Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Does Verbing Weird Things?

Maxine Davis responded to our treatment of loathe in a way we did not expect. However, she raises a point with which many other careful speakers agree. Here is her comment and my reply:

“My loathing for the verbalization of nouns makes me loathe statements such as the one about Prudence Pender’s being ‘ambulanced to the emergency room’!”

“I do realize that this annoying trend is popular; although I am loath to admit it.”

“[I am] Enjoying the good word daily.”

Where would you air a pet peeve about language but before the good Dr. Goodword? He is delighted to see that you practicing the Good Word even as you complain about his description of it.

This is a malady I cannot cure but I can explain why it occurs in English in a way it does not in other European languages. Verbing nouns (if you’ll excuse the expression) is frequently criticized these days and has been for a decade or so. As Calvin and Hobbes (I forget which) put it years ago: “Verbing weirds things.”

English encourages widespread verbing because it has so few affixes that are demanded by grammar. Nouns in most other European languages require a variety of endings whose choice depends on how they are used in the sentence.  Rules of grammar preclude those endings from being replaced by verbal endings.

English has lost most of its morphology, which includes affixation, so nothing prevents the use of nouns as verbs or verbs as nouns, or either as adjectives. (I wonder why using verbs as nouns doesn’t pique anyone: a swing, a hit, a walk, and so on?) The noun hit looks exactly like the verb hit. The plural hits is identical to the one verbal form, 3rd person singular hits. 

In German, however, der Schlag, die Schläge (hit, hits) is quite different from schlagen “to hit”: ich schlage “I hit”, du schlägst “you hit”, er schlägt “he hits”. Nouns are nouns, adjectives are adjectives, and verbs are verbs in French, German, Russian, Finnish, Hungarian, and most other European languages.

So there is no cure but the good news is, it isn’t fatal.

7 Responses to “Does Verbing Weird Things?”

  1. Matthew Says:

    Oh my! What makes you say that affixation is generally called morphology? I have never heard a clumsy slip like that.

    As for verbing, I never understood why people get upset about it. I do think, however, that there are a lot of clumsy ways to make nouns verbs and to make verbs nouns. As an example of the latter, I always cringe when I hear “invite” used for “invitation.” But at least “invite” is distinguished from the verb by its accent. Much worse are monosyllables like “cite,” which I have also heard used nominally. Nouns like swing, hit, and walk are fine because they are established and because the “-ation” ending doesn’t apply to them.

  2. rbeard Says:

    By the same token, the suffixes -ate and -ize don’t apply to “verb”, “fork”, “book”, weird”, etc. So why not accept these? Moreover, while the Latinate suffix -ation doesn’t apply to “hit”, “walk”, “swing”, the suffixes -er and -ing do. Why were these suffixes never added to the deverbal nouns with no endings? The lack of endings isn’t the problem.

    The noun “cite” may be a clipping of “citation”, in the same category as “doc”, “math”, “bio”, etc.

  3. Larry Brady Says:

    ‘Tis better that a language lose its affixations than it be asphixiated.

  4. Gregg Says:

    The Chinese verb and noun all the time, so I don’t see why we shouldn’t. The point being, English is changing from an inflected Indo-European model to a more isolating one, similar to, among others, Chinese. Personally I’m rather fond of changing word form to indicate meaning, but using word order is just as legitimate.

  5. rbeard Says:

    Of course, you are right. I have mentioned a few times in these blogs that English is losing affixes, which also indicates that it is moving toward an isolating language, one that uses separate words without affixes. That leaves us in an intermediate stage where a single affix has multiple functions, since all languages have the same set of funtions (subject, object, agent nouns, action nouns, etc.) whether they have affixes to mark them or not.

    This is why the suffix -ing can now mark verbs (He is running), adjectives (running water causes problems), nouns (Running strengthens your body), and adverbs (I strained my thigh running). It is also why “they” is both singular and plural and why “than” can be a conjunction and a preposition.

  6. Guille Says:

    just for the record, it is Calvin who mentions such quote:

  7. steve Says:

    My personal gripe is the use of verbs as nouns – such as ‘build’ (as in “the new build is scheduled to begin this summer”) and ‘install’ (as in “the software install was carried out successfully”).

    What is wrong with the correct nouns – i.e. ‘building’ and ‘installation’?

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