Verbing Nouns

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Two readers wonder about the practice of using nouns as if they were verbs.

Nanerl wonders if journaled is acceptable.

Marilyn writes:

My colleagues, at a reputable academic institution, all use the word “action” as a verb, such as: “we must action these items” and “before these items can be actioned.” This drives me crazy because I’m sure ‘action’ does not have a verb connotation, but the word is used so frequently with this connotation that I am no longer sure.

I’d guess that we all have our lists of “verbed” nouns we hate to hear or read. We may not, however, all agree as to which are abominations and which are not.

Some examples from the web:

1. Clause said all three girls were initially conscious at the scene. Swanson and Zeien were flighted to the Milwaukee Area Medical Complex. (An arrow may be flighted with feathers, but injured people in a helicopter are being flown to a hospital.)

2. How many People Were Impacted? and How Severely? (What’s wrong with affected?)

3. Federalist Papers Authored by Alexander Hamilton (Hamilton was the author. He wrote the document.)

The capacity of English for turning nouns into verbs is both its glory and its bane.

This line from Richard II shows how Shakespeare managed to “verb” even such a noun as uncle:

Henry IV: My gracious uncle—

Edmund of Langley: Tut, tut! 
Grace me no grace, nor uncle me no uncle:
I am no traitor’s uncle;

As long ago as 1870 Henry Alford noted that the tendency to use nouns as verbs is so much a part of the nature of English speakers that it’s futile to rail against it:

I do not see that we can object to this tendency in general, seeing that it has grown with the growth of our language, and under due regulation is one of the most obvious means of enriching it. Verbs thus formed will carry themselves into use, in spite of the protests of the purists. —The Queen’s English.

In Alford’s day people were objecting to the use of experience as a verb.

As for journaled and actioned, I think the first is possibly OK while the second is abominable.

Sometimes a “verbed” noun fills a void, but too often it is the lazy expedient of a thoughtless writer.

The best course of action I can suggest is to take the trouble to consider appropriate verbs that already exist before taking a noun that has not previously been used as anything but a noun and turning it into a verb.

In deciding whether or not to use one of these fairly recent coinages, consider your own sense of aesthetics. If you feel that the word is ugly, don’t encourage the spread of it by using it.

What can we call this tendency to use nouns as if they were verbs?

How about anthimeria? Then we can anthimeria this term and warn people against anthimeriaing nouns!

In rhetoric, anthimeria, traditionally and more properly called antimeria (from the Greek: ἀντί, antí, “against, opposite” and μέρος, méros, “part”), is the use of a word as if it were a member of a different word class (part of speech); typically, the use of a noun as if it were a verb.

Here are some rants and observations you may enjoy:

Writing, Clear and Simple (Link no longer active)
Kathy Schenck (Link no longer active)
The Grammar Curmudgeon
Judy Muller
impact as a verb

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19 thoughts on “Verbing Nouns”

  1. Despite, or perhaps because of, my English academic background, I love messing with parts-of-speech. Some are easy, like Googled or Facebooked, which are already common in our internet culture, but I also enjoy words (facetiously) such as pursed (to hit someone with a purse), authenticize, and truthiness. I know they’re not real and not likely to catch on (ok, truthiness is very popular amongst the political parody groups), but I use them all the same. I’m a big lover of George W. Bush’s vocab. Strategery is still one of my favorite words.

    But I’m silly-fied like that.

  2. I have accepted that languages are changing faster than I would like, but I am still not OK with new “words”, especially verbs, being created for the only reason that one can’t think of the right word at the right time.

    It is especially annoying in “corporate culture” where people pat each others’ backs for being creative when they come up with such profanities. “Ideate” is one of my favorite words to hate these days.

    After verbed nouns, portmanteaus and verbs coupled with unnecessary prepositions are the next most targeted sections.

    Sorry, just had to rant.

  3. Maeve,

    I would consider the “actioned” example technical jargon. Action would be a short-hand reference to a phrase like “add this to the list of action items, so management can track progress toward completion”.

    Leveraged is the one that gripes me. This is another case where corporate-speak, often from marketing, deliberately uses jargon to form “in the know” cliques with fancy dialogue. Marketing often uses tricks and unusual context to deliberately disrupt a train of though, grasping for a clear moment to inflict their “message” on the recipient.

    What I feel is the rudeness of using technical jargon in open and public context, without taking the usual care that is expected when a tech weenie uses jargon. That is, the jargon word or phrase isn’t explained, the outre usage isn’t acknowledged. It seems just plain rude to me.

    I consider finding “leveraged” and “actioned” in use about as attractive as a blinking acid-green banner ad for banner ads.

  4. I was going to post about my utter utter loathing of the misuse of Leverage too… But you beat me to it.

    Bah, I say. 🙂

  5. OK, I was reading an article on Wired.com about a Solaire infrared grill.

    “fits easily inside the bundled carrying bag”

    Bundled – included with the grill. Or, included in the bundle of grill, instructions, and accessories.

    In this case, as in many language faux pas I blame on malicious – intentionally rude and disruptive – misuse of language for marketing purposes, using bundle as a verb made the sentence more difficult to read. Which is intended, it trades parsing the paragraph quickly for making the reader work at it – and maybe retain the marketing “message”. Plus there is the faked sense of belonging, as the reader conquers a message that is so complex that only “really smart” people will understand it.

