Thursday, September 14, 2006

The Dumbing Down of English Nouns

"Dictionaries are the arbiters of the acceptable parts of speech for each word. But adherence to the rules governing word class is on a sharp decline as people bend or ignore rules and adapt unconventional uses that spread through work environments like computer viruses." (EditPros)
Mark Goodacre's post on unnecessary abbreviations got me thinking about one of my bugaboos: the increasingly common (but wholly foul) practice of turning nouns into verbs. "Dialogue" is an example -- whenever I hear "Let's dialogue" it's enough to make my piles burst -- and "verbs" like "office", "podium", and "medal" don't do my blood pressure any favors either.

I hate to sound like a linguistic fundamentalist, because the English language evolves like any other. Says EditPros: "About 20 percent of the verbs in English began their lives as nouns, and most don't encounter much resistance on the way in." That's obviously true, and language will continue to evolve accordingly. But recently it's been evolving a bit too casually and indiscriminately. In my view, if good verbs already exist to describe an action, there's no need to dumb down our speech by fabricating pretentious verbs. And there are plenty of good verbs to convey what "dialogue", "office", "podium", and "medal" are supposed to.

EditPros advises accordingly:
"Those who routinely apply nouns as verbs in defiance of convention defend it as a creative and time-saving practice. Many people who respect the conventions of the language still wince at such uses, however. Our advice: have fun fiddling with the language in casual conversation or informal notes, but adhere to semantic and grammatical rules in business communication if you want to be taken seriously by people who admire and respect propriety."
But as these very advisors point out, the rules can be ambiguous. They offer a test for determining your ability to distinguish between legitimate and non-standard uses of the English language. Try it yourself. It's a fun (though painful) exercise to see what horrific usages have become, or are becoming, acceptable. Of the following thirty, nine are acceptable, nine are improper, and twelve are questionable -- "questionable" meaning there's currently no clear answer; it all depends on whether you consult the Merriam-Webster OnLine Dictionary, American Heritage Dictionary or Oxford Online Dictionary.
1. The benefits office has identified several ways to INCENTIVIZE employees to reduce absences.

2. A disturbing DISCONNECT between the company's product development policies and marketplace realities has become apparent.

3. The planning commission members excused themselves briefly from the city council meeting to CONFERENCE outside.

4. We will recycle that scrap metal, but we'll LANDFILL the old logs.

5. The new purchasing procedures ADVANTAGE larger suppliers.

6. The Peace Corps' campus representative will OFFICE in Thompson Hall and report to the director of international education.

7. The agency favors foster parent applicants who previously have PARENTED or cared for children in some capacity.

8. The organization's attorney is WORDSMITHING a draft.

9. The agency is helping growers to TRANSITION to organic production.

10. Cooking contest rules state that chefs must SOURCE all of the ingredients within the county.

11. Sharon said she welcomes the opportunity to MENTOR children.

12. In our analysis, we are EFFORTING to determine the cause of the decline in water quality.

13. The report will BENCHMARK business processes, including average order processing time, average margins, inventory turnover and average sales per employee.

14. Ellen was TASKED to analyze the competition.

15. Each entry point in the building is ALARMED after business hours to detect unauthorized intrusion.

16. A team composed of senior officers was formed to hold an OFFSITE to discuss and recommend appropriate action.

17. The bank has begun TRIALING a new voice-recognition system to ease telephone account access for customers.

18. School administrators encourage parents to PARTNER with their child's teacher.

19. We can help the company diversify by LEVERAGING our office leasing experience.

20. We must seek ways to NORM the data with other agencies that have conducted similar surveys.

21. The police department rerouted traffic until construction crews UPRIGHTED the fallen crane.

22. He REFERENCED a previous variance granted in 1996 that authorized 15-foot setbacks.

23. After making their presentation, the consultants DIALOGUED with interested business owners.

24. Do not SEWER melted agar, which will congeal and then clog the pipes.

25. Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were the first people to SUMMIT Mt. Everest.

