linguistics and lexicography Love English

Online dictionaries: a big ask?

In a stop-press post last week announcing Macmillan’s decision to stop printing dictionaries, Michael Rundell pointed out that an online dictionary can respond more promptly to the constantly shifting nature of a living language. This is a huge challenge for lexicographers. They have to decide which words and phrases are genuine newcomers, whilst guarding against one-day-wonders that swoop in from nowhere and then sink without a ripple. The task requires the skills of a Grand Canyon tightrope walker and the prophetic powers of the witches in Macbeth.

It is certainly an advantage that new terms like quantitative easing, spawned by the financial crisis, can be added to an online dictionary quickly and easily. I’d suggest, however, that the real challenge is posed by the inexorable reshaping of the more frequent words and phrases of English – the everyday verbs ask and eat, for example, or the multi-faceted ‘grammar’ words so and like.

I’d like to consider the phenomenon of ‘nouning’, whereby people give verbs new senses as nouns – the mirror image of the better-known ‘verbing’. Some verbs that are increasingly ‘nouned’ are ask, eat (as in I wouldn’t call it a cheap eat), disconnect, and reveal.

These ‘nounings’ are quite distinct from their verbs. Disconnect, for example, is typically used more metaphorically than the verb, and tends to collocate with adjectives signalling importance – clear, dangerous, fundamental, huge, major, profound, and serious. It is often followed by between:

While fraud remains a problem, there is a clear disconnect between consumer feeling and retailer reality about the extent of online fraud.

This book review boasts two nounings in quick succession: dismount (in the curious phrase nail the dismount), and reveal:

I am very fond of Stephen King’s novels, but he regularly fails to nail the dismount: Under the Dome was claustrophobic and compelling, but the final reveal was bathetic and frustratingly arbitrary. (The Guardian, November 3)

The noun ask, too, has its own collocates, particularly big and tough:

I’m not going to harp on about it, but it’s a tough ask for us, four Test Matches on the bounce.

It also occurs without an adjective:

I am sure it’s probably a bit of an ask but I certainly would appreciate the opportunity to run things by you occasionally…

Shouldn’t these and other nounings be included in the dictionary? After all, there is plenty of evidence, there are no space constraints, and everyone finds what they’re looking for. What’s not to like?

Ah, but I can hear distant murmurs of protest, an occasional wail, a furious exclamation. These come from an ever-present and vociferous army of pedants and guardians of correctness, forever shaking their fists at their newspapers and penning Letters to the Editor. While they might grudgingly accept the presence of subprime in the dictionary, they are angered by shifts in the common core of the language, the everyday grammar of communication.

The objections to nouning arise partly from the etymological fallacy as well as a related ‘word-class fallacy’ – the belief that only the ‘original’ word-class is legitimate and correct; that verbs should not be annexing the grammatical space of perfectly good nouns – getting ideas above their class, so to speak. The noun invite is particularly unpopular, although as a back formation from invitation, it is attested from the 1650s.

Lexicographers have to make a decision in each and every case: in, or out? The same applied, of course, in the era of printed dictionaries, but now responses to evidence must become more immediate: expectations are higher and objections easier to record. A traditional but partial solution to a doubtful or ‘non-standard’ entry is to add a note like Most people consider this use incorrect. The trouble is that the profile of ‘most people’ has changed, and online dictionary makers will need a new understanding of this as the upcoming generations of digital natives decide their priorities.

I hope to say more about this in a future post, but will round off this one with the phrase End of, now sitting in limbo in the Open Dictionary. End has long been a noun, of course, but End of is a relative newcomer, used to indicate that a discussion is over. In a frank exchange of views between my neighbours recently, it sounded more like a bizarre form of punctuation. Their conversation went something like this:

Her:    You know, you always do exactly what your mother wants.
Him:     That’s SO not true! … … … I’m just saying … … … Full stop. End of. Your trouble is … … … End of. How many times have I told you … …

So. End of. For now.

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Gill Francis


  • Great post, Gill. In a text I’m proofreading at the moment, I came across invite used as a noun in dialogue. I know the usage may irk some readers, but I didn’t for a moment consider changing it to the more ‘prioper’ invitation. Invite (n.) has been common enough for long enough in informal contexts, and it’s what the character said. End of.

  • Refreshingly perspicacious as always, Gill! Now I know of your blog, I shall be tuning in regularly. And for all you other readers, as a member of a very large functional linguistic community, I can assure you that Gill has always been considered one of the best (lexico-)grammarians around. Over the years, we’ve learnt so much from her.

  • Stan: thanks. I wouldn’t have changed it either.
    Can you – or anyone – think of other nounings that are still on the borderline – becoming widely used but still annoying the anti-changers? Most of those I mentioned – ‘invite’, ‘ask’, ‘eat’, ‘disconnect’, ‘reveal’ – are absent from most online dictionaries (though not all from all). Other marginal ones are ‘spend’, ‘sell’ (a hard sell) and’ watch’ (a very difficult watch). Any others? It occurs to me that there are lots of widely accepted nounings coming from phrasal verbs: rip-off, sell-out, take-up, out-take, cast-off etc – this is a productive way of coining nouns, and it’s interesting that it doesn’t seem to make people angry like, say, ‘invite’ does.

  • Gill: ‘give’ is another such nouning, annoying to purists because (1) “gift” already exists, and (2) “give” already has an older noun use, as in “the mattress doesn’t have enough give.” Search Google blogs on “make the give” — it seems to be a logical response to, and possibly inspired by, “make the ask.”

  • Gordon: Welcome to the blog, and thanks, for these nice words. I was wondering whether you SF Linguists still talk about grammatical metaphor and, if so, how relevant the concept is to this kind of nouning.

  • Orin: I had never heard of ‘make the ask’ or ‘make the give’. You are right; there’s evidence for both. Actually the argument of the purists – that we ‘already have’ a noun like ‘gift’ – is spurious don’t you think? The whole point of using ‘give’ or ‘invite’ is that they have new, slightly different meanings from the so-called original nouns: an ‘invite’ is more informal; the ‘reveal’ has book and media connections etc. New nouns scoop out a distinct little area of meaning of their own.

  • Well, yes, Gill, grammatical metaphor is still alive and kicking in SFG, although my own SFG work on metaphor is closer to traditional concepts of metaphor. And yes, this kind of nouning would be treated as ideational grammatical metaphor, expressing ‘situations/events’ as if they were ‘things’, which allows you to quantify them, make them definite/indefinite etc., and repackage them as participants for use in other situations. I’m not entirely sure, however, how they would be seen to be different from the nominalisation that already exists, e.g. ‘invite’ -> ‘invitation’. One of the questions that we might ask, I suppose, is: what is the essential difference between ‘an invitation’ and ‘an invite’? Could many of these be characterised as different in terms of more or less formality?

  • John: You are right of course about ‘dismount’. I wasn’t really suggesting that it’s a recent nouning, or wasn’t intending to. It just happened that the phrase ‘nail the dismount’ occurred in the same sentence as ‘the final reveal’ in the Guardian book review. I’d not heard ‘nail the dismount’ before, although there is some evidence, esp from gymnastics. By the way, I’m interested as to whether your ‘har de har har’ refers to nouning as a process or to my cavalier adoption of ‘nouning’ as a countable noun.

  • Humpty Dumpty is perfectly correct, but I feel wary of nouning for the same reason I don’t like cursing: it’s nice to think for a flash in an attempt to recall an appropriate way to express a concept or emotion, or even to turn that emotion Onically into something more positive. When there’s nothing appropriate, by all means make something up, that’s how we all continue to live, but just grasping proximally feels lazy. (…And please do reply to remind me of the word for “grasping proximally” 🙂

  • I had never heard of ‘make the ask’ . Actually the argument of the purists – that we ‘already have’ a noun like ‘gift’ – is spurious don’t you think? The whole point of using ‘give’ or ‘invite’ is that they have new, slightly different meanings from the so-called original nouns: an ‘invite’ is more informal; the ‘reveal’ has book and media connections etc.

  • I was recently asked to proofread something at short notice, and the client said, “I know it’s an ask…” First time I noticed its unmodified use in my inbox!

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