    Blah. Using jargon out of context, without explanation, still feels rude.

  6. Hmm…the only use of “journal[l]ed” I’m aware of is an adjective (used of a computer’s file system)

  7. Peter, does this mean that “logged” – an account or event entered into a chronological record kept for future reference – is also suspect? I have been using logged since I joined the US Navy in 1973! And before that we were logging star-dates, too.

    I imagine that log was originally the ship’s log – a chunk of wood with a knotted line attached, thrown off the fantail of a sailing ship, and counting knots for a fixed period of time to estimate the speed of the ship through water, also giving rise to “knots” as a measure of speed on the water. The book used to record the speed, the knots on the ship’s log, likely became the log instead of journal or record or “the book” or whatever it was called before. Maybe “Journal of recorded speed of the good ship SS Pinafore as determined by use of the ship’s log.” Or maybe not. And then log came to be any regularly kept journal of events and hourly/daily events, often considered to be legal records. 30 years ago the Ship’s Log was whatever device was considered the ship’s reference to estimating the speed of the ship through water.

    Jumping from keeping a log, to logging an event, or making a log entry, is nearly expected, I guess, even if it is seamanship jargon. I suppose jumping from log, as the trimmed trunk of a tree that has been cut down to the chunk of wood used as a ship’s log is also jargon, and a long ways from Captain Kirk making Stardate entries into the Captain’s log on the Starship Enterprise.

  8. This is also a recurring theme in my ESL classes. I think it’s a form of shibboleth, dividing the cultural elite from the rest. Those in the know would say “I googled him” like in the film Hitch. Those who don’t know better would say, “I did a google search on him” or worse, “I looked for him in the google.”

    From the business world, we have the example of “chairing” meetings, and in sports, players sometimes get “benched.”

    Another classic example came in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing when it was being reported which athlete had “medalled.”

    One of my favorite examples comes from the web comic Teen Girl Squad found on homestarrunner.com when the characters are somewhat randomly “arrowed” by the narrator, Strong Bad.

    I find the trend funny and tell my students to come up with their own examples and sneak them into casual conversations and wait for someone to challenge the usage or react with a puzzled look.

  9. On today’s “Verbing nouns”, regarding your example:

    1. Clause said all three girls were initially conscious at the scene. Swanson and Zeien were flighted to the Milwaukee Area Medical Complex. (An arrow may be flighted with feathers, but injured people in a helicopter are being flown to a hospital.)

    The proper verb regarding attaching feathers to an arrow is “fletch.”

    Nice article, though, and long overdue. Thank you for gifting us all.

  10. I see that verbing nouns isn’t all that new. The quote “Dost thou “thou” me, thou dog?!” is mentioned in the article “O Second Person Singular, Where Art Thou?”

    Here, “thou” gets verbed, as being “addressed as thou”. Does this mean that verbing nouns is a fundamental aspect of English, and not a modern outrage?

  11. Like Mandarin, English is an isolating, analytic language, and so one doesn’t need to make any morphological changes to a noun in order to turn it into a verb. One simply needs to change its position within a sentence; you’ll readily understand what I mean if I say that I cheese a pizza or shoe a child, and verbs so derived from nouns sometimes gain acceptance in standard written English. Such was the case with the word “access”, which used to be something one gained, not something one did.

  12. I spend a lot of time around medical people, and educators, and, worst, medical-educators. I am “growing” a hatred for nouning of verbs.

    Some nursing pearls: “toileting” or “bath-ing” (“a” with short-sound, not to be confused with “long-a” bathing, which actually exists) a patient, instead of helping a patient with a trip to the toilet or a bath. If they want to really go for worst-use jargon, they can use “client” instead of “patient”, but that’s another rant.

    And if we testing how well a new drug/device performs, “we” now say that we’re “trialing” the drug/device. When I hear this word, I automatically discount everything else that comes out of the speaker’s mouth !

  13. I heard that in German ‘verbing’ nouns is a common feature. In English, this is, I think, an expression of the fact that it is a (West) Germanic language.

  14. It’s odd that you wrote an entire post on verbing nouns, without mentioning one specific example – ‘verbing’.

    Also, @nutmeag : What do you mean they’re not real words? Of course they are – they have a spelling and a meaning. Dictionaries are descriptive, not normative : a word’s inclusion (or lack thereof) from a dictionary has no bearing on it’s real-ness.

  15. I feel relaxed now. Verbing nouns is a normal inclination for English speakers. It’s a fluid language, consequently much debated. Personally, I like much of the noun-as-verb coinage: to Google, being my favorite. To verb is often expressive, lucid, and succinct. Sometimes verbing is the best path.

    I googled my way to this post while investigating “bibbed” in the sentence “Nowadays, we find more aprons bibbed and monogrammed.” I think I’ll keep the sentence. Yeah, I wrote it. At least I had enough self-respect to go looking for the truth. I manned up, so to speak.

    To verb or not to verb is a simple, personal decision. What to tell my spell-checker… now, that’s a much more soul-wrenching choice.

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