Tag Archives: nouns

Look! It’s a noun! It’s an adjective! It’s a number! No, it’s…

My latest piece for The Week is an introduction to that double-agent class of words, there in the numbers but not of the numbers: quantifiers.

Singular or plural? It’s complicated.

This business of verbing

I was just reading a post on a web forum wherein the author is griping about his boss emailing him the following treat: “My concern is that the … team might consens on something that the operations … people think is a bad idea.”

Consens. I’m sure, like the author of the post, you’re thinking, “Yikes! My thoughts are that ‘consensus’ is not a verb, no way Jose!” It’s so egregious, he declares, that “it puts ‘contact’ to shame.” He then asks people to send him real-life examples of misuse of nouns as verbs. “I don’t know why it fascinates me,” he says; “I guess it’s like rubbernecking at a fatal car wreck.”

Well, if you like to rubberneck at such things, you don’t need to wait for someone to email or phone you; you can Google all the examples you want as easily as skipping a rope (or roping a skip). Or, uh, you could start with that sentence you just read. Rubberneck, email, phone, Google: all are recent verbings (well, rubberneck has been around for a century). Other conversions such as rope have been around for centuries longer. (Oh, and contact? In the modern verb use, about a century.)

In fact, the English language is full of conversions (that’s a more proper linguistic term for it) – noun to verb, noun to adjective, adjective to verb, adjective to adverb, verb to noun – and the great majority of them are well established and pass unremarked. They’re very easy to do in modern English, with its minimal use of inflections (just an s here and there, some eds and ings, a few other little bits and pieces) – you don’t need to change anything about a word’s basic form to use the same form in another word class. One might well argue that our conversions epitomize the flexibility that has helped English be so successful.

But perhaps looking at all the verbings that have been handed down over the centuries clouds the matter, distances us from the real issue, perhaps even silences concerns unduly. (Yes, all those italicized words are verbs that were converted from nouns at one time or another.) There are some conversions that don’t really seem to bother us, and there are some that bother some of us but not others, but there are some that are almost universally loathed among language nerds. There must be a reason for that, yes?

I think it has a lot to do with the attitudes they bespeak and the milieu they represent. Words, after all, are known by the company they keep. And, I would say, the verbings we loathe most impact us most (ouch!) because they come from business-speak.

Business-speak really is a special genre. It is as susceptible to fads as teenage slang, but its fad usages show not how cool you are but how conversant you are with the latest popular ideas in the business literature. It makes more use of overt metaphor than just about any other genre (at the end of the day, touch base, low-hanging fruit…). It often uses noun-heavy structures to sound important, but is also known for converting all sorts of things to verbs in order to sound active – or just to save effort while still accessing impressive-sounding vocabulary (consensus is more important-sounding than agree, but build a consensus takes three words, so why not use consens). It tends, perhaps even more than undergraduate essays, to try to use hifalutin locutions to impress. As a result of that, it has quite a lot of what linguists might gently call “variant usages” – and everyone else would call misuse, errors, bad English. Above all – and this is surely its primary sin – it’s self-important.

Why else, after all, would anyone use leverage as a verb? “We will leverage our core competencies to innovate bleeding-edge solutions.” Look, that whole sentence is obnoxious, not just the verbing. What are core competencies? Their strongest or most basic skills. Why bleeding-edge? Because leading-edge used to be good enough but then someone started using this version (actually borrowed from the printing industry and not really all that exciting in the original) and it sounds so, um, edgy. Why solutions? Because that is what everyone, everyone, everyone in business is now in the business of providing: the customer has a problem and you’re in business to provide the solution. (The only solutions I go to stores for are aqueous solutions of ethanol.) And why leverage? The term showed up in business originally in reference to using borrowed capital to produce profits greater than the interest, and it spread from there; now people use it because they like the image it presents of a lever, which allows a small person to move a big rock, and the age ending sounds so, you know, technical and financial and important.

The remaining word in that sentence is also fad-popular but is a time-honoured usage (borrowed from Latin centuries ago), and is the only really useful word in the sentence other than “We will.” Strip it all out and say “We will innovate” and you have it nicely. But that doesn’t jangle the ring full of keys to membership in the corporate in-group.

And that is why certain verbings impact us so much (sorry!): they’re self-important and in-groupy and they pretend to have much more substance than they really do. It’s not that they’re verbings. Sure, some people are uncomfortable seeing a word used in a way that doesn’t match its entry in their mental dictionary. But they may only really stop and fuss about that if something else draws their attention to the word – something like its reeking of business-speak. I’m sure you can consens with me on that…

There’s a couple things about this…

Quick: How many things are wrong with the above sentence?

Those who know me will not be surprised when I say that it depends on the variety of English you’re using. In casual English, it’s fine, though the speaker may be aware that it’s non-standard (“not good English”). But it presents a few interesting issues. I’m going to start at the end.

I’ll leave off any real address of ending a sentence with ellipses (…), which some people dislike; I used it because I intended it to be “leading,” and that’s different from a flat-out statement.

But there are many people who will insist that a couple things is wrong and should be a couple of things. This is based on couple being a noun. The thing is, though, so is dozen, and we no longer (as we once did) say a dozen of things; so, too, is a million, and actually, in English, so too are numbers generally, though they are a special class of noun. (Numbers are not adjectives in English. Try using them in all the various places where you can use adjectives and you will see that.)

We no longer say a million of people, though we still say a milli0n of them. And couple is coming to be like other numbers, as dozen has and myriad is in the process of doing; you still can say a couple of things, but you can also say a couple things.

Can you say it when there are actually more than two things, as in fact there are with this sentence? Shouldn’t we say several things if there are three or four? Well, if you wish to be precise, yes, but several gives a sense of significant quantity, whereas couple downplays it. Like it or not, a couple is in use as an informal indefinite quantifier. True, it’s a bit weaselly. But English is a very weaselly language – or can be when we want it to be.

The interesting thing is that many of the people who will insist on a couple of will also insist, in this sentence, on There are rather than There’s. Now, if couple here really is a singular noun (like pair or brace), you might think it would take the singular. But of course with collectives we will use the plural when we are emphasizing not the totality but the mass of individuals. So There are a lot of paintings means there are many paintings, but There is a lot of paintings means that there is a lot, probably for auction: a single group.

Likewise with, for instance, the majority of voters – you may say The majority of voters decides the vote, because it is the fact of a majority that is decisive, but it is only (and not always) in newspapers and similar places where a writer is striving to be correct but doesn’t fully understand the grammar that you will see The majority of voters doesn’t want this rather than don’t want this.

So, since I have already said that a couple here is equivalent to “two”, “roughly two”, or “a few”, you would expect that it should be There are a couple rather than There’s a couple, right? And in fact in formal standard English that is so, because in formal standard English we match the number in there is/there are to the number of the predicate. But in casual English we often don’t do so, and it’s not because we’re ignorant or illiterate – it’s because it’s an arbitrary decision.

There is is really just an existential predicate, and there’s nothing other than convention that forces us to match it to the object. Spanish and other languages that use a version of “have” rather than “is” don’t do it (Hay dos cervezas sobre la mesa; Il y a deux bières sur la table); German doesn’t do it with its “give” verb (Es gibt zwei Biere auf dem Tisch); even some languages that use a version of “is” don’t do it (Tá dhá beoir ar an mbord – Irish).

Remember that what comes after there is is structurally the object. In normal usage (in English), objects have no effect on the number or person of the verb – it matches the subject. We don’t normally force the copular verb to match its object, even when adhering to the nominative object “rule”: not It am I but It is I, and not It are we but It is we… which, of course, normal people say as It is us, even when the It is empty. The famous quote from Pogo (appropriate with respect to grammatical confusion and disputes) is “We have met the enemy and he is us,” not “he are us.”

