A quick Google search for “verbing nouns” yields a rather substantial collection of pages discussing the topic of verbing in English. Some are quite insightful while others are merely opinion pieces masquerading as authoritative commentary. There seems to be a substantial corps of people on the “verbing nouns is evil” side of the debate while there are very few soundly on the “verbing nouns is cool” side. It is, however, refreshing to see the number of commentators who are largely ambivalent or who recognize their own personal biases. As you have no doubt guessed, I am about to weigh in on the issue.

First, let me start by saying that the whole issue about whether verbing nouns is a good thing or not is not as simple as it might appear. To understand the issue, we must first be clear on just what a noun or a verb is.

A noun is simply a word that refers to an object or concept. This includes proper nouns like “Joe” or “England” or “Wednesday”. It also includes mundane things like “thing” or “desk” or “window”. It also includes such intangibles as “thought” or “love” or “sleep”.

A verb, on the other hand, is a word that refers to an action, either real or abstract. Verbs may also be used to link a noun with another noun or some sort of description. For instance, “sleep”, “run”, “talk”, “think”, “be”, “exist”, and so on.

I was taught that words can be identified as a particular part of speech (noun, verb, etc.) by analyzing the sentence structure around them, which is generally true. I was also taught that a particular word has a natural part of speech, which is not generally true in English. This is where the real complexity comes into play.

Let us examine the word “sleep”. Is it naturally a noun or a verb? In fact, it is neither. It can be either a noun or a verb depending on context. If I write “you sleep”, it is a verb. If I write “sleep is necessary”, it is a noun. That is, there is absolutely no difference between the base verb form and the noun form of the word. This is very common in English. In fact, with a little thought, you can probably identify hundreds or more instances of this sort of duality.

The important observation above is that English is not generally an inflected language. The function of a word is not determined by the word itself but rather by its usage in a sentence. Word order is what matters, not the words themselves. (Well, obviously, the words themselves matter or there would be no need for several hundred thousand words, but for determining their function, the words do not matter.)

In that light, it hardly makes sense to complain that nouns are getting verbed, does it? Well, perhaps not in the general case. There are cases where verbing a noun actually makes things harder to say, or clumsy. Sometimes it is not quite clear what a noun would mean as a verb. In those cases, it makes sense to be skeptical of the utility of the practice.

On the other hand, taking advantage of the word order to deliver meaning is handy when brevity is desired.  For instance, when the name of a tool is used as a verb, it usually means using the tool for its intended purpose. For instance, “hammer”, “saw”, etc. Sure, you could say you are cutting wood rather than sawing it. But use of “saw” brings the additional information that a saw is being used to cut the wood. More generally, use of a noun as a verb implies the use of the noun in some manner.

Basically, the practice of verbing nouns in English is actually part of the language. It is a process that exploits the structure of the language to convey meaning. Indeed, often the verbing process yields an implied meaning with subtle differences from the alternative words for a similar action, like sawing versus cutting.

It should be noted that not all cases of a noun and a verb being the same word are cases of the noun being verbed. There are many cases where the process goes the other way, where a noun is formed from the verb (without any derivation). The process is also not limited to nouns and verbs. Nouns are commonly used as adjectives in English. Adjectives can often be used as verbs. Perhaps I wll expound on those practices another time.

You have, no doubt, divined my opinion on the matter of verbing nouns. Witness the fact that I have consistently used verb as a verb. When simply using a noun as a verb conveys the intended meaning in a concise manner, why should there be any objection? Indeed, I firmly believe that using all features of English effectively is important. However, verbing nouns simply to be trendy or for another basically pointless reason should be avoided. When there is already a common phrase of reasonable length available to express a thought, one should consider carefully before verbing a noun.

I have deliberately avoided discussion the merits of prescriptivism versus descriptivism in this discussion as that topic is large on its own. I have also avoided discussing aesthetics directly because aesthetics are deeply personal and, thus, must not be used as a means of determining what is valid and what isn’t.

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