The Verbing of the English Language

One of the most inventive aspects of invention-friendly English is verbing, the denominalization of nouns into verbs.

It’s nothing new — verbs have been created from noun forms throughout the life span of Modern English and perhaps even before it evolved from Middle English; what’s been different during our lifetime, perhaps, is the rate at which it occurs.

verbing weirds language

Denominalizations most of us have grown accustomed to because they’ve been around a while include pencil (“I’ll pencil you in for tomorrow at nine o’clock”), trend (“Stocks continue to trend downward”), and impact (“That’s going to significantly impact our plan”). If those usages aren’t annoying enough, you can make people cringe by using dialogue (“We’ll dialogue about this later”).

Brand names even get denominalized, as was the case with Xerox and, more recently, Google. But verbing isn’t confined to the office. At home, mothers and fathers parent, and people host guests. Active folks ski and skate, while those out on the town get seated, sometimes only after they’re carded.

The primary cause of the recent proliferation of verbing is technology: Before the average person had access to personal computers, programmers were accessing data online. When the Internet went mainstream, we began to bookmark our bookmarks. As many people began to favor text messaging, texting stood alongside phoning or calling. (By extension, overt flirting and text-based phone sex was dubbed sexting.) Social networking gave us the verb form “to friend” (and, inevitably, “to defriend”), as well as a new sense of “to like,” where liking is a deliberate action rather than simply a feeling.

Denominalization is controversial and prompts much antipathy. But why? Some of the most basic words in English — dress, dream, sleep, strike, talk — are verbs identical in form to their parent nouns.

The answer: English encourages neologisms, but many of its users are (often rightfully) averse to upstart words. Many of the denominalizations we take for granted may have struck listeners and readers as awkward and annoying when they first experienced them, but although many others no doubt fell by the wayside for that very reason, numerous ones have long since been granted status as standard English.

There’s only so much you can do to champion denominalization or to choke it, but in the end, it’s a democratic process: If a neologism appeals to you, promote it by using it. If it appalls you, demote it by eschewing it. Not every grating verbification will last, and if one that particularly annoys you goes extinct, you can take partial credit because it has always been absent from your writing.