It’s just because the there in there is is just a placeholder, and not even a noun or pronoun, that we have the habit of matching the number of the verb to the object – the object is the only noun in the area, so we conclude that it must be the subject. There is also a mistaken belief that There is a person is an inversion of A person is there; this is not true – there is no spatial reference in there is. When we use there to point to a location, we have to have a location to point to, either present in context or established in text. If I say There is a mistaken belief, there is no “there” there.

In some languages, a subject isn’t even supplied for existential predicates; there’s just a verb. English doesn’t like bare verbs, so we always put something – there or it – in the subject position. Which works fine until someone stops and says “What is it? Where is there?” It gets to be like a person who starts analyzing the muscle movements in walking and finds he/she can’t remember how to simply walk anymore.

Thus, the use of there are rather than there is with plural predicates is learned behaviour, and is not truly natural – as witness the fact that even highly literate people often use the singular in casual use or unguarded moments. That doesn’t make it correct in formal English, but it does explain a couple things about it.

It is not I, it’s me

There’s an old joke: St. Peter hears a knock at the Pearly Gates. He says, “Who goes there?” A voice replies, “It is I.” St. Peter says, “Go away! We don’t need any more English teachers.”

For who other than a hard-core grammatical prescriptivist would say “It is I?” And would even the driest English teacher (not that that many are that dry anymore), arriving with others (I was about to type “friends,” but it’s hard to think that such a person could have any left), say “It is we”? Or, on the other side, answering the door, say “It is they”? I have seen “It is he,” it’s true, but…

But no one in normal English speaks that way. Not even the well-respected, highly educated people. So we’re all wrong, then? What’s with this, anyway?

This “rule” is obviously not organic to English, since it seems so awkward to pretty much every native English speaker (except the ones who have had “It is I” drummed into them and so accept it – a linguistic perversion that can be accomplished with any irregular usage if you can get people to think it’s more formal, polite, and correct, since English is capricious that way; see An historic(al) usage trend: a historical usage trend (part 1)). The idea behind it is that the is there is a copula: it equates two things. A=B. Identity means identity, so both must be the subjects: “I am he.” (If you recognize that as the first three words of “I Am the Walrus,” remember that the next four are “as you are me.” It’s not a grammar lesson from The Beatles.)

There are some problems with this reasoning. First of all, when you draw up the rules for a language, it helps if they actually describe what the language actually does, as opposed to enforcing practices that are quite different from what established usage is. If you get an idea about language and make a theory and it turns out not to be an accurate description, you shouldn’t bend the subject, you should change the theory. Otherwise you have linguistic phlogiston, a mumpsimus. And something unfortunately all too common.

Second, language is not math. Or, more precisely (since one may construct a mathematical language), English is not math. Why this isn’t incredibly obvious I don’t even know. Try performing a mathematical operation on a sentence. Give me the square root of “To be or not to be.” Language is waaaaay less tidy than math, but it’s a lot of fun. You don’t get to derive new equations and results, but linguists are discovering a lot of really fascinating weirdness. Grammatical prescriptivists, on the other hand, if they applied their thinking to the realm of math, would insist on only using certain equations in certain ways and would argue that some solutions are unacceptable because they involved, for instance, irrational numbers. They would be like the lawmakers who legislated the value of pi to be exactly 3.

And incidentally, even in math, if you establish that in this instance of an equation a=3 and b=3, you don’t necessarily change all b to a. But anyway, syntax is sequence and form; identity is semantics. Two different areas of grammar.

Third, English is not Latin. Many of prescriptivists’ ideas, such as this one, are derived from and/or supported by appeals to Latin grammar. You might as well use a barbecue to bake a cake, or dress patterns to make shoes. Each language has its own set of rules, its own parameters, its own ways of handling this and that. French is descended from Latin but you could never say “C’est je” in French, so why would we insist that English use “It is I” just because Latin, which English is not based on, does similarly?

