“Verbing” Nouns

By Guest Author

This is a guest post by Jeannine Sohayda. If you want to write for Daily Writing Tips check the guidelines here.

I was disappointed yesterday when, while cruising Facebook, I noticed a national pharmacy company’s request for me to “fan” them. I simply cannot agree to become a fan of a company that thinks turning nouns into verbs is hip and thereby will increase its customer base. If they had instead asked me to “become a fan”, I may have indeed considered it, because I do shop there often.

I’m no stranger to nouns becoming verbs; we’ve all “Googled” for information. I must admit, it was refreshing to see that Twitter asks its users simply to “follow” other users on its site. I suppose “Twitter me” would make no sense.

However, the word “fan” is already both a noun and a verb, and to see it used in this way was particularly jolting. By the way, even the word “verb” is a noun.

I often wonder what it must be like for people who are just learning English. While they are trying to find words and phrases to get them through their days in English, we are simultaneously butchering and deconstructing our own language, making it difficult even for native speakers to understand each other. If we were to think about it in reverse, about the difficulties of learning Chinese, for example, as Americans we would be infuriated at the idea of their randomly adding new words as we page in vain through our phrase book.

If we want people to speak, write and, in general, communicate understandably in English, I’d like to suggest that we set a good example and use the language as it was intended: as a means to illuminate rather than obfuscate.

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40 Responses to ““Verbing” Nouns”

  • dtli

    Two “verbed” nouns that have wormed their way into business speak are “action” (“Can you action these points?”) and “effect” (“It’s time to effect a change”).

    How did this happen?

  • Sue Bailey

    How did it happen? It happens because language changes. People use words like this. If “unfriend” can be the word of the year
    http://blog.oup.com/2009/11/unfriend/
    I don’t see what the problem is with “fan [2]” meaning to become a fan rather than to waft cool air. Jeannine seems to have understood pretty easily what was being asked of her, so I don’t buy the ‘dual meanings cause obfuscation’ argument.

    I’ve learned and am learning French, which has a much smaller vocabulary than English and therefore many more words which perfom double or even triple service with a range of variant meanings. It’s almost always obvious, even to a native speaker, what’s being meant.

  • Elise

    Although I understand the desire to retain the “normal” or “natural” English that we are familiar with, the Old and Middle English specialist in me feels that it is necessary to point out that English is not a stable language. It may seem overly obvious to point out that Old English is a foreign language to modern speakers and Middle English is unrecognizable to those who have not been trained to read it, but people seem to forget just how much English changes over time spans as short as centuries.
    “Verbing” nouns and other ways we “butcher and deconstruct[]” our language are, in fact, simply the ways in which our language moves and evolves with time.
    Some people may lament the clarity of a past, simple English (which I would argue has never existed — English has almost always been a hodge-podge kind of language), but the idea that modern technology and ideology is creating some assault our language is unfair to what is a natural process for language — especially one as widespread as English.
    You can’t have as many people speaking a language as there are those who speak English and not expect it to change constantly.
    Rather than lament the ways in which English is changing, I would like to see us celebrate the fact that English is such a fluid, elegant and adaptable language.

  • Tony Hearn

    The migration of words in English between different parts of speech is not new, of course. indeed it is a very creative aspect of our language. But nonetheless some instances work easily and some aggravate. Perhaps it’s because the usage is forced rather than natural, as in ‘fan’ cited in the article. I must admit I shall die before I utter ‘fun’ as an adjective (e.g.having a fun time), and mercifully this is still widely considered youthspeak or at least extremely informal. By the way, ‘dtli’ ‘effect’ as a verb dates from 1579 in the OED!

  • Suzanne

    I agree that Twitter made the right decision. “Twitter me” just isn’t right. Neither is “friend me” but it’s too late for that. The more it’s repeated, the less wrong it sounds.

    Good points, Jeannine. Stand your ground and refuse to “fan” the pharmacy company! That just sounds ridiculous.

    Most of all, thank you for ending with the word “obfuscate.” Earlier this week I posted George Orwell’s 6 writing tips. I always think of him when I see that word. What would he think of “fan me”?

  • BLOGitse

    THANK YOU! for: “If we want people to speak, write and, in general, communicate understandably in English, I’d like to suggest that we set a good example and use the language as it was intended: as a means to illuminate rather than obfuscate.”

