The reaction of some people to this question has me scratching my head, going "You kidding me?"

Can we really use lap as an intransitive verb?

So I was among the first people to notice that question uses an unusual example sentence. The sentence is suggestive, sensual, maybe slightly indelicate and off-color, but not obscene by any standard. Nor can I even say it is vulgar.

I found it curious, so I left a comment asking the OP about their source. They never responded which I guess is because they are trying to be delicate and not to draw any more attention to the context than it already has. Tactful, I think.

I am upset, disgusted, and bewildered by the slew of close votes hurled at this question. I don't understand why this question is targeted and hated, why it's met with such reaction. Since when is ELL crawling with prudes who find words that talk about tongue and saliva and nothing else so abominable that they have to shut it down? I trust that the OP has done their best to keep the quotation and the question kosher and I think that merits acknowledgement from us as opposed to banishment or shaming. The question, to its credit, is reasonably researched and presented, and is well within the scope of on-topic ELL questions. Where you see abhorrence, I see a new community member's honest effort.

Could the OP have used a different sentence to ask about the same grammar point? I bet they could. But what is so grotesque, so morally appalling about the original question to begin with?

I am going to echo J.R.'s spirit here, since I don't think it can be better said than this:

This community was created to cater to learners with questions that may be simple for the native speaker, but vexing for the learner. In this case, an O.P. finds ELL, joins, asks one question – and sees it promptly closed, sans a helpful comment, only to be directed to a book that gives enough meanings of these words to make anyone's head spin.

To be candid, I was disgusted and embarrassed.

Here is my request: Before you vote to close a question:

a) put yourself in the shoes of a learner, and ask if the question is a fair question

b) have some leniency toward newer members of the community; leave some comments to help them learn how to contribute in meaningful ways

From Have we forgotten our mission?

Have we? Have we? HAVE WE???

In my few Meta ELL posts, I speak often of being nice to new community members and taking that commitment seriously. Yes, I consider "be nice" a commitment, a vow, rather than an outside rule to abide by. I don't see any trace of it in the close votes hurled at this question at issue.

A two-upvoted (as of this moment) comment reads:

I’m voting to close this question because YUK.

No, "YUK" is not going to cut it. It is not a valid reason to cast your close vote. "YUK" is not justifiable. Your "YUK" is not even explained, and yet at least three close votes stemmed from that "YUK".

So explain to me like I am a six year old why this question is such an abomination. What do you find in this question which you can't bear the sight of and you think should be condemned? Keep in mind I am a six year old, and I know what a tongue is and that spit is gross but we all have saliva. If you can't I will exercise the mod power to unilaterally reopen this question.


I'd started composing before Jason Bassford chimed in with this comment:

Barring context, I immediately thought of the first sentence in the sense of a dog lapping at a ball, chew toy, or some other such thing. Even if it is used in the context of sex, I don't think there's anything "yucky" about sex. That might be a reason to downvote or flag (in the extreme), but not to close it. I voted to close this for a lack of research because no citation or link was given to the definitions provided. Nor do I think it valid to say that the final sentence cannot be said, especially not without explaining why; however, it's actually grammatical, just unusual. – Jason Bassford

This is valid reasoning. And I especially appreciate the affirmation that making mention of sex is not a reason for close. But I wish to add I am not sure I agree with the lack of research grounds very much. There is a gradation of context and/or research insufficiency, and the OP of this question included dictionary definitions, didn't they? You are right the dictionary definitions should have been accompanied by sources, links, references, but that is easily fixable, compared to some glaring issues in other questions which are grossly underresearched and pithy, with zero research effort or context, but which are still allowed to remain open on ELL. Of course different people have different options in response to an underresearched question, but I consider most of the issues we see in this particular question an easy edit away from being fixed, not five close votes.

Another thing I want people to keep in mind is that the context is erotica no doubt, but not heteroerotica. The source article is a homoerotic piece, which of course shouldn't sway your opinion either way. I hope nobody is offended specifically because the sentence in question is extracted from a novella describing sex acts between two women. This is 2020, people! We are way past that. I am sure homophobia is not a factor in this question being targeted. Wait, is it?

