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Team up with me in My Media English Watch!

I am inviting Forum members to team up with me in doing My Media English Watch. This way, we can further widen this Forum’s dragnet for bad or questionable English usage in both the print media and broadcast media, thus giving more teeth to our campaign to encourage them to continuously improve their English. All you need to do is pinpoint every serious English misuse you encounter while reading your favorite newspaper or viewing your favorite network or cable TV programs. Just tell me about the English misuse and I will do a grammar critique of it.

Read the guidelines and house rules for joining My Media English Watch!

Startled to find that BBC World Radio is awash with nerbs

E-mail from Isabel E. in Hong Kong (April 4, 2013):

Hi, Joe!

As a regular listener to BBC’s World Service Radio, I get startled now and then to hear various nouns being used as verbs. I really shouldn’t quibble since we’re so used to those long-time nouns-turned-verbs like “hosted,” “gifted,” etc. 

The fairly new ones you might want to write about are used thus:

“Since his promotion, he’s been busy transitioning to the new agenda.”

“The reporter spent hours on his story but the editor spiked it.” (I realize that old-time newsrooms where reporters typed their stories had editors who put the rejected pieces on a spike on their desks.)

“For your budget, you’ll have to factor in the expense for a new laptop.”

What say you?

My reply to Isabel (April 7, 2013):

Dear Isabel,

I’m delighted to hear from you again!

It really doesn’t surprise me that BBC Radio should be spouting a lot of “nerbs,” the pejorative term some language observers have coined for nouns that have been made to work as verbs. The English of the mass media and the corporate world—not to mention that of casual conversation and of the social media—is chockfull of them! Actually, the nerbing process has been going on since the English language began, but the prodigious advances in technology and telecommunications in the last half century have intensified it exponentially. Today, there’s hardly any written or broadcast communication that doesn’t flaunt at least a handful of nerbs, and I’m afraid that before long, English—for better or for worse—will be engulfed by nothing less than a nerb tsunami.

I actually looked into the nerbing phenomenon and its mechanisms in an essay that I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times way back in December of 2005. I am now posting that essay here to help you and other Forum members understand as well as cope and keep up with the unstoppable growth of nerbs in English.

Enjoy the rest of the day in Hong Kong!

Sincerely yours,
Joe Carillo

The Noun-to-Verb Conversion Syndrome

One major word-formation process in English is to use the noun itself as a verb to express the action conveyed or implied by the noun, without changing the form of the noun in any way. This direct noun-to-verb conversion, one of the so-called “zero derivation” processes in linguistics, has been taking place since language began. It has given English such basic action verbs as “eye” to mean “to watch or study closely,” “nose” to mean “to search impertinently,” “face” to mean “to deal with straightforwardly,” “mouth” to mean “to talk in a pompous way,” “elbow” to mean “to shove aside,” and “stomach” to mean “to bear without overt resentment.”

Indeed, rather than come up with a new word for the action that a body part typically can do literally or figuratively, the early English speakers simply made that body part stand for the action itself; and later on, they did the same for tools, machines, and technologies. It has been estimated that by this process, something like one-fifth of all English verbs had been formed from nouns.

Creating verbs this way, which is facetiously called “nerbing” by some language observers, is particularly tempting in English because it saves time for the speaker or writer and simplifies sentence construction. For instance, rather than saying “She made a catalogue of the books,” we can use the noun “catalogue” as the verb itself, knock off the verb “made,” and say “She catalogued the books” instead. In the same token, rather than saying “The wealthy couple served as parents for the orphan until she reached legal age,” we can use the noun “parent” as the verb, drop the verb “served,” and say “The wealthy couple parented the orphan until she reached legal age.” A bonus in both cases is that aside from saving on words, the language is enriched by a new verb—a “nerb,” a synthetic term that we will use here simply for convenience.

Traditionally, jobs and the professions and occupations have been among the most prolific generators and users of English nerbs: “He mentored the student in the art of debating.” “She liaisoned with media for an entertainment company.” “He engineered the merger of the two companies.” “The unscrupulous accountant doctored the corporate books.” “The government legal counsel secretly lawyered for the powerful political family.”

Scientific, medical, and manufacturing processes have also tended to produce a generous share of nerbs: “We centrifuged the donor’s blood to harvest stem cells for the leukemia patient.” “The laboratory technician chromatographed the mixture for possible contaminants.” In this latter type of nerbs, the name of the machine is directly converted to a verb that describes its action, streamlining what would have been a longer phrase built around the verb “use” (as in “They used a centrifuge to harvest stem cells for the leukemia patient.”).

During the past few decades, of course, advances in information technology and computers became the richest and most frenetic source of “nerbs.” Totally new verbs grew out directly from the names of such modern technologies as the telephone, photocopier, fax machine, and e-mail. Thus, practically all English speakers now use such highly efficient nerbing shortcuts as “They telephoned [phoned] me just now,” “She photocopied the contract,” “My assistant will fax you the document tonight,” and “I’ll e-mail you the file tomorrow.”

The developers of these new technologies themselves have been prodigiously creating nerbs to describe new technical procedures and processes: “You must firewall your computer to protect your system from hackers and spammers.” “Please refer to this manual when architecting your new portal server-based dynamic workplace.” Management and industry have likewise been riding on this trend by turning such nouns as “conference,” “leverage,” “impact,” and “office” into verbs that some grammarians find deplorable, as in “They’ll conference out of town next week” and “She now offices at home for convenience.”

Some language observers fear that direct noun-to-verb conversion has become such a serious syndrome in English, one that promotes confusion instead of understanding among its users. As Sir Kingsley Amis, the late English novelist, poet, critic, and teacher, had observed about the phenomenon, “There are times when this sort of verb seems to be growing too fast for comfort, and one suspects that now may be such a time…[Such verbs] may be quicker to say, but then cutting your arm off will reduce your weight faster and more irreversibly than any diet or exercise.”

It’s highly unlikely that the nerbing syndrome can be stopped, though, but we can at least help prevent inappropriate nerbs from swamping English by using usefulness and aesthetics as criteria for evaluating nerbs before using them ourselves. This way, only those that foster brevity as well as accuracy and clarity to language can survive and become welcome entries to the English lexicon.

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, December 5, 2005 © 2005 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved. This essay subsequently appeared as Chapter 99 in the author’s book Give Your English the Winning Edge © 2009 by Jose A. Carillo. All rights reserved.

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