Is Ask a Noun?

By Maeve Maddox

A reader questions the use of ask as a noun:

“The ask was unreasonable.”

“I realize it’s a big ask, but I’m hoping you can do it.”

In these examples, “ask” seems to be a synonym for “request.” Merriam-Webster says “ask” is a verb, but increasingly I hear it used as a noun.  Is this use of “ask” increasingly prominent?  Is it appropriate?

Examples of ask as a noun can be found in Old English, and the OED includes a citation of its use as a card-playing term in 1886, but the uses illustrated in the reader’s question are fairly recent.

The financial idiom “bid and ask” appears on the Ngram Viewer graph in 1903. In the context of the stock market, the bid is the price a buyer is willing to pay for a stock, and the ask is the price the seller is willing to accept. This use of ask is business jargon for what in standard speech would be called “the asking price.”

After a brief flurry in the 1920s, the phrase “a big ask” appears on the Ngram Viewer in 1989 and soars from there. M-W labels this use of ask “chiefly British, informal.”

The OED agrees that ask as a noun is “colloquial,” but identifies the usage as “originally Australian” and observes that it occurs chiefly in the context of sports.

M-W defines noun ask as “something asked for, requested, or required of someone,” but the OED specifies that ask as a noun in modern usage is accompanied by a modifier like big, huge, or tough. Ask in this sense is not simply “something asked for,” but “something that is a lot to ask of someone; something difficult to achieve or surmount.”

Outside the context of the stock market, the reader’s first example, “The ask was unreasonable,” is not even good informal English. If the speaker is talking about the price of something, then the appropriate term is “asking price.” If the person is talking about a request, then the noun wanted is request or demand.

The second example, “I realize it’s a big ask, but I’m hoping you can do it,” passes muster as acceptable colloquial English because “a big ask” is not the same as a mere request. “A big ask” is an idiom like “a tall order,” something asked of a person that will require more than average effort to accomplish.

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6 Responses to “Is Ask a Noun?”

  • Nancy R.

    “Ask” as a noun grates on my ear like fingernails on a chalkboard. I have heard it used by members of several volunteer committees. One person who says it frequently is a banker. No doubt, he hears it so much at work that he thinks it’s grammatically acceptable. If we allow “big ask,” we’ll soon get “big beg.”
    As for the trite “fingernails on a chalkboard” that I used– It will likely disappear soon, as the last chalkboards come off the classroom walls.

  • Charles Higginson

    “Ask” as a noun is standard terminology in fundraising, and doesn’t always refer to a large request or one that might be difficult to meet. It’s just the word for what you’re requesting.
    However, as a publications editor in a fundraising organization, I refuse to let this terminology out of the house. It strikes many people as odd, including me, so I won’t allow it in our public materials. Every profession has its timesaving jargon, often best kept private.

  • Connie

    Using “big ask” is a “big fail”, and both of these terms offend my ears.

  • Connie

    Nancy, I suppose we’ll have to chalk that up to progress! As a substitute teacher, many years ago, I would use my fingernails on the chalkboard to settle an unruly class of students. This was, of course, after my “big ask” for their attention was a “big fail”.

  • venqax

    Anything as a “term of art” can pass, but as general language this kind of thing is especially annoying. It serves no purpose– the words “request”, “favor”, already exist to mean exactly this. It’s cutesy kind of nonsense that seems to begin with “yuppies” when they try to make the professional world a bit more comfortably informal or even juvenile.

  • Michael Mackay

    ‘Ask’ is a noun if you make it a noun: you do that by inserting the indefinite article ‘a’ before it, as in ‘It was a big ask’. You might choose to use the definite article ‘the’, thus: ‘The ask was too much. We declined to respond.’ Neither use is pretty, but in both cases ‘ask’ is a noun.

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