Is Ask a Noun?
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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