26. The underwater seismic survey was PURPOSED to delineate faulted zones and evaluate the physical properties of the bedrock.

27. Frank, can you STATUS us on the fund-raising campaign?

28. If you were not the instructor for the last lesson, please INTERFACE with the previous instructor before class starts.

29. She ARCHITECTED Web-based content management, electronic learning and electronic commerce systems for dozens of companies.

30. The legislation will SUNSET the state Acupuncture Board, and replace it with a bureau within the Department of Consumer Affairs.
See EditPros for the answers. It's good to know that "to office" is still unacceptable, but there are enough ambiguities here (like "mentor" and "dialogue") to make my blood congeal. The dumbing down of our nouns indeed.


Blogger Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks for that, Loren. I quite agree. One I particularly dislike in emerging academic prose is "to critique" meaning "to write a critique of" or "to criticize".

Blogger Gary said...

"There is no noun which cannot be verbed," is what I always say :)

In all seriousness, it almost appears to be a grammatic rather than a lexical change going on. Somehow the nouns are substituting for verbs and still remain (mostly) comprehensible.

My own take is that folks are familiar with the various misused nouns, but not so familiar with the variety of verbs available, or with traditionally styllistically acceptable sentence formation.

I had read an essay on composition claiming that English is currently enamored with what the author called "substantive nouns", that is, nouns which encompass highly complex ideas all in one word. The trouble with these nouns is that since they contain so much of the intended meaning in one word, they are difficult to use in strong sentences. As an example, try making a good sentence using the word "gridlock". Once you say gridlock, there's not much left to add.

Blogger steph said...

That whole list is illegitimate. The irritation is similar to fingernails on a blackboard. I haven't heard many of those "verbs" before, although I do see "to dialogue" used, often in blogs. It reeks of pretentious ignorance. I get the feeling that it's another type of "Americanism": the "bastardisation" of English whereby grammar becomes irrelevant, spelling is sloppy, neologisms are rampant, nouns are "verbified" ... "isms" and "isations" (or rather izations) suffixed to everything. It's just plain lazy and language loses much variety of expression. Funny when it is noticed though. Nice post.

Blogger bulbul said...

I shall refrain from making snarky remarks about the follies of prescriptivism and just point out that:

1. "dialogue" is listed as a verb by the OED, with the first example dated ... 1607.
2. "disconnect" is also clasified as a noun by the OED.
3. According to the OED, "office" is also a verb meaning either "to give private notice of" (attested as early as 1812, as a slang word) or "to have or work in an office; to share an office with someone" (chiefly North American, first example from 1892, the latest one from 1991).
4. "leverage", so OED, is a U.S. verb meaning, sure enough, "to lever" and something else having something to do with finances (1937)
5. OED also lists "norm" as a verb meaning "to normalize" (1914, in mathematics and economy) and "to set or score (a test) by reference to results previously achieved by a chosen sample of subjects, in such a way that predetermined proportions of candidates can be expected to achieve the different grades" (1963).
6. According to the OED, "sewer" is also a verb meaning "to furnish (a town, road, etc.) with a system of sewers" (1854).
7. There are two entries on the verb "summit". The non-obsolete one lists the meaning "To take part in summit meetings" (1972).
8. "conference" is also to be found as a verb in the OED, meaning either "to hold conference" (first attested in 1846, this meaning is described as rare as off 1993) or "to participate in a telephone conference" (1972).
9. And finally, it would appear that the verb "architect" has been around since at least 1818, when it was (if we are to trust the editors of the OED) employed by the great Keats himself. Does anyone here judge themselves (whoops) better than Keats?

Methinks the good folks at EditPros News could use if not a little more modesty, then at least a prescription to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

bulbul: methinks you might've intended to recommend that the good folks at EditPros News could use a SUBscription to the Oxford English Dictionary, unless you truly believe that their lack of modesty is so extreme that it requires prescribed medication.

No matter; thanks for the research.


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