A Monthly Column for Word Lovers
Mighty Morphin' Parts of Speech
English has long been a language in which base forms of different parts of speech are indistinguishable: the forms of a word that you look up in a dictionary, whether noun, verb, or adjective, may all look the same. Take down, for example: it's a noun, a verb, an adverb, an adjective, and even a preposition, all spelled with the same four letters in the same order: only its context in a sentence will tell you which job it's doing. This facility of English — which may be called functional shift or conversion or zero derivation, depending on how you look at it — allows many words in English to slip easily into a semantic slot not previously occupied and, if all the rules have been observed, get away with it.
The rules allowing this little trick have never been of the hard-and-fast kind, but lately in the Lounge we've been thinking about just what those rules are. This was occasioned by two things we noticed in one week: first, there was a prime-time television program called "Oprah's Big Give." Then, we heard Barbara Walters say, in a radio interview, something about "getting the big get." Is this an outbreak of verb nominalization?
Clearly, you can't get away with it all the time: no one's going to attempt:
"He's in the hospital for a gall bladder operate."
"Her baptize was performed on Sunday."
On the other hand, computer folk do installs, uninstalls, backups and builds all the time, operations that require both reads and writes. People in fundraising talk about how to maximize their ask. Real estate agents these days seem more inclined to talk about the sell of a house, rather than the old-fashioned sale of a house or selling of a house. It's possible that they talk about this on their long commutes. How do they all get away with it, and why nominalize a verb when there are perfectly serviceable, and usually cognate nouns already available? Is there a disconnect between the conventions of English morphology and the way people actually talk and write?
These seemed like the sorts of questions that could best be answered by looking at big bags of words, so we went to one of our dictionaries on CD-ROM (a toy no word lover should be without) to generate some lists. Using Merriam-Webster's 11th Collegiate, we looked first at verbs from Old or Middle English — a category that includes both give and get. There are around a thousand such verbs. Most of them are one or two syllables long and most of them (we kind of expected this) already have an established noun use. A curious thing, however, is that a verb of one syllable (smile, chew, mow) is a lot more likely to be used as a noun than one of two syllables (abut, forbear, upbraid).
Our second trawl through the CD was to look at nominalizing suffixes. Since English has well-established ways of forming nouns from verbs and other parts of speech (namely, by suffixation) we wondered if a look at suffixes would answer the question of why writers and speakers forgo the formality of using them, instead simply pressing a verb into service as a noun.
There are just over 100 nominalizing suffixes in fairly common use. Many are quite specific, forming nouns with a limited range of meaning in relation to the verb (or other base form appended to), such as -ana, -ide, -ness, and -ure. Other suffixes — like -age, -ance, -ing, and -ment — are more general-purpose, forming nouns that may have a variety of meanings. An interesting sidelight to these suffixes is that most of them come to English via Greek, Latin, or French, rather than via the Germanic route. This tends to confirm that English is, at heart, an analytic rather than a synthetic language — that is to say, a language that conveys meaning largely by word order and the judicious use of particles, rather than by inflections. Could it be that English writers and speakers are simply doing something instinctive and natural when nominalizing a tried-and-true English verb?
To return from this meander (which, by the way, was a noun before it was a verb and is from Latin via Greek) to our inspirational examples: they're both words of one syllable, both go far back in English; but despite this, both are somewhat startling in their contexts, since readers and listeners don't generally expect these noun uses. So why give instead of, say, gift or giving, and why get instead of ...? Well, certainly not getment or gettage, and probably not getting. "Getting" as a verbal noun meaning "that which is gotten or acquired" has largely been abandoned in modern English, though it occasionally still shows up in the plural with this meaning: "I'll see you Christmas morning for the gettings." Getment and gettage seem never to have approached the starting gate. Get does, however, have a history of usage as noun to mean "What is got; gain, booty" — its vogue seems to have been from the 14th to 17th centuries.
We could say, then, that the decision to go with get today, rather than some other noun noting a thing gotten — scoop, acquisition, grab, or obtainment, for example — is a revival. But we think it's more likely that the new get (and the new give, as well) are naturally occurring phenomena: examples of the license that English grants to its speakers and writers to press a standing word into new service when available alternatives don't quite seem to do the job. This is not to say that listeners and readers are not allowed to find them grating or annoying, as new usages often are for a time. The consensus in the Lounge about these two, however, is that verb nominalization happens.
We've talked about only one kind of shift — verb to noun — and that's the only one we'll look at this month (for which reason we've chosen a Hollywood-style title for the column, to allow for the possibility of a sequel). At some point in the future we'll examine some other kinds of shift, including ones that even we find grating and annoying.
Here's an article about research on the brain's interpretation of nouns and verbs (which appeared originally in The Reader magazine), which suggests that successful functional shift has a cerebral payoff for the reader or listener:
William Safire wrote about disconnect as a noun in 1990, making some points that still hold up today: