A faithful and alert reader contacted me this week, suggesting we review the difference between “refrain” and “restrain.”
She had heard an awkward misuse over an airline intercom, a common medium for extemporaneous grammatical gaffes. Flight attendants’ scripts are pretty well vetted, but when attendants are left to their own wits, snickers can ensue. I know from experience, after hearing more than once that passengers should refrain from “conjugating in the aisles.”
Notice I said refrain, not restrain.
On her recent flight, the Word Nymph stringer and her fellow passengers were told to “refrain yourself from leaving your seats.” My friend wanted this aired, reflexive pronoun-object mismatch aside.
Without looking it up, I knew that one refrains from doing something and that one restrains oneself or others, often from doing something. I knew that restrain requires an object. We restrain prisoners, dogs and ourselves, even airline passengers. Refrain requires no object. I’m not sure I could have explained why this is so.
Grammarians explain that restrain is a transitive verb, meaning it needs an object. We restrain something or someone. Refrain is intransitive; it requires no object.
Keeping within the airline setting, here’s how I’d remember it:
The flight attendant should refrain from speaking off script. She should restrain herself when tempted to ad lib.
If I had to choose, I’d rather a flight attendant be proficient in skills that I am not—emergency evacuation, in-flight firefighting, defibrillation, emergency landing, decompression emergencies and anti-terrorism—than in matters of grammar.
Besides, this frees me up to do what I do best–conjugating in the aisles (amo, amās, amat, amámus, mátis, amant)
(Shirley you can’t be serious…)