English likes to verb

Posted by on June 02, 2010

English morphology is famously simple. Most nouns have just two forms (dog, dogs), most verbs only four (walk, walks, walking, walked). By contrast, a regular Spanish verb can have 42 forms, while in Hungarian that can easily go up to 60 or more (see example verb here). And – since we are in South Africa month –  it is worth mentioning that some of the languages of that region (such as Zulu and Xhosa) have such complex morphologies that a verb or noun may have thousands of different forms. (I hope someone will correct me if this isn’t true.) But the apparent simplicity of English causes its own problems, one of which is that the same word form can sometimes be a noun, a verb, and an adjective (think of flash, sound, or tense). About five years ago, a book about punctuation became an unlikely bestseller in the UK, partly perhaps because of its clever title: Eats Shoots and Leaves. This comes from an old joke about a panda who goes into a restuarant and orders a meal. When he has finished he gets up, shoots the waiter, and walks out. The manager calls after him: “What do you think you’re doing?”, to which the panda replies: “I’m a panda – look it up”. Sure enough, the manager’s dictionary (not Macmillan Dictionary apparently) defines panda as: “A tree-dwelling marsupial of Asian origin, with distinct black and white colouring. Eats shoots and leaves.”

The problem can be especially acute in newspaper headlines, whose writers are fond of piling up large numbers of nouns – many of which could be verbs. It took me a while to work out what this story was about:

Chinese mine flood relatives fear toll cover-up

But it all makes sense once you realize that the only verb here is ‘fear’.

When the veteran British politician Michael Foot died earlier this year, we were reminded of one of the best newspaper headlines of this type. Long before he became leader of the Labour Party, Foot was appointed to run a European committee tasked with forming a policy on nuclear disarmament. The headline in the Times read:

Foot heads arms body

For some reason, the practice of making nouns into verbs seems to annoy linguistic purists, who often rail against the use of verbs such as impact or progress (or for that matter task, as used in the previous paragraph).  But this process has a long history in English and we may as well get used to the fact that many writers quite like verbing their nouns.

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