The real ace in all of this is that “It is I” is supposedly equating “It” and “I”. OK, what’s the “It” here? If I say “I am he,” then there’s a “he” we were talking about who turns out to be me. But where’s this “it”? There’s no object I’m claiming is me. The it is actually empty. The only reason it’s there is because in English we require every finite verb to have something in the subject position. Not every language does. In Chinese you can say you shu, “have book”, to mean “There’s a book”; you can say shi wo, “is I/me”, to mean “It’s me” (or “It is I” if you’re one of those people). But we have to put in these empty its and theres in English for it to be a complete sentence. (We may say, casually, Got it, but even casually we don’t say Is me instead of It’s me.)

So it’s is really an existential predicate. But it’s bootless to argue that since there’s only one real thing there (me), it must be the subject. The point is precisely that it’s not the subject because that’s not how English syntax works. A thing can’t be both subject and predicate. We can’t say I am to mean It’s me, because it means something else, so we have an existential verb and an empty subject, and make me the predicate.

Which leads us to another fact of English syntax: the case filter. Put simply, English nouns and pronouns are by default in the objective (accusative). For each finite (conjugated) verb, there has to be one subject, which means one noun phrase in the subject (nominative) case, and that noun phrase is the one that is specifying the verb – it’s in the “subject” position. We don’t do this with non-finite verbs: I want him to go, I want to see him going. Those hims are the subjects of an infinitive and a participle, but they’re still objective. But if the verb is finite, one noun phrase and one only is treated as its subject: I desire that he go. The one you want is him. (Note that there can be inversions: What fools are we! Sam I am!)

And that is a real rule of English. One that we all use all the time without having someone tell us, one that guides our comprehension and usage. Not phlogiston. There is no cake batter dripping from the grill. So if someone at your door says “It is I,” you’re fully enfranchised to say “Go to hell!” (You probably don’t want them at your party anyway.)

In principio…

In the beginning was the word. And the word was…

Well, what word comes first? What kind of word comes first? Is there a kind of word that is most important?

In truth, we’re inevitably going to be looking at this question through the goggles of a specific language – in our case, English. But if we only had one kind of word to use, what kind of word would it be?

Well, adjectives and adverbs can be eliminated right away, as they exist to modify nouns and verbs; in many cases an adjective-noun or adverb-verb combination can be replaced by a single noun or verb (sometimes one that is really the adjective or adverb converted, but once it’s verbed or nouned, it’s a verb or a noun!). Likewise, prepositions exist primarily to relate other words to each other, and some languages minimize their use, preferring inflections of the nouns to do the same job.

We might be tempted to look at what kinds of one-word expressions we have. But aside from having a bit of fun with analyzing, say, “Fire!” (noun or verb?), we are forced to admit that one-word expressions are not really the template for larger expressions; they are typically phatic (“Damn!”), performative (“Thanks!”), demanding (“Gimme!”), admonitory (“Fire!”), or hortatory (“Fire!”), but in the main they’re different in kind and not just in size from larger expressions.

So… nouns or verbs? Every sentence needs a subject and a predicate. It is true that many of them in English feature the verb be as a copula and the real predicate is a quality (e.g., It is true) or even another noun (e.g., The predicate is a noun). In some languages such sentences don’t even use a verb form at all; they just put the adjective and the noun next to each other and let nature take its course. But it is likewise true that some languages can form entire sentences with a single verb to which have been attached inflectional and modifying affixes. In fact, it’s even true in English that an entire sentence can be formed with a verb… if it’s an imperative: “Run!” (or, yes, “Fire!”).

In the world’s languages, it is usual – though not universal – for the information about when the action in a sentence is happening to be attached to the verb. It is even often the case that information about who is doing the action is attached to the verb. Think of Italian Capisci? “Do you understand?” Or Latin Peccavi – “I have sinned.” And to me, it seems perfectly apposite for the verb to be the most fundamental kind of word, since life – all existence – is change and motion; fixity is an illusion (certainly at the atomic level, at the very least!).

So, now, in the beginning was the word. Say… what is that in Latin?

In principio erat verbum.

Yes… Latin for “word” is verbum. From which we get verb. That doesn’t prove anything, of course. But I like it: in the beginning was a verb.