Linguistic Conversion in Grammar

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Baby trying to drink beer
Henry downed a pint of beer. Chris Tobin / Getty Images

In English grammar, conversion is a word-formation process that assigns an existing word to a different word class (part of speech) or syntactic category. This process is also known as a functional shift or zero derivation.

The rhetorical term for grammatical conversion is anthimeria.

See more examples and explanation below. Also see:

Etymology: From the Latin, "turn around."

Examples of Linguistic Conversion

  • "Let's not Rumsfeld Afghanistan."
    (Senator Lindsey Graham, quoted in Time magazine, Aug. 24, 2009)
  • "Boyes spent the night with Mr. Vaughan, and they breakfasted together in the usual way upon bacon and eggs, toast, marmalade and coffee."
    (Dorothy L. Sayers, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, 1928)
  • "One writer who went on a tour of New York's Harlem district was shown the place where Adam C. Powell was 'funeralised.' Another letter detailed an American friend's eagerness to see the Prince of Wales 'coronated.' On a flight to Boston, flight attendants promised passengers they would soon 'beverage,' but later, because of adverse weather conditions, they said they were 'unable to complete beverisation.' Asked about this trend, one American quipped: 'Any noun can be verbed.'"
    (Kevin Courtney, "Con Text Verbing." The Irish Times, March 18, 2008)

    The Strategy of Conversion

    • "Consider sentences such as:
      - Henry downed a pint of beer.
      - Melissa went to town and did a buy.
      English, we note, lacks a simple means of saying 'to do something in one fell swoop.' This may be why the word down can be converted into a verb to mean 'drink down in one gulp,' and the word buy into a noun which, when combined with the verb do, means 'go on a single massive shopping spree.' This type of fast-moving, thorough activity may represent a change in the pace of life, which is in turn reflected in the language, since we increasingly make use of conversions--the conversion of one part of speech into another."
      (Jean Aitchison, Language Change: Progress or Decay? Cambridge University Press, 1991)

      Shakespeare's Conversions

      • "Shakespeare was the conversion expert. 'I eared her language.' 'He words me.' Some of his conversions seem really daring. Even the name of a person can become a verb. 'Petruchio is Kated.' But all he was doing was tapping into a natural everyday usage that is still with us."
        (David Crystal, The Story of English in 100 Words. St. Martin's Press, 2012)

      Which Came First?

      • "Almost all the examples [of zero conversion] are of shifts between noun, verb, and adjective. In some instances the direction of the shift is clear. We have had the noun text for a long time, but it has come to be used as a verb only recently with reference to sending messages full of abbreviations via mobile/cell phone. In other instances we might hesitate to say which part of speech came first, as with plot, for instance. Was it a noun first or was it a verb first?"
        (Barry J. Blake, All About Language. Oxford University Press, 2008)

      Conversion and Meaning

      • "Meaning is crucial to the system of word-classes . . ., as it is to the recognition of instances of conversion. Even if it were not for the homophonous noun plane 'carpenter's tool,' we would not wish to relate to plane 'smooth a piece of wood' and a plane 'aircraft' by conversion, because their meanings are not sufficiently close. What is a sufficiently close meaning (and how it can be defined) remains an open question. A slightly dubious example is to bank 'turn an aircraft' and a bank 'side of a hill' which, despite their etymological relatedness, may no longer be close enough semantically for us to wish to say that the same relationship holds between them as between to bridge and a bridge. Somehow, then, we need to operationalise the notion of related in meaning to a sufficient degree to allow us to recognise potential instances of conversion."
        (Laurie Bauer and Salvador Valera, "Conversion or Zero-Derivation: An Introduction." Approaches to Conversion/Zero-Derivation, ed. by L. Bauer and S. Valera. Waxmann, 2005)

        Pronunciation: kon-VER-zhun

        Also Known As: functional shift, role shifting, zero derivation, category shift