In the past few months, Americans have probably heard more about collective bargaining than in the past few decades. In Ohio and Wisconsin, state legislatures have debated and passed, and governors have signed into law, bills that strip away most collective bargaining rights from public-sector unions. Each step in the process has been accompanied by protests from crowds of teachers, police officers, firefighters and other concerned citizens. Not only have I been prompted to give more thought to the political and economic issues of collective bargaining than I have in the past; I've also heard and read the term collective bargaining so much recently that it has gotten me thinking about the strange nature of English gerunds.

The gerund, of course, is the noun form of a verb, formed by adding -ing to the verb's base. But among English verbal nouns, the gerund has a split personality. Sometimes it's more like a noun, and sometimes it's more like a verb. In the phrase collective bargaining, the gerund bargaining is more like a noun, because the thing modifying it is an adjective, collective, instead of an adverb. But if we wanted to, we could modify it with the adverb collectively instead, like in this example from 1919, courtesy of the Google News Archive:

At the present time it costs a man no little amount to get started in the dairy business and it seems to me that there should be some way to stabilize their prices by collectively bargaining from one period to another. (link)

Or this one from 1917:

[T]he employer could only insure permanent fair play to his employe by introducing democracy in the workshop—that is, by bargaining collectively with his workers regarding wages, hours, general conditions, &c. (link

In these phrases, bargaining is more like a verb.

Still and all, among these three phrases, it was collective bargaining that caught on, as we see in the Google Ngram Viewer comparison. The green line for bargaining collectively just looks like someone unrolled a sheet of artificial grass on top of the x-axis, with a slight bulge in the 1940s where they neglected to level a gopher mound. Under the bulge you can catch a glimpse of the even flatter red line for collectively bargaining.

So why is collective bargaining the one that had legs? The simple answer is that that's just the choice the English economist Beatrice Webb made when she coined the term in 1891. In that case, the question is: Why did Webb go with collective bargaining? My guess is that she did because the "nounier" gerunds sound more like enduring concepts, actions that happen again and again, often enough to be worthy of a name. For example, the period of time during each school day when elementary-school students are to read a book of their choice is silent reading time, not silently reading time. On the other hand, "verbier" gerunds are better for describing events that just happened to unfold the way they did. If you're telling how the hero managed to get past a roomful of heavily armed guards to the secret chamber to rescue the princess, you're more likely to say he did it by silently moving through the shadows than by silent moving through the shadows.

In other words, collective bargaining is a compound word, something you'd expect to find (and do find) in a dictionary, whereas collectively bargaining and bargaining collectively are syntactic creations, created anew as they're needed.

An interesting thing sometimes happens with gerund-based compound nouns. Take the example of silent reading. What happens when a speaker needs to use a verb to refer to this activity? A teacher can tell the class, "I want you to read silently," or "I want you to silently read," but somehow, those adverbs just don't convey that tight meaning connection that the adjective+gerund combination did. You could be reading silently for any old reason, not necessarily because it's silent reading time. I realized this a few years ago when I heard my son's first grade teacher say, "Class, I want you to silent-read while I'm doing individual assessments."

What has happened is a two-part process. The first part is a reanalysis, when the word (silent)(reading) is reinterpreted as (silent read)(ing). The second part is a backformation, when the suffix –ing is removed to reveal the new verb silent-read. A similar process has given English many other compound verbs, such as sightsee, window-shop, and binge-drink. In these examples, the compound noun that started the process consisted of a noun plus a verbal noun: sight+seeing, window+shopping, binge+drinking. Somewhat rarer are examples, such as silent-read, that arise from a compound noun that starts with an adjective. Another such example I've seen is underage-drink. One that the linguist Arnold Zwicky has written about on his blog is gay-marry, backformed from gay marriage.

With all that in mind, it occurred to me that collective bargaining started with an adjective, and might be ripe for this same reanalysis-and-backformation process. I went looking for the verb collective-bargain, to find out if it existed, and if so, to see how it was faring against the verb phrases collectively bargain and bargain collectively. Turning again to the Google Ngram viewer, here is a comparison of collective-bargained with collectively bargained and bargained collectively. (I chose collective-bargained because the present-tense forms collective-bargains and collective-bargain would bring in a lot of irrelevant noun hits.) Judging from the flat green line hugging the x-axis, you might think that collective-bargained is pretty rare, and you'd be right, but to get an idea how rare, take a look at the blue line for collectively bargained. The peak, at 0.000004%, would scarcely rise above the bottom of the earlier graph, and the line for collective-bargained is still below it. Judging from this graph, it looks like the backformed compound verb collective-bargain has yet to catch on.

However, I still see signs that collective-bargain as a verb might get some traction. First of all, I have found collective bargaining used as a present-participial phrase. This is the easiest and subtlest step toward collective-bargain as a verb, because to use it as a participial phrase, you don't have to change anything at all. No suffixes removed or added; you just use it in something like a progressive tense. This passage, written last month, is a good example:

Who are [public sector unions] collective bargaining against? Taxpayers. Who is a private union collective bargaining against? A private company. (link)

That all by itself is a pretty weak case for collective-bargain as a verb. Sure, speakers might use it this way just because they're not attuned to the difference between gerunds and present participles, but would they use it as a verb if they had to lose the -ing suffix—say, in an infinitive phrase or after a modal auxiliary verbs? It's been done. The first of the following examples is from February of this year; the second is from 1994:

It is impossible to collective bargain with the government (link) 

I'd like to be a baseball player—at least they can collective bargain. (link

The clincher for collective-bargain as a verb is to see it with some suffixes for tense or person; in other words, with an –ed or an –s. We get the –ed suffix in an ordinary past tense in the first example below (from 1969), and in a past-participial phrase modifying contracts in the second one (from 1933):

If we collective bargained ourselves into the hole where we can no longer operate the park system the way it should be operated ... (link)

In Washington, Representative Maverick (D-Tex) appealed to his Democratic colleagues in the house to support labor's efforts to gain signed collective bargained contracts. (link

As for the -s suffix, I haven't yet found examples of collective-bargains in the wild, though it may be because they're hidden among uses of collective bargains as a noun phrase.

Collective-bargain the verb may not be part of the language at large yet, but the ingredients are all there. In a generation or two, I predict anyone reading today's column will wonder that I had to go to such trouble to find it. And with protests continuing and talk of referendums for November, who knows? This verb might take hold much faster.


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Neal Whitman blogs at Literal-Minded, where he writes about linguistics in everyday life from the point of view of a husband and father. He taught English as a second language while earning his degree at Ohio State University; has published articles in Language, Journal of Linguistics, and other publications; and writes occasional scripts for the podcast "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." Click here to read more articles by Neal Whitman.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday April 13th 2011, 8:31 AM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
At this point, the verb "collective-bargain" sounds strange to my ear, and I would probably change it if I came across it while editing. However, I agree that we'll see "collective-bargain" as an accepted verb at some point down the road (provided collective bargaining remains important). And if my author were really married to it, I'd let it stand in the sentence.
Wednesday April 13th 2011, 9:04 AM
Comment by: Tamara H. (Indianapolis, IN)
I agree with Erin, to my ear "collective bargain" sounds out of place and I would change it to collectively bargain, which really doesn't sound that much better. However, I can see the case for "collective bargain" - when you come across it, it does seem to have a slightly different inference.

"It is impossible to collective bargain with the government..." vs.
"It is impossible to collectively bargain with the government..."

These examples give us one version that places the emphasis on the collective nature of the act, and one version that places emphasis on the bargaining itself. So, I think that if we are to keep true to the meaning of "collective bargaining", then perhaps "collective bargain" is indeed a better choice as a verb.
Wednesday April 13th 2011, 11:38 AM
Comment by: christiane P. (paris Afghanistan)
Collective-bargain is a verb difficult for me , the sound of the word and the mean of it are strange to me.Nover-
theless, I try to use it and accepted the new verb.
When and how to use it? for speaking about a trial an action?
Wednesday April 13th 2011, 11:43 AM
Comment by: Aj.Scribe (Dallas, TX)
WIth many years labored over negotiating building trades union contracts we referred to the process as "negotiation through the process of collective bargaining" specifically recited in 8B actions as such when the Federal Negotiator was called in to assist as mediatior. I am grammer rules challenged leaving you guys to explain Collective Bargaining as a process. The phrase collective bargaining did not appear in the text of any union contract I ever read. When the NYT reporter asked how are you able to negotiate such a complex issue averting a strike and so on…we responded...through the Federal collective baraining process.
I hope this helps valifdate understanding the meaning of the phrase, in addition to how we use the phrase "collective bargaining process" in the order of the words that make it a legal process. By the way collectively bargaining or collective bargain means a group of buyers convincing a sales person at Bloomingdales to give you a Senior Discount. The process of collective bargaining is a structured set of Federally imposed rules required of all sides inorder to legally construct a binding contract. Once you understand the process your ear will follow the music. Good luck--this was fun.

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