The Definition of Verbing in Grammar

Frequently Asked Questions About English Grammar

Gifting is an example of verbing
Gifting is an example of verbing.

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In a single workday, we might head a task force, eye an opportunity, nose around for good ideas, mouth a greeting, elbow an opponent, strong-arm a colleague, shoulder the blame, stomach a loss, and finally, perhaps, hand in our resignation. What we're doing with all those body parts is called verbing—using nouns (or occasionally other parts of speech) as verbs.

Verbing is a time-honored way of coining new words out of old ones, the etymological process of conversion (or functional shifting). Sometimes it's also a kind of wordplay (anthimeria), as in Shakespeare's King Richard the Second when the Duke of York says, "Grace me no grace, and uncle me no uncles."

Does Verbing Weird Language?

Did you have to read the title of this section a times before you understood? That might be because "verbed" words have a tendency to sound wrong or confusing. Bill Watterson's great comic strip, Calvin and Hobbes, once discussed this subject:

Calvin: I like to verb words.​

Hobbes: What?

Calvin: I take nouns and adjectives and use them as verbs. Remember when "access" was a thing? Now it's something you do. It got verbed. ... Verbing weirds language.

Hobbes: Maybe we can eventually make language a complete impediment to understanding.

The Problem With Verbing

Echoing Hobbes, countless language mavens have decried the practice of verbing, a "linguistic crime", according to an editorial by Johnathan Bouquet in Britain's Guardian newspaper:

"I hope that in the canon of linguistic crimes you will agree that using nouns as verbs is high on that list. Both 'reference' and 'impact' recur with nauseating regularity. Only yesterday, I heard a business reporter on TV use 'headquarter' as a verb. Then there are the execrable coinages such as 'surveill,' 'euthanise' and 'taxidermied.' What on earth is wrong with 'monitor,' 'put down' or 'stuffed?'" (Bouquet 2018).

The practice of verbing is considered by many to be unnecessary, lazy, and egregious. Even the affable Richard Lederer, an American author and language expert, has expressed impatience with verbing:

"We ought to accept new words that add color or vigor, but let's short-shrift the ones that don't. We'd like to guilt some writers and speakers into the habit of using words better instead of creating mutants the language doesn't need," (Lederer and Downs 1995).

Verbing Defines English

Love them or hate them, more nouns verb their way into our conversations and dictionaries every day—including contact, impact, access, party, author, transition, privilege, and workshop—and are more than likely here to stay.

New forms of words, as well as new uses for old words, take some getting used to. But the truth is, if those forms and uses are around for long enough, we do get used to them. Psychologist Steven Pinker estimates that up to one-fifth of English verbs are derived from nouns, including such ancient verbs as rain, snow, and thunder along with more recent converts like oil, pressure, referee, bottle, debut, audition, highlight, diagnose, critique, email, and mastermind.

"In fact," Pinker reminds us, "easy conversion of nouns to verbs has been part of English grammar for centuries; it is one of the processes that make English English," (Pinker 1994).

Examples of Verbing

You've probably encountered verbing more times than you could possibly count without even knowing what this phenomenon was called. But now that you do know, enjoy these diverse examples.

  • "When the smart guys started this business of securitizing things that didn't even exist in the first place, who was running the firms they worked for?" (Trillin 2009).
  • "We talked about the project. We dialogued—passionately yet civilly—remembering our earlier discussions about the need for all of us to "practice active listening," "agree to disagree, ... using 'I think' and 'I feel' statements," "solicit others' opinions," and "practice the Platinum Rule of treating others how they want to be treated." We dialogued and dialogued," (Cress et al. 2013).
  • "It takes a certain kind of teacher to turn a teenage student who regularly truanted PE lessons into a county athlete in a matter of months," (Ford 2007).
  • "An amateur baseball powerhouse, Cuba joined the tournament in 1939 and immediately beat Nicaragua for the title. Since then, it has won 25 titles in 37 tournaments and has medaled 29 times," (Hoffman 2009).

Sources

  • Bouquet, Jonathan. "May I Have a Word...About Nouns Posing as Verbs?" The Guardian, 20 Jan. 2018.
  • Cress, Christine M., et al. Learning Through Serving: A Student Guidebook for Service-Learning and Civic Engagement Across Academic Disciplines and Cultural Communities. 2nd ed., Stylus Publishing, 2013.
  • Ford, Liz. "New Teachers and Old, Excelling All Around." The Guardian, 2 July 2007.
  • Hoffman, Benjamin. "U.S. in Contention." The New York Times, 20 Sep. 2009.
  • Lederer, Richard, and Richard Downs. Write Way: The S.P.E.L.L. Guide to Real-Life Writing. Simon and Schuster, 1995.
  • Pinker, Steven. The Language Instinct. William Morrow and Company, 1994.
  • Trillin, Calvin. "Wall Street Smarts." The New York Times, 13 Oct. 2009.