  • >There is a gradation of context and/or research insufficiency, and the OP of this question included dictionary definitions, didn't they? You are right the dictionary definitions should have been accompanied by sources, links, references, but that is easily fixable, Agree. But I don't wonder at all because "these some people" close my question about even jokes.
    – user17814
    Commented Aug 16, 2020 at 0:30
  • @Kentaro I have the same view of some of your questions as I do of this question at hand. I didn't think your questions about comedy sketches on YouTube were off topic either. But I'd try and keep to the point.
    – Eddie Kal
    Commented Aug 16, 2020 at 2:11
  • 1
    I'll leave this as a comment; I wouldn't be surprised if the OP of the question has had several accounts in the past. Something tells me the OP is not an "innocent" learner or first-time user.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Aug 16, 2020 at 11:32
  • @Mari-LouA That is possible, and there has been numerous sock cases like you describe, even in the short period that I have been a moderator. When/if there's the slightest hint of a troll or sock, please flag and appropriate mod action will be taken. On the flip side, nobody seems to have noticed or cared that the OP has not returned to SE since their q was closed. They may well be busy, and it's too early to say some people successfully drove away a new SE member, but we'll see. For the record they flagged "YUK" and another comment as unkind before leaving. I declined them. Tough decision.
    – Eddie Kal
    Commented Aug 16, 2020 at 17:46
  • Who is J.R? It doesn't seem to be the person who asked the question. Commented Aug 16, 2020 at 18:42
  • 1
    @TankorSmash Longtime moderator who has contributed extensively to the ELL community. I am quoting from their discussion. Click on "Have we forgotten our mission?" and you will see.
    – Eddie Kal
    Commented Aug 16, 2020 at 18:44
  • 5
    “Oh my God, where are your parents?” (xkcd.com/1364) Commented Aug 16, 2020 at 21:57
  • 2
    It may or may not be relevant but I notice that the OP has also posted a question at the same time on another stack (Philosophy) about choice of terminology. That question seemed well received and did not lead to a fire storm there. This to my eyes reduces the probability of being a troll.
    – mdewey
    Commented Aug 18, 2020 at 15:06
  • @mdewey Yeah I agree. I just made a comment under an answer here that there were also two other, now-deleted questions from the same account on ELL, both ordinary ELL questions, though not without some beginner flaws.
    – Eddie Kal
    Commented Aug 18, 2020 at 15:09
  • Sorry to make a joke, but really? The entire thing could be an ice-cream cone. So, yes, how silly. I recently had a similar issue though there was no ambiguity with sex. And I have to say that those who have knowledge allowed my answer to get dvoted four times. So, I feel for you. But no one has come to my aid, unlike in this case.
    – Lambie
    Commented Sep 1, 2020 at 16:30

5 Answers 5


It's not just a valid question.  It's an interesting and productive question.

There do exist edge cases such that transitive verbs in their ordinary transitive senses don't have explicit semantic patients -- don't have direct objects in the active voice.

Never mind the source and context of the first example, never mind that the wrong meaning for the verb in question is assumed, and never mind that OP didn't clearly cite the dictionary used for research.  Read for what it is, the question is insightful.  Why can we remove "the shore" from "the waves lapped [the shore] quietly", but we can't remove "themselves" from "the men lapped themselves in furs"?  At what point do we move from an optional direct object to a required direct object, and what makes that transition clear to a native speaker?  Y'know, the point and purpose of the stack, right?

There's a reason to not mind the source and context of the first example.  We shouldn't assume that OP has the skill to create a less suggestive version that is functionally identical, because we should assume OP doesn't understand how these edge cases work.  Why ask the question otherwise?

There's a reason to not mind that OP assumed "lap" means "surround" rather than "repeatedly lick".  What the verb means is less relevant than how the verb works.  We shouldn't assume that OP has the skill to recognize which sense of the word is relevant to the context, or even whether that sense is relevant to the question at hand.  OP's assumption is provided, and clearly enough that it can be corrected if need be.

There's a reason to not mind that the specific dictionary wasn't cited.  As it turns out, the question is about a general pattern, not a specific dictionary's entry.  We have no reason to challenge the validity of the examples under those entries, and any decent dictionary would serve the same purpose.  Besides, how hard was it to find?


Perhaps I shouldn't answer here.  I can't offer any first-hand insight regarding the closevotes.  All I can do is endorse and applaud the reopening of the question.  And I wouldn't be surprised by a flurry of retaliation from misguided self-appointed moral guardians as a result, either.  That's a common failing among self-appointed guardians; they often don't know which part of the thing that they're guarding has value. 

That question didn't deserve downvotes and it certainly didn't deserve closevotes.  It didn't deserve censoring or censure.  What it deserves, on its own merits, is careful consideration and a thoughtful answer.

My concern is with this:

Could the OP have used a different sentence to ask about the same grammar point?

The answer is no.  At least, we should assume the answer is no.  The alternative is assuming that every OP already knows whatever grammar and pragmatics are relevant to the question at hand, and knows such well enough to come up with something grammatically equivalent but semantically sanitized.  In other words, we'd need to assume that every OP knows enough to not need to ask any such question.

