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Michael IELTS Band 9
Professional Teacher
Correct but strange (3): the troublesome verb "allow"

“Allow” is a troublesome word for English students. Consider these three sentences: 

1. “Our boss allows to drink coffee at our desks whenever we want.” 

2. “We have a free coffee machine in our office which allows us to have coffee whenever we want.” 

3. “I grind coffee beans just before I make my coffee, and this allows the coffee to taste fresh.”

Point 1: “Allow” usually needs an object person

In sentence 1, the verb is used with its correct meaning, but there is a mistake in the form because “allow” must be followed either by an object person (like “you” or “us”), or less commonly, by a noun.  The correct options for 1. are therefore:  

a) “Our boss allows us to drink coffee at our desks whenever we want.” or
b) “Our boss allows the drinking of coffee at our desks whenever we want.”

“allows us” is the much more common option.  b) is formal and drinking coffee too informal a situation.  Allow + noun” is generally chosen only when you specifically want to talk in an impersonal, general way. (e.g. “The EU allows free movement between countries.”) 

Point 2: “Allows us ” vs “means that we” 

Sentence 2 is the best of the three.  I would not criticise a student who wrote this because the meaning is clear, and it sounds OK. However, in everyday conversation, native speakers would often say: 
“We have a free coffee machine in our office which means that we can have coffee whenever we want.”
“mean(s) that (subject)” introduces an effect or consequence.

Point 3: “Allow” vs “help/make”

In sentence 3, “allow” is not a great verb. We can use the verb “mean” (like in 2.), but instead we often use a verb like “help” or “ensure”. e.g.“I grind coffee beans just before I make my coffee, and this helps it (to) taste fresh.” or “I grind coffee beans just before I make my coffee, and this makes it tastes fresh.”  

In both of these alternatives, the activity of grinding the beans does something active which makes a difference to the result.  “allow” is not strong enough.  If I allow you to make fresh coffee, I do nothing to stop you, but you do all the work. But if I “help” you (to) have fresh coffee (“to” is optional), then I am making a real contribution.  Even more strongly, if I “make" the coffee fresh, I am making an essential contribution. 

Can you make sentences which to test how well you know how to use the verbs “allow”, “help”, “ensure”, and “make”? 

Sep 10, 2016 11:26 AM
Comments · 17

I like the title of your series, "Correct but strange". It just goes to show that language "correctness" often isn't black and white.

I'd say Sentence 1 is unambiguously wrong, but 2. and 3. are really on the knife edge, for me at least. I'd agree that 2. is slightly awkward but have to admit when I read 3. I couldn't really see anything wrong with it at all.

I wonder if I might've been driven slightly insane by my mild obsession with "let/have/make" (they have the same function of "allow" here: verbs which induce another action, eg. "this makes the coffee taste stronger"; "the teacher let/made the student leave the class"; "I had my hair done at the salon").

Such "action-inducing verbs" (if you know of a better term do say!) are very hard to translate into Chinese. Chinese speakers tend to generalise all of them as "let", producing sentences like this:
"*My parents let me have a greater appreciation of life"
"*Economic difficulties let the company go bankrupt"

"*I let the architect redesign my living room" (the last one's grammatical, but if the learner meant "had" it's almost more confusing than the other two - hence why ambiguous grammar is often much worse than flatly incorrect grammar!)

By the way, I looked in OED and didn't see "allow" used in the sense of "make" or "have" at all, therefore I'll gladly concede to your standard...though I'm left scratching my own head after this...

September 10, 2016
Great grammar series, Michael! [bump up]

Alan, I usually don’t use any term for “action inducing verbs,” but when I’m feeling particularly nerdy, I’ll call them “causative auxiliaries” ;)   Btw, is the all-purpose Chinese word you alluded to by any chance 讓/让 ?

Sudeep “Let me build a sentence….” Nice usage of “let” :)  In the US we usually say “form” or “make” a sentence — I don’t know if “build” is British, or maybe Old English.
September 10, 2016

Thanks Alan.  I also see "allow" overused, not just by Chinese, but by many other language speakers, and this explains the little discussion. 

Sudeep, thanks for your comment. You might say "allow myself..." when you give yourself a treat e.g. I allow myself a glass of wine on Sundays."  In your sentence, you could use modals like should/must/have to.  I don't recommend "have to allow oneself to do something".  I've never heard this and the meaning would not be clear. Keep up the good work.

September 10, 2016

Another nice lesson which is worth discussing:)

I remember the correct but strange(1) which was about "according to me" which was kind of self-focusing phrase like this word "Allow" which is most of the time used in a sentence like a boss to an employee or superior to inferior.

But as you mentioned some examples which clearly showed a distinction between using some other words instead of using  "Allow".

BTW let me build a sentence using the words you have mentioned--

We have to allow ourselves to help the hapless victim of the disaster by making them aware of their rights and confidence within them and by ensuring their safety and security.

Please correct me If I'm wrong somewhere.

Thank you for such a nice lesson:)

September 10, 2016
Thanks for your time!
September 11, 2016
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Michael IELTS Band 9
Language Skills
English, French, German, Italian, Spanish
Learning Language
German, Italian