Verbing Nouns

rogersgeorge on October 11th, 2016

I mentioned this topic before, so this post is more a rant than an actual lesson. Look at the first cell in today’s Lola:


She said “loan” instead of “lend.”

Using a noun as a verb has a long and popular (notice I didn’t say “noble”) history in English. It’s so common that sometimes folks for whom English is a second (or third or more) language can get confused. This is a virtue of highly inflected languages—the inflectional endings make it easy to tell nouns from verbs. The trouble is, you have to memorize all those inflections.

My rant is this: don’t use a noun for a verb unless you can’t think of a good word that’s already a verb.

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rogersgeorge on December 2nd, 2013

This use of “whom” is correct. Why does it sound wrong?

blondie whomGood old Dagwood. From Sept 2013

The reason is because word order is important in English. The rules of word order aren’t absolute in English, but we pretty strongly like to have the subject come right before the verb. Since we don’t use many inflections, word order steps in to tell us the function of a word. Lots of times we spell nouns and verbs exactly alike. Without word order, we can’t tell. Take “run,” for instance. is it a noun or a verb? Depends.

This dog run looks pretty clean.

Would you run to the store for me?

In front of the verb, “run” is a noun, a place for dogs to hang out. After the subject, it’s a verb, something you do.

Highly inflected languages, such as Greek, care less about word order. In fact in Greek, they have a figure of speech called “chiasmus,” which means to arrange the words in a symmetrical order by part of speech. For example: adjective, noun, adverb, verb, adverb, noun, adjective. You use the inflections to tell what goes with what. It’s pretty hard (though not utterly impossible) to do this in English.

So on to the Dagwood cartoon. “Whom” is in front of the verb “talking.” That makes it feel wrong, even though it’s right. Actually, the “to” is out of place. Literally the sentence is “Do you realize to whom you are talking?” Of course, that’s even stiffer than the original.

Ah English. Sometimes you just can’t win.