Etymology Grammar Linguistics

Verbal reasoning

Q: My pet peeve is the verbalization of nouns, but I’m always driving when Pat is on the Leonard Lopate Show so I haven’t had a chance to call in about it.

A: Many people get annoyed when nouns are newly “verbed.” We do a lot of groaning ourselves. We don’t like the use of “impact” as a verb, for example, and we tend to avoid it. 

But speakers of English have been legitimately turning nouns into verbs for centuries. This is how English got many of its most familiar verbs.

Would you believe that “cook” began life as a noun? We formed the verb from the noun.

By the same process, we also acquired the verbs “thread,” “petition,” “map,” “jail,” “hammer,” “elbow,” “phone,” “hand,” “farm,” and many more. All these verbs were adaptations of the earlier nouns. 

In English, parts of speech change their functions very readily and have since the days of Old English. This process is called “conversion,” and it accounts for much of our present-day vocabulary.

Not only do nouns get verbed, but verbs get nouned, as in these examples: “a winning run,” “a long walk,” “a constant worry,” “take a call,” “a vicious attack.” Those nouns were adapted from the earlier verbs. 

Conversion works every which way. Adverbs like “out” and “through” get converted into nouns (“he pitched three outs”), into verbs (“a gay celebrity was outed”), and into adjectives (“a through street”).  

Adjectives get converted too. You might say, for instance, that sun causes paper “to yellow” or that a process is beginning “to slow.” Both of those verbs were converted from adjectives. 

For every irritating formation (like the verbs “impact,” ”dialogue,” and “interface”) there are hundreds more that we depend on and use freely every day.

So don’t knock conversion itself. Even when the words are ugly, the process is legitimate. If you don’t like a new usage, simply avoid it. Words that aren’t used tend to disappear.

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