    I’m trying so hard to communicate in English even if my grammar sucks. But I learn by doing.
    Specially on Twitter the language is terrible. I’m not ‘in’ English slang/jargon so I’m outsider.
    But. Guys like you are great! You write about great topics and your language is the best vitamin for my daily English learning process!

    Have a great day!

  • BLOGitse

    sorry, just noticed this was a guest post!
    Thank you anyway Jeannine! 🙂

  • mattack

    That’s some elitist BS… Languages evolve. The companies request wasn’t obfuscated at all; it sounds like you knew exactly what they meant.

  • e-Patient Dave

    Wow, as much as I’m a staunch advocate for rigor in language, I have to say that in this case you’re talking about a culture you don’t seem to understand. (I say that with all respect – I’m your kin – I’m sharing my perspective, not slamming.)

    Friend and fan are accepted vocabulary (as verbs) in that culture. It’s suicidal for a company to enter a community and not use its language.

    Fwiw, the accepted verb in Twitter is to tweet, not to twitter. People in the Twitter community giggled in glee when the dorks on Good Morning America stiffly talked with each other, faux joking about “So, Robin, you gonna twitter me about that?” Ewww. 🙂

  • Brendan

    Didn’t you see the Oxford Word of the Year? “Unfriend,” verb, to remove someone as a friend on social networking websites such as Facebook and MySpace.

  • Brad K.

    I recall how jarring it was, in 1982, when our manager started spouting about “leverage” this and that in a meeting.

    And yet, using nouns in a verb sense has been going on for many years. Verb might be a noun, but “verbing” is a well understood term. Drive – driving? Hammer – hammer? Dog run – run away? Sailing ship – ship by UPS? Twenty-one gun salute – salute the flag?

    I suppose Twitter might have considered “twit”, but some folk might have felt funny using that particular verb for someone they wanted to associate with.

    Twit – according to my Chambers dictionary
    1) (slang) n. a fool
    2) vt. (twitting; twitted) to upbraid; to taunt – n. A reproach [OE aetwitant – reproach, from aet – against, and witan, to reproach]- twitter (Fielding) to twit. twitting n. and adj. twittingly adv.

    If I think of fan as a device for moving air, than fan as an action word must be to blow air toward something that needs cooled. I would imagine that is where the usage of fan, as an admirer, came from – one that lavishes admiration (blows at) an adored public figure. Then “fan me” would be to invite you to express admiration towards oneself. In this case, the admiration would be expressed as registering a linkage from one Twitter(tm) account to another, in a “fan” account relationship.

    It seems to me that a verbed noun would be the least of the objection to the way fan me warps a device for moving air into an action to link Twitter(tm) accounts. The excuse that the action is a contrived word rather than proper English, and jargon applicable within the realm of Twitter.com, is likely valid and appropriate. Consider how “dial up” has evolved, for many, from a curious phrase (Dial what? Up where?) to dial-up, as in an account accessed by computer modem, over phone lines, to an Internet Service Provider (ISP) for Internet access. That, or dial up, as an act to connect a computer to a network of computers.

    With so many examples of verbed nouns in English, from before Shakespeare, is it any wonder that casual usage continues to introduce contrived or jargon usage into general communications?

    Oops! Is it improper to use a verb as an adjective, as in a verbed noun?

  • Maeve

    Brad K.,
    “I would imagine that is where the usage of fan, as an admirer, came from – one that lavishes admiration (blows at) an adored public figure.”

    Fan in this context is a shortening of fanatic.

  • Maeve

    “Verbing” nouns is, as Tony points out, a creative aspect of English. Some nouns morph so easily they do not offend. Others strike a nerve.
    Our guest author makes use of a “verbed noun,” but so far no one has found it to be remarkable.

    I love English. 🙂

  • Suzanne

    Maeve, do you mean “butchering”?

  • brain

    Maeve – or maybe “cruising”?

    I’m always amused by this type of rant. These folks seem to believe that, about a month ago, the English language reached the pinnacle of language development (whatever that means), and that any change is immoral and offensive.

    My advice: get over yourselves.

    And for the record, I’ve got plenty of pet peeves – the non-standard use of “myself” among them – and certain things just sound stupid to my ear, but I can’t in good conscience condemn them or their users.

