The Definition of Verbing in Grammar

The Definition of Verbing in Grammar

In a single work day, 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?

Calvin and Hobbes once discussed verbing in Bill Watterson's great comic strip:

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.

Echoing Hobbes, countless language mavens have decried the practice of verbing--a "filthy" habit according to an editorial in Britain's Guardian newspaper 20 years ago:

Let us now resolve to bury… a practice which, in the closing months of the year, seemed increasingly to be defacing the English language: the pressing of decent defenceless nouns, which have gone about their business for centuries without giving the mildest offence or provocation, into service as verbs, sometimes in their original form but quite often after a process of horrible mutilation.

Evidence of mutilated neologisms at that time included gift, diary, fax, fixture, message, example, and a doughnut -- all functioning as verbs.

Even the affable Richard Lederer has expressed impatience (or was he impatiented?) 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.
(Richard Lederer and Richard Downs, The Write Way: The S.P.E.L.L. Guide to Real-Life Writing. Simon and Schuster, 1995)

Love 'em or loathe 'em, a number of nouns have recently verbed their way into our conversations and dictionaries, including to contact, to impact, to access, to party, to author, to transition, to privilege, and to workshop.

Verbing Makes English English

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 stick around for awhile, we do get used to them. Psychologist Steven Pinker estimates that up to a 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" (The Language Instinct, 1994).

For your amusement or annoyance, let's close (a 13th-century verb that became a noun a century later) with a few contemporary specimens of verbing:

  • 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?
    (quoted by Calvin Trillin in "Wall Street Smarts." The New York Times, October 13, 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.
    (Christine M. Cress et al., Learning Through Serving: A Student Guidebook for Service-Learning Across the Disciplines. Stylus Publishing, 2005)
  • 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.
    (Liz Ford, "New Teachers and Old, Excelling All Round." The Guardian, July 3, 2007)
  • For sports lovers, you can try to get a bat or a golf club personally signatured by one of their favorite sportspersons, which is bound to be a real treat.
    ("Exotic Christmas Gift Ideas" at the website Christmas Gifts Guide, 2009)
  • 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.
    (Benjamin Hoffman, "U.S. in Contention at 2009 Baseball World Cup." The New York Times, September 19, 2009)

In 10 or 20 years we'll revisit these upstart verbs to see how many have gained full admittance to the language.