirect objects from direct objects. Both of those factors made it overwhelmingly more intelligible to express 'targets'—recipients and beneficiaries—with to and for PP rather than as objects. That's what we do with attribute—and attach, too.

And in fact only a relatively few English verbs regularly express targets as objects. John Lawler gives a list here, and even on that list there are a lot of words which seem very dubious to me.

Your question is, at bottom, based on the etymological fallacy. You cannot argue proper present meaning and use from past meaning and use.

  • @LawArea51 and StoneyB, to me, tell, attribute, grant, give... are all ditransitive. Whether one object is indirect and the other is direct is irrelevant and only a pure convenience to differentiate between the recipient and the object. It is not always needed since you don't give a child to an apple but the other way round. So you can give an apple a child. You can even attribute somebody a quote. If you (Law) wanted to read that the 'to' in 'attribute to' comes from Latin or French as it is present in all romance languages (Italian "attribuire a", Spanish "atribuir a"). Then yes of course. May 26 '15 at 3:16
  • 1
    @AlainPannetier "Pure convenience" -- I would rather call it "convention" -- is how language works, at every level. May 26 '15 at 10:28
  • 1
    No, Alain, you cannot give an apple a child. English ditransitives often (though not always) allow the preposition to be omitted from the indirect object, but only if it precedes the direct. "Give an apple a child" would possibly be understood as you intended, but with considerable confusion and doubt, because the only syntactically non-deviant reading makes the the apple the recipient.
    – Colin Fine
    May 27 '15 at 16:11

As curiousdannii says, the verb, in English and French is transitive; in fact, ditransitive.

But in a larger sense the answer, as usual with "Why" questions, is BECAUSE THAT'S HOW IT IS. Languages are full of redundancies, half-statements, inexactitudes, and downright illogicalities, because they are created by people doing what people do, not by logicians, theoreticians or any other variety of ician.

But as it happens, in this case there is no illogicality as far as I can see, and the only slight redundancy is that the prefix in a sense duplicates the preposition. But if you dropped it, you'd have "tribute", which is a different word.


In English, prepositions can be added to verb phrases as complement or adjuncts. Some examples:

(1) I will put it down.

Here, down is a complement : put absolutely needs something there, you can't say

*I will put it.

Example 2:

(2) I will put it out.

Here, out must have been a complement originally, but something happened: this combination has obtained a fixed, specific meaning that must be listed in the dictionary separately: to extinguish. So we can say that put and out now combine to form a single verb with its own meaning.

(3) I will write it down.

Here, down is not a complement but an adjunct: I might instead say

I will write it.

What is more, it doesn't really add any meaning. It basically just acts as an intensifier. Apparently, using to write doesn't quite feel comfortable without an added preposition, without really requiring it - but the preposition hardly adds any meaning. Similar examples:

(4) I will write it out.

(5) I will print it out.

So we see that in English, it is really easy for prepositions to get stuck to verbs into a fixed combinations, without changing the way the verb functions in the sentence; this may produce a specialized meaning, but it may even happen when it doesn't really affect the meaning at all.

The same thing used to happen in Latin. A lot. For instance, it had a verb monere meaning to advise, and after due time, people would use admonere instead. In your case, the ad does change the meaning: tribuere means different things than attribuere, but the difference isn't very large. (You can look them up in Wiktionary.)

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