    As for “[using] the language as it was intended” (whatever that means – intended by whom? Who designed the language? (hint: nobody)), I contend that the verbing of nouns does not typically obfuscate. In point of fact, you know exactly what this company means by its use of the term “fan” in that context. That fact is clear in your proposal of an alternative. There is no obfuscation.

  • jameswatt

    We may not forget the ‘old’ meaning: to winnow, to move by a fan, to direct a current of air up onto, cool with a fan, etc. In all this, the noun fan applies to some instrument used to fan(verb)

  • Maeve

    Suzanne,
    No, although butcher was originally a noun, it was being used as a verb as early as 1562. Keep looking.

  • Sudama Chandra Panigrahi

    I was reading such an article in today’s news paper. Unfriend is Word of the year reported by the New Oxford American Dictionary. It is a verb that means to remove someone as a friend on a social networking site such as Orkut or Facebook. Language is evolving but drastic or nonsense changes really make the language difficult to understand.

    Good post.

  • Robyn Broyles

    I thought “effect” as a verb was an old usage.

    I have no problem with speakers verbing nouns. The ability to make a noun into a verb, and have it make sense, is a natural characteristic of English. I agree with Maeve!

  • pup

    Yes, I agree that verbing a noun is a major fail. (Woops, did I just noun a verb?)

  • brain

    Maeve – “page”

  • brain

    umm… why are my comments still ‘awaiting moderation’ while others posted after me are approved?

  • Precise Edit

    Maeve, are you referring to “We PAGE in vain . . .”?

    The flip side of this discussion is changing verbs into nouns, i.e., nominalization, which causes many problems with clarity and reader engagement.

    @Pup: “Major fail” Ah, the joys of new slang, e.g., “This game is fail.”

  • Maeve

    Precise Edit,
    You found it: adding new words as we page in vain through our phrase book.

    Btw, I also did a double-take at pup’s “”verbing a noun is a major fail.”

    When a man is in doubt about this or that in his writing, it will often guide him if he asks himself how it will tell a hundred years hence.  ~Samuel Butler

  • Sydney

    @Maeve:

    page (v.): to turn the pages (as of a book or magazine) especially in a steady or haphazard manner —usually used with “through”
    Ref. Merriam-Webster Dictionary

    It IS used with “through”, with an interjecting emotion: “page in vain through”.

    Don’t get so hot and bothered, Maeve. It’s not always necessary to be critical of the work of a guest writer. In this case, your criticism only makes you look foolish.

  • joker_smile

    Why so prescriptivist? :):):)

  • Deborah

    Those of you with access to the comic strip “Get Fuzzy” will certainly want to read it today (Nov.18).

  • Angela

    I have no problem with the verbing of nouns, nor with the nouning of verbs. I think it’s a playful and entertaining trend. As long as the meaning is clear, the harm is minimal.

    Regarding the suggestion that someone learning Chinese would be frustrated if the Chinese were constantly adding to and altering their vocabulary, I’m sure the Chinese are doing just that. I imagine most languages are undergoing constant change, and I’m sure those changes irritate many native speakers.

    When I studied Japanese, my teacher was a Japanese woman who had been in the US for a number of years. When we learned the word for email, she taught us 電子メール (denshi-meeru). A couple of young Japanese students who very recently arrived in the US corrected her, insisting that “no one” used that word anymore, and the current word was eメール (e-meeru). My teacher looked at that glaring letter “e” mixed with katakana letters and cried, “What’s this Janglish!” Thus we students learned how quickly languages evolve.

    Some of English’s newly-verbed nouns will probably stick around and become accepted. Others will surely fade into oblivion. I’m not really bothered by the verb “friend” because it seems so normal compared to a lot of the other words that have risen out of “the internets.” (I’ve actually heard people say “OMG” and “ROFLMAO” in live speech.) But I’d love for the business-speak verbs “action” and “effect” (mentioned by dtli) to vanish.

  • brain

    reader.count = reader.count – 1

  • Shirley, in Berkeley

    No serious student of language could deny that English evolves over time, and that meanings and usage change, but the lead-footed incursions of ad-speak and misguided attempts to be hip or highbrow, muddle the precision and beauty of English. We are lucky to have a huge language, full of choices for saying almost everything in ways that clarify meaning. English has room for “fanning” and “gifting,” but striving for “le mot juste,” as Flaubert called it, is so much fun that I would never want to give it up.

  • Brad K.

