Powerful Words

Regular visitors to this blog know that I never miss Carolyn Hax’s advice column. Often there’s a bonus – wise advice from a reader.

A few days ago Carolyn Hax offered some sage advice to a woman who was dealing with a  relentlessly negative mother. Moments later, a reader came up with a handy sentence that might work with Mom: “You’ve just made four negative remarks. Now say something positive.”

Feedback is powerful – especially when it’s as specific as this sentence is (“four negative remarks”). It’s a double whammy: Mom realizes that daughter is listening to her – and  recognizes (perhaps for the first time) what she’s been doing.

When I taught writing, I discovered that the most powerful thing I could for my students was to take them seriously. Even if an assignment was dashed off in a hurry, I read it carefully and said something thoughtful about it. Often it didn’t matter what I’d said. The unspoken message was “I’m paying attention to you.” The next paper was always better.

I think there’s a better than even chance that the daughter is going to see a shift – maybe just a small one, but something – in her mother’s attitude or behavior.

 * * * * * *

I can’t resist making a comment about the headline for this edition of Carolyn Hax’s column: “My mom’s negativity is impacting my mental health.” A grammarian would say that it’s an example of verbing – turning a noun (impact) into a verb (well, a participle – impacting).

Sticklers often grumble about “verbing.” There’s something slippery about a noun that  turns itself into a verb.

Those sticklers have my sympathy. I should add that my husband is forbidden to use impact as a verb. Of course I never do it myself.

But there’s a reason why nouns turn into verbs. One is that people like them and use them again and again. That’s a good enough reason to tone down our disapproval. I will confess that I’m fine with “He medaled” (heard often during the Olympics) and “They’re headquartered in Toronto.” Both medaled and headquartered are examples of verbing.

Another reason is that English words (which lost most of their grammatical endings during the Norman Conquest) can easily move from one function to another. In the following sentences, fancy starts as a noun, turns into a verb, and then becomes an adjective:

The hat took her fancy.

I fancy that hat.

It’s a fancy hat.

Such a lot to talk about in one newspaper column! Language is fascinating, isn’t it?

Advice columnist Carolyn Hax

                             Carolyn Hax

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