Language Reports

Is It Acceptable to Verb?

August 2018

Verbing, also known as denominalization or verbification, refers to the creation of verbs from words belonging to other syntactic categories, typically nouns. It is common practice in English, and most of us encounter verbed words several times a day, on subjects ranging from texting to parenting and networking. Verbing has attracted its share of derision; Benjamin Franklin called verbed words “awkward and abominable”, while Calvin and Hobbes—stars of the iconic comic strip—claim that “Verbing weirds language.” In addition, many an opinion piece has been written about the evils of turning nouns into verbs.

But what is it about verbing that provokes such strong reactions? Lexicographers and other language specialists typically point out that language is constantly evolving, and that some of the most established English verbs began as nouns, including rain, skate, notice, and countless others. In this article, we will examine the concept of verbing more closely and consider the objections to it.

Affixation Versus Conversion

There is more than one way of turning a noun into a verb. Words such as embody, personify and hospitalize also originated as nouns, before becoming verbs by means of affixation. This occurs when a prefix or suffix (em‑, ‑ify and ‑ize in this case) is added to a root word (body, person, hospital). These affixes provide a clear distinction between the verbs and the nouns from which they originated, which may be the reason why such words are not often the targets of criticism.

However, the most maligned examples of verbing occur through a different process: conversion, also known as zero derivation, by which a word enters a new syntactic category without any change in form. Conversion is particularly well suited to English because, unlike many other languages, it does not require the base form of verbs to carry any particular features (such as the ‑er, ‑ir and ‑re endings in French), and subjects them to only a small number of inflected forms (typically ‑ed and ‑ing endings).

“He hopes to medal at this year’s Olympics,” “We must action the proposals,” and “Inbox me the details,” are the kinds of construction frequently derided by verbing’s critics. They charge that, aside from being jarring, this usage is both detrimental to comprehension and unnecessary. Indeed, it is hard to see the benefit of the aforementioned constructions given that perfectly adequate verbal expressions, such as win a medal, implement and send, already exist. But conversion is not only associated with frivolous neologisms and jargon; it has a long history in literature. William Shakespeare made liberal use of the technique, for example in the play Henry V, which includes King Harry’s lines “Why, what read you there / That have so cowarded and chased your blood” (2.2.74–75).

Successful Verbing

Effective verbing by conversion is not only reserved for the likes of Shakespeare, and many recent examples of it have gained widespread acceptance while mostly escaping criticism. Unsurprisingly, the usefulness of such words is an important factor in their success, and coinages are often associated with new phenomena, particularly technology. When SMS messages became popular in the late 1990s, the word text quickly gained traction as a verb. With this form of communication so prevalent, English speakers sought a way to refer to it while avoiding the longer expression “send a text message” and today, objections to text as a verb are rare.

Verbed words can also be coined for creative or amusing purposes. Smartphone users may be heard lamenting a bricked device, meaning one that is entirely nonfunctional, and therefore no more useful than a brick. Other coinages may refer to well-known cultural phenomena, such as the 1980s television detective MacGyver, whose resourcefulness was the inspiration behind the verb of the same name: somebody who resolves a problem against the odds and with limited resources can be said to have MacGyvered it. Most of these playful coinages are, of course, reserved for informal usage, but can be used to great effect in those contexts.

Persistent Controversies

A small group of verbed words are frequently considered improper despite being neither jargonistic nor particularly new. The statement “The city was severely impacted” would draw criticism from those who insist that impact can only be a noun. This objection is particularly curious considering that impact probably entered the English language as a verb before being adopted as a noun: its origins are in the Latin impactus, past participle of the verb impingere, meaning “to hit against”. Criticisms of other verbs, such as access, contact or progress, are less etymologically flawed. Nevertheless, these words are also well established and considered acceptable, standard English by the vast majority of speakers, dictionaries and usage guides.

Conclusion

Most of the regularly criticized examples of verbing are, in the words of linguist Steven Pinker, “trendy terms which tart up a banal meaning”1. They tend to irritate people who wonder, for example, why we would need to interface with someone when we can talk or communicate with them. Others, such as the lighthearted examples given earlier, may be inappropriate in formal contexts, or when a given cultural reference may not be understood.

But we cannot reasonably criticize the wider practice of “turning nouns into verbs”. Whether by affixation or conversion, it has been historically widespread and is undeniably a feature of standard English. Writers should try to avoid using terms that are difficult to understand, unnecessarily jargonistic or inappropriate. But this advice, of course, does not only apply to verbs.


  1. A Sense of Style, p. 239  ↩

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