    Shirley,

    There is a time and place for “proper” English – with little jargon, few recently coined terms, and as correct a grammar as possible.

    Most casual communications don’t adhere that closely to proper English. What we look for are the disconnects, the overlooked “you know what I mean” slips and contrivances, so that when we do intend the clearest, most respectful communication we can make a very good showing.

    Whether English evolves or not in casual usage, the bleed over into proper English is much more glacial. If we don’t keep the distinctions in mind, it can be jarring to venture into proper English unawares.

    I expect there is an element of pride in mastering proper English. Proper English is a dialect that is more widely accepted and understood that most dialects of English. Proper English is not the only way to communicate well, just the best for wide dissemination and clearest communication to the widest audience. If a listener encounters something unexpected on hearing proper English, there are many resources to resolve any doubt. That isn’t so for hip slang, for many causal usages.

    In some instances, proper English is an expression of respect for a venue, and for the time and attention of your audience. It takes thought and energy, a clear intent, to communicate in proper English.

    Enjoy!

  • joker_smile

    @Brad:

    Proper English? Or is what you’re meaning to say ‘standard English’? There are ‘proper’ forms of all dialects of English (and any language), though when you say that there is a form that can be understood by all speakers of the language, the standard form is what fits the bill. This does not imply that other forms or dialects of the tongue are incorrect, per se, but it certainly makes them non-standard.

    j_s

  • Maeve

    Sydney,
    I certainly hope no one else misinterpreted my remarks as you did, especially not guest author Jeannine Sohayda whose well-written article has given us all so much food for discussion.

    I was not criticizing the use of page as a verb. I thought I was pointing out to readers that some verbed nouns blend in so well that no one notices them or is offended by them.

    Your comment reminds me that one can never know what will offend somebody.

    Still, it was kind of you to want to stand up for the guest author.

  • Thom

    I am not fond of the butchering of our nouns either (with the possible exception of when it really is the best choice, google).
    When I used to edit all of my director’s correspondence as part of my job (for a design firm), she insisted in everything she wrote to attempt to use concept in verb form, believing she was going to start a trend, I think (concepted, concepting). I of course insisted that we already have a word for that, conceptualize, so, leave the noun alone. I believe it’s important in maintaining the language’s integrity, though I comprehend linguistic description vs prescription.

  • georgie ovenden

    I can’t open the e-book. I tried opening and I tried saving and then opening the zip file but it is encrypted.
    Solutions?

  • Sandra Dunning

    If you want to be a grammar/mechanics resource, you should know that commas and periods ALWAYS go INSIDE quote marks! When I saw the following sentence, I had to stop reading: “If they had instead asked me to “become a fan”, I may have indeed considered it, because I do shop there often.” I cannot take seriously anyone proposing to “know” grammar/mechanics when they place a comma outside the quote mark, essentially leaving that poor comma all alone, just hanging there. Furthermore, when a dependent clause comes at the end of a sentence, a comma should NOT be used, meaning TAKE THE COMMA OUT BETWEEN “it” and “because.” Notice how my period is tucked safely between the last letter of the word and the big old quote mark at the end of the sentence. Here’s how it would look otherwise: … TAKE THE COMMA OUT BETWEEN “it” and “because”. Now you see the period is floating between my sentences, looking like it has no home, no attachment, no protection.

  • Sandra Dunning

    I just noticed an error in my own response. I should have used single quote marks inside the quoted sentence. I’ll blame it on copying and pasting.

  • Q

    Nouns should not be used as verbs because that causes a misperception in the brain, along with behavioral and conceptual missteps.

  • shirley in berkeley

    Sandra, standard American usage is to put punctuation inside a closing quotation mark unless it is a colon or semicolon, or a question mark or exclamation point that is not part of the quotation. My English friends get very starchy about this and insist that periods ALWAYS go OUTSIDE a closing quotation mark.

    “Always” and “Never” are very strong words. As we all know, the word “judgment” is “judgement” in books printed in England because that’s proper British English spelling. If we follow what’s considered correct usage on our respective sides of “The Pond,” as we call it, or “The Pond”, as they call it, we’ll be just fine.

  • Margot Reine

    I am and ESOL teacher and it is not difficult to teach students the form of the gerund if it is explained correctly. The gerund has been around for a long time, and in many countries, such as in Ireland it is used proliffically. I don’t find the gerund a difficult form of language at all and use it consistently when writing.

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