Last week a friend told me to expect ‘an invite’ to something. This was unremarkable in the context, but I know people who would insist on saying invitation even when it might sound inappropriately formal. Invite is a word whose use as a noun seems destined to always raise hackles. For some people it depends on the circumstances: they can accept it, and might even use it, in text messages and casual speech, but they object to it in formal writing. For others, regardless of register, the usage is just too big an ask.
In her article on ‘nouning’, Gill Francis observed that invite has been used as a noun since the 17th century. You might think this would have rendered it inoffensive by now, but longevity is no guarantee that a usage will become tolerated. Even so, public condemnation sometimes overshadows the facts, so it’s a good idea to consult up-to-date dictionaries and usage authorities when assessing a word’s acceptability.
Here we find near-consensus on the status of invite as a noun. The short answer may be found in Macmillan Dictionary’s entry for invite (n.), where it is labelled ‘informal’ – no moral judgement, just guidance on context. For a longer answer we can go back almost a century to Fowler, who wrote that ‘it has never, even as a colloquialism, attained to respectability’. Remove the reference to colloquialism and that’s essentially where we still find it. Robert Burchfield’s new Fowler says the usage has ‘never quite made its way into uncriticized neutral use’, while the Columbia Guide to Standard American English does not consider it fully standard. Most authorities either censure it or stress its unsuitability in formal English.
Speaking of stress: the word’s pronunciation changes for the noun. While the accent falls on the second syllable in the verb invite, it switches to the first in the noun invite. This is often the case in English; the same pattern applies to contest, rebel, record, project, and many other disyllabic words.
With another throw of the historical dice, invite as a noun might have developed as the norm, with invitation considered an inkhornish variant. But invitation got there first and established itself as the noun of choice. Flannery O’Connor and William Makepeace Thackeray both used invite as a noun – but in letters. When it appears in edited writing it quite often marks a light or jocular tone. It may even by framed by scare quotes to mark its less-than-wholly-proper stature.
But we can acknowledge all this without lambasting the word as a ‘needless barbarism’, as one critic did. Can we omit needless accusations of barbarity? That’s my invite to the critics.Email this Post
[…] Is ‘invite’ acceptable as a noun? examines a disputed nominalisation, including its use in different registers and the criticism it has received from language authorities: […]
Thanks. So, when did “ask” become a noun?
Hi Karen. It’s a bit