Verbing

Yesterday I read a sentence – well, part of a sentence – that thrilled me. It’s from “We’re Having The Wrong Debate About Pronouns” by Ben Freeland:

It’s a linguistic shortcoming that blinkers our senses and truncates our spiritual epiphanies.

I love (that’s an understatement!) “blinkers our senses.” I can see those blinkers. (I’m less thrilled with “truncates our spiritual epiphanies” – I would have used shrivels.)

But when I showed the sentence to a friend, she sniffed and said one word: “verbing.” 

Ah, verbing. It means changing a noun (or another part of speech) into a verb. Blinkers are things. You can’t blinker – or so the argument goes. Many people positively froth when they encounter a word that has moved from one grammatical category to another.

Oops! I just did it myself. Froth is a thing. You can’t froth – or can you?

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Whether you enjoy verbing or hate it, there’s no getting away from it. Yesterday I encountered another example: My friend Ellen Holder emailed me a question about a man who “white-knuckled” the steering wheel as he was driving. Again, I loved it – but I know many people who would have shuddered.

And I’m apt to shudder myself at some examples of verbing. Sometimes the language already has a perfectly good verb, and the newcomer sounds pompous. For example, I never use impact as a verb. “The news impacted the stock market” – yuk. I would say that the stock market rose or the stock market fell when it heard the news.

And I gripe when contact shows up in police reports. Did the officer visit the person? Phone? Text? Send an email? Tape a note to the door? In a criminal case, it’s important to be specific.

So how do we sort this all out? Some thoughts:

  • All languages change over time.
  • English lends itself to verbing because we have so few conjugations and declensions. It’s super-easy to move flower (a noun) into the verb category: You don’t have to add an ending.
  • Some expressions that seem fresh and new (“blinkers our senses”) have actually been around for a long time. I just looked up the history of blinkers. It was first used as a verb – hold on to your hat – in a book published in 1865.

Here’s the bottom line: some new words and usages work very well, while others are clumsy or vague. What’s really important is to know the difference

A horse with blinkers

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