Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Is it OK to turn verbs into nouns?

Who's asking: Steven Dean, Mechanicsville, VA

Steve asks, "What's your stance on the 'verbification' of nouns? Also, what's your stance on putting quotes around non-words to make them words?"

Since I admitted yesterday that I have no formal advanced education in English, I'm not sure I want to venture an opinion on this -- I know of at least two professional copy editors who visit this site on a regular basis, and invite them to leave comments below.

That said, the great strength of English is its ability to grow, change and assimilate other languages. We've already talked here about the emergence of "Google" as a verb. According to one reference I found, approximately 1/3 of English verbs began as nouns. Steve himself gave the example of using the word "gift" as a verb, which is perfectly acceptable as a short version of "make a gift of." (In that case, though, the simple "give" is probably a better choice, or "present" if you want to make it clear that it's something more formal.)

The overriding rule of language is clarity. If I say "I Googled her," you know exactly what I mean, and I've only used three words; it's much easier than saying, "I investigated her, using the online search engine Google." (The people at Yahoo, Ask.com and Dogpile must gnash their teeth every time they hear "Google" as a verb.)

If a good word already exists to describe an action, turning a noun into a verb is unnecessary, and I'd change it in a text I was editing. Particularly in business English, you should never ask your reader to work any harder than necessary. Nothing stops a train of thought faster than the question, "What does that mean?"

And as for your question about quotation marks, I think it's fine to use them in writing to set off deliberate errors; just don't make that "air quotes" gesture with your hands, or I will send you to Tod Goldberg to have your knuckles clipped.

4 comments:

Claire said...

I don't know that other search engines should be verbed. I mean, saying you Dogpiled someone would have a troubling double meaning.

AnswerGirl said...

Good point, though I'm a little worried about what the current generation thinks "dogpile" means. We used to use it as a playground term that meant a group tackle on somebody... that's how you guys use it, right? Uh, right?

Claire said...

Yeah, that's still all it is. I even double-checked on UrbanDictionary.com to make sure I wasn't missing out on the happening slang either.

Bill said...

Some nouns-turned-verbs stick, and some don't. You certainly can't write off the phenomenon as somehow unacceptable. "Gifting" has been around for a while, but it's so silly and unnecessary that you won't find it in well-edited copy. On the other hand, I don't get worked up about "hosting" parties and the like. "Host" as a verb fills a need; the alternatives are just clunky.