What if the right answer turns out to be "that's erotic fiction jargon, and you won't see that usage in plain English"?  What if the right answer turns out to be "the direct object 'it' is right there, and all those prepositional and participial phrases in between are just oddly-placed adjuncts"?  What if the right answer turns out to be "only the verbs 'lick', 'lap', 'strike' and 'stroke' work like this, and every other verb with an optional direct object is labile"?  None of these seem likely, but how could an OP know that?

What if every OP had to come up with every applicable what-if?


It's a valid question.  It's an interesting question.  It's an insightful question.  It's a worthwhile question.  Quite surprisingly, it's a hard question.  It deserves a better answer than I've been able to develop so far. 

Not five yucks nor five thousand yucks should matter, compared to what a good answer to this question might mean.  I'm glad to see it standing open.

  • 3
    I am really sad this answer is not being seriously looked at and upvoted. Not a lot of people appear to be paying attention to the logical argument this answer makes why we need to be careful before demanding that questions be censored, altered, expunged. I just sat on the receiving end of a big "fuck you" in chat because I disagreed that this question was offensive and the example sentence should be cleansed.
    – Eddie Kal
    Commented Aug 17, 2020 at 17:16
  • 1
    Someone intending to answer an English language question may not want to be confronted with erotic episodes of tongue lapping. Not because they are icky but because they are forbidden. Some answerers are pulling data across wires that they do not own and are sitting at a computer they do not own. There are places in the English speaking world that will retaliate against you for responding to or viewing such material.
    – EllieK
    Commented Nov 24, 2021 at 15:07

Not a downvoter nor did I vote to close, but the quote is obviously referring to oral sex.

No vulgar terms, indecent or offensive words were used but the description is explicit, it doesn't leave much to the imagination. And imagine a first-time visitor who reads it, or for that fact any person who is visiting ELL and comes across that text? Will everyone just shrug their shoulders and continue reading or will a few react as one user did with a "Yuck"?

On the other hand, the question is on-topic, we're speaking about usage and intransitive and transitive meaning of the verb lap, and the OP did their research too. The definition actually comes from

The following example–models who were lapped in expensive furs.–is also cited from the same dictionary. The reasons for their confusion shows the user has a good command of the English language, I'd venture to posit that they were a native speaker. It's funny how the last example, created ad hoc, mentions models undressing themselves.

(OP) However, we cannot say:
The men lapped in expensive furs as the models undressed themselves.

I would say the sentence above would be perfectly grammatical if we added the verb “watch”.

The men lapped in expensive furs watched as the models undressed themselves.

But if some users find the subject distasteful, I wouldn't be shocked if they expressed their distaste with a downvote. Is that against the rules?

How many downvotes have users received for questions that were on-topic, super-polite, thoroughly researched, and interesting/useful? The question should be kept open but I wouldn't castigate users who downvoted.

P.S There's no accounting for taste.

  • 6
    "Not a downvoter nor did I vote to close, but the quote is obviously referring to oral sex." - I'm hardly a Boy Scout and my first impression was that it refers to a dog or cat, so I'd argue that the description is hardly explicit. Also, I remember at least one question to which the answer was "it's a dick joke", and a few regarding more vulgar terms, so it's hard to say why this one got targeted. Vulgarity is a part of the language, and while downvotes are at the discretion of a downvoter, it doesn't do the site any favor to bury a well-researched question. Commented Aug 16, 2020 at 19:22
  • 4
    @MaciejStachowski dick jokes can sometimes be funny but if the questioner is only asking for its meaning, which is easily googleable, the post will also attract its fair share of downvotes. It's not the first time nor will it be the last a topic about sexuality is downvoted, to pretend otherwise is disingenuous. P.S. Licking an object repeatedly could suggest a cat's behaviour, but slathering it with saliva from top to bottom over and over again is not something a cat would or could even do.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Aug 17, 2020 at 6:40
  • I don’t have enough rep (on this stack) to see close votes, but this recent question seems to have been well received, and ISTM that that one could have been resolved by a dictionary lookup far more easily than the “lap” one.  P.S. Have you ever encountered a dog that was really happy to see you? Commented Oct 22, 2020 at 5:50

I wasn't a downvoter, but I WAS a closevoter - which I now regret doing.

I never explicitly commented myself. At the time I simply saw my closevote as endorsing the ...because YUK! reaction given by the first closevoter, because that was my knee-jerk reaction too.

I don't regret the fact that I found (and still find) the question slightly nauseating, but I do now regret allowing that to influence my voting. Sex, religion, and politics are always going to present "challenges" to a site like ELL. But in general, if something offends you here, it's better to ignore it rather than try to remove it.

Of course, it would often be possible to "sanitize" a question by editing it to remove the offensive aspects. But I simply can't see how to do that with "intransitive lap" - it was and remains a perfectly legitimate question.


Yes, the question was fixable by adding actual citations to the definitions, and by explaining why the person thought the final sentence was unacceptable as stated.

Had that been done, I would have retracted my particular close vote, as it would have served its purpose of getting the question appropriately updated.

I often do this: I vote to close a question because it's incomplete as stated; I then retract that vote if it is fixed. (Although that infrequently actually happens.)

There is a significant difference between saying that a question is insufficient as stated, and saying that it's off topic. I think the subject of the question is quite on topic for the site.

However, the question remains unclear. Literally as asked, lap is an intransitive verb—as well as a transitive verb. It's not clear if the question is about the particular example sentence, or about the verb in general. (And saying that it can never be intransitive directly contradicts the dictionary definitions that have been provided.)

Both because there is no justification for the final claim (the "we cannot say" bit) and because it's still not explicitly clarifying the distinction between the verb being used intransitively sometimes versus being used intransitively in the example sentence, I would still cast a close vote (if I were able), but now for the reason that it lacks detail.


I had no connection to any activity relating to this question.

Nevertheless, the following observations are plain:

  1. The question is the first, and remains the only, associated with the user account.
  2. The subject matter is prurient in taste, in overwhelming contrast to most other subjects discussed in the context of learning or studying a language.
  3. The issue is an exceedingly nuanced distinction that is generally unnoticed, especially in the particular context, it being emotionally charged.

Naturally, a prurient theme is no reason to disallow a question, especially given the free choice of anyone to ignore any question, whether for it invoking personal distaste, or any other reason.

Two further observations seem well supported:

  1. The further examples, especially the ultimate one, again invoke a prurient theme, such choice being very uncommon and entirely unnecessary, even while illustrating perhaps completely accurately the consideration relevant to their inclusion in the text.

  2. The question relates directly to whether the verb allows a (grammatical) object, while in the particular context, the (physical) object that would serve such function may be implicitly, and many would assume indeed is, that same object that might incite more emotion among humans generally than any other kind of object.

    Imagine how the sentence would appear if the object were written explicitly, and consider any difference in emotional effect from such a change.

None of the above observations in isolation supports any reliable conclusion, but all or even some in combination give circumstantial support to a hypothesis that the motivation for writing this question was amusing diversion more so than serious discussion or sincere inquiry.

Which intervention, if any, is appropriate, given this possibility, seems to be an open question. Since closing a question is not a serious matter, especially with respect to penalty incurred by the user giving the question, such response may not necessarily be excessive.

  • No, that question was neither the first nor the only question posted by that account. There were two now-self-deleted questions, both legit questions about the English language, like most questions you'd expect to see from new questioners.
    – Eddie Kal
    Commented Aug 18, 2020 at 14:14
  • @EddieKal: Thanks for the correction. It does not seem less odd overall that the user has asked three question since opening the account, yet deleted two, though it perhaps lends doubt to the intentions being indirect.
    – brainchild
    Commented Aug 18, 2020 at 14:18
  • Well, as 10k+ users are able to see (I am not a fan of this rep/privilege thing. Great stratification strategy.) the first question was a preposition question. It received two very helpful answer-comments (comments that served as and could've been answers) and one downvote, both of which could've been the reason for self-deletion. "I have the answer I was looking for, and I am downvoted. Question no longer needed." If I had a bone to pick with it, it was light on research, which is common among first time questioners. And that explains the downvote and self-deletion. The other one was similar.
    – Eddie Kal
    Commented Aug 18, 2020 at 14:31
  • @EddieKal: My initial reaction is that the two questions you describe have a very different character than the current one. Without reviewing them, though, a reliable conclusion is impossible.
    – brainchild
    Commented Aug 18, 2020 at 14:40
  • If you'd like to see those questions I'd be happy to share them in chat. I am reluctant to publish their content here because this discussion should remain focused on the question at issue.
    – Eddie Kal
    Commented Aug 18, 2020 at 14:44
  • @EddieKal: I'm not burdened by curiosity, though I would agree to look if you happen to be seeking another opinion.
    – brainchild
    Commented Aug 18, 2020 at 14:48
  • One remark: ice-cream cone. In figurative language, many worlds are possible. People have very limited imaginations.
    – Lambie
    Commented Sep 1, 2020 at 16:34

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