Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Nouns on the Loose

What happens when nouns turn into verbs, and how can language arts educators use these "verbings" as teachable moments? Fitch O'Connell, a longtime teacher of English as a foreign language, takes a look at this "trending" topic.

I am confident that those of you, dear readers, who are good and conscientious teachers do not rely entirely on using the chosen course book to teach English. There is no doubt that you supplement the frequently contrived dialogues and vetted texts to be found therein with real-world examples drawn from various media. In fact, it is one of the marks of a language teacher that they are incapable of reading a magazine, watching a TV advertisement, or listening to a news item without considering its potential value as a teaching resource.

But to import such items into the classroom heightens the risk of trending towards denominalization, which is the habit of turning perfectly ordinary nouns, like trend, into verbs. In fact, we can now use the noun verb as a verb, if that isn't too confusing. What we're doing is verbing.

There is nothing new about this habit. The Elizabethans, well known for their inventive development of the language, were fond of the technique, and Shakespeare is full of examples:  "Destruction straight shall dog them at the heels" and "Grace me no grace, uncle me no uncle" both appear in Richard II, and 'Come you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here" steels us to Lady Macbeth's scheming. What is different now is the sheer volume of verbing that assaults or delights our ears (depending on personal whim).

The three leading sources of this trend which we may import into our guileless language classroom come from new technology, the business world and from sport; we would be sourcing examples from them, if you will. Probably the most common of the new technology examples is the verb to google, the latest in a line of using a trade name as a verb (to hoover, to xerox) — though Google directors do not encourage its use as a verb. Microsoft, on the other hand, is keen for the general public to use the verb bing — so we may "bing a new restaurant" for example. According to Steve Ballmer, the company's chief executive, Microsoft encourage the potential to "verb up" the word. Part of the reason for the explosion of new verbs in new technology is due to a need to find names for things that didn't exist before, and so we now blog our news on the blogosphere, text our friends from our mobiles, and friend our acquaintances on Facebook, and we do all this with the greatest of ease.

In sport, many names of pieces of equipment have morphed into verbs — skateboard, snowboard, rollerblade — while racing drivers pit and track race starts can be falsed. Indeed, with the imminent prospect of the 2012 Olympics in London one commentator went as far as to say that "Team GB may struggle to gold or even podium but we can still lead the world in lexiconing new jargon. "

The world of business, never shy of ratcheting up jargon to a level of incomprehension (even to insiders) is happy to "anniversary annual returns," to "action items," and to "impact their customers: — and directors have even been flighted to a shareholder's meeting. Politicians, those masters of sly and devious use of words in any form, will donut a meeting (so that a half empty meeting room won't look so empty to the camera), and, like business managers, they will impact decision-making ("affecting" or "influencing" decisions obviously no longer seems enough) or perhaps they have a policy to incentivize the voters, which is a fine example of valuing needless complexity above clarity.

And so it goes on. No doubt we all have our favorite or least favorite examples of nouns turned into verbs, but the problem is what happens when we bring them into the classroom. While some language learners do, indeed, appreciate this ability of the language to be flexible and even find it fun, for many others it is a recipe for added confusion and dismay. It might seem that, not content with already having a language with one of the largest vocabularies in the world, we are constantly twisting, mashing and crunching words up to have even more applications and multiple meanings, even when perfectly good words that already exist could be used. Clearly where there are gaps in the language due to innovation or the demands for exploration then there is little wrong with the fine tradition that dates back centuries — it is a sign of a vigorous and adaptive language — but where it is the result of either laziness or a deliberate ploy to obfuscate then perhaps we should be making a stand against it.

Nevertheless, our students will be exposed to verbing soon enough, and they will need to learn how to deal with it. It is good advice to point out that native speakers are often as clued up — or not — as they are when they first come across such uses. The ease with which it can be done in English is actually a fairly unique feature of the language, for few other languages can make such simple switches from nouns to verbs without an intricate application of suffixes or prefixes, if indeed at all. It is thus more a matter of teaching the concept rather than a list of the amorphous words themselves.

However, there won't be many students who aren't already familiar with the verb to google (as much as Google may dislike it) and will know that it means "to search for information on the Internet" (even if Bing or Yahoo! or whatever are used) so that is a fairly strong starting point. From there it is worthwhile turning the object-to-action phenomenon into an advantage for you and your students and devising simple activities where ordinary objects, perhaps starting with articles in the room, are imagined as actions: "Here is the floor/wall/window/book/board; what might floored/walled/windowed/booked/boarded imply?  Some of these already have accepted meanings as verbs, and if they are not known already then now is the time to introduce them. Others, like window/windowed do not — as far as I know — yet have familiar action concepts attached, so your students imaginations are the defining factor.

From there an invitation to make actions out of objects will take on the form of a game and will provide a firm base for the concept to take hold. As a result, when the students next come across a familiar noun being used as an unfamiliar verb they are therefore in a position to take a calculated guess at its meaning just as we do — or else remain as baffled as the rest of us.

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Fitch O'Connell has been a teacher for longer than he cares to remember. He works as a materials writer and teacher trainer. In 2003 he set up the acclaimed BritLit project for the British Council in Portugal, and has worked since then to help establish a new place for literature in English language teaching. He also contributes to the WordPowered website, which brings together teachers of English by using short stories, poetry and film. He now works as a freelance consultant and is based in Europe. Click here to read more articles by Fitch O'Connell.

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Comments from our users:

Friday January 20th 2012, 2:03 PM
Comment by: Jerry G. (Fort Myers, FL)
Excellent perspective on this linguistic trend. Useful for teachers of ESOL and also normal Freshman Composition. Thanks.
Friday January 20th 2012, 6:00 PM
Comment by: Lily T. (Mesilla, NM)
Nice article on this trend! Very useful for all sorts of composition and even journalism classes. Thanks a million! Keep writing!
Friday January 20th 2012, 9:59 PM
Comment by: yadira S.
Thanks for this article I am just an ESL student but I totally agreed that the languages are evolving. This fact has not been imposed but born from the need to express ourselves. In the near future, today's English will be old fashion English.
Sunday January 22nd 2012, 10:49 AM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
I enjoyed the entire writing. Thank you so much for a timely piece of constructive remarks. You highlighted the current use of Noun vs. Verb one after another and the current tendency of practicing this is growing. We live now in a technology oriented society. Work and use of work and method of performing a work is a dominant task then the name of the work.
I feel that English grammar book will be rewritten very soon (e.g.hundred years from today) changing the definition of parts of speech in a sentence.
A gradual shift in our nature is likely to be in effect I believe.
Sunday January 22nd 2012, 1:12 PM
Comment by: Jason Hall (Vancovuer Canada)
This trend is pernicious in the business community where action is king. Turning nouns into verbs appears to make them more 'action-oriented', but really it's akin to linguistic busy work.

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