Nancy's Wordsmithy
Every noun can be...

by Nancy Allison

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When is a noun not a noun? When it's been verbed. A lot of verbing is going on, as you've probably noticed. In fact, it's happening so frequently that I think we'd better come up with a name for the part of speech produced by verbing a noun. How about a voun? Or a nerb? I rather like nerb. Let's go with nerb.

It is customary to adopt the more violent practices of mourning, including shrieking, rending of garments, tearing of hair, dirtying of faces with ashes and pitch, and so on, when nerbs are under discussion. Feel free to do any of these things, although you might try to keep it down if you're reading this on the bus.

There are two questions I want to explore about nerbs. The first is, does verbing always follow the same pattern? And the second is, are nerbs always bad?

Nerbs certainly have been around for a while I quote:

G.W. Dickinson, ex-superintendent of the Montana Union, has been gold-watched by the employees of the company.

This concise news story was printed in The Madisonian, a newspaper published in Virginia City, Montana, in February, 1889.

While gold-watching may have been an accepted nerb one hundred years ago, it has since fallen into disuse. The most famous nerb of our time surely is to impact. This expression always produces dramatic reactions, even from normally restrained people. How will it impact your schedule? someone says in a meeting. If the [Linotronic, VAX, etc.] goes down, it's gonna impact the entire project in a big way.

The linguistic outrage of to impact is so current that this nerb ranks its own section, complete with distraught quotations, in the Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage (second edition, pages 309 and 310). Asked if he would use impact as a verb in writing, Pete Hamill replies, "This is the single most infuriating use of a word in contemporary life. Politicians who hang out with businessmen use it all the time, and it is a vile, stupid alteration of the language!" Just think what he would have to say about the computer industry, where the coining of nerbs is a high art.

Let's move on to my two questions. Number one: Does verbing always follow the same pattern'?

No, it doesn't. There are two chief styles of verbing. Here's the first style:

Management has greenlighted the project.

If the buffer is full, the system errors.

They're going to leverage the deal...

To access the function...

Before we had these nerbs, we used to say things like

Management has given the project a green light.

If the buffer is full, the system gives an error warning.

They've got some leverage in the deal...

To gain access to the function...

Now let's examine exactly what happened in the switch from old-style clauses to new-style nerbs. In the examples above, a clause containing a direct object is reduced to its direct object (a noun, of course). which is then verbed. Given a green light becomes to greenlight,gives an error warningbecomes errors, and so on.

Note also that this process produces both transitive and intransitive nerbs. The examples above include three transitive nerbs (greenlight. leverage, and access) and one intransitive nerb (errors). However you may feel about these nerbs, they are produced by a sequence of identifiable steps You know where they come from.

This is not the case with the second style of verbing:

I don't want to overkill this.

Jon's people will QA it.

In the case of these nerbs, it is hard to think of a previously existing clause or a previously existing phrase. In fact, it's hard to think of anything. This class of nerbs has an eerie power to numb the mind. When I hear one of these, I forget all else as I mutter "to overkill, to overkill, to overkill," in the vain hope that repeating the expression will make it less confusing. Where does to overkill come from? Where does to QA come from? It's not clear.

In imitation of the nerb-formation pattern discussed above, we could invent a clause like this:

I don't want to do this in a way that produces overkill.

In the case of to QA, we could come up with:

Jon's people will put it through the QA process.

But would we really have said (or written) these things? I don't think so. I think we would have said

I don't want to overdo this.

Jon's people will test it.

The nerbs to QA and to overkill aren't derived from common, lengthy expressions that people feel the urge to tighten up. In fact, perfectly acceptable, concise verbs like to test and to overdo already exist, and no breath is saved by using to QA or to overkill in their stead.

And this leads to my second question. Are nerbs always bad? Well, maybe not. Clearly, a stronger case can be made for the first class of nerbs than for the second. Replacing a long clause with a single nerb strikes a blow for brevity. For those writers who prize brevity over all else, some nerbs may be welcome additions to the language.

But the second class of nerb offers no such advantage. Replacing an existing verb with a newly minted nerb not only does not reduce the length of a phrase, it may actually cause such confusion that readers are reduced to mumbling to themselves and re-reading the text two or three times to get it straight.

One final observation about nerbs: They have been with us for quite a while. For example, some style books still bemoan the verb to contact, insisting that this word is properly only a noun. However, most people have long since accepted to contact. In fact, to an entire generation of young adults, to contact has always been a verb, and the controversy has been restricted to a few dusty reference books. Clearly, some nerbs have already sidled into our language and made themselves at home. This suggests that those we presently find quite odious may eventually gain acceptance. Therefore, if we want to have any control over this process, we need to think about how to separate the bearable from the unbearable.

When you face the temptation to use a nerb, figure out what expression it replaces, and why. Brevity may be an acceptable reason, but if it is too slangy or flashy for your taste, stick with the more conventional expression. However, if it isn't an aesthetic outrage, and if it makes your writing clearer and more concise, you might, just might, consider using it.


© 2000 by STC Boston, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
Originally published November/December, 1989 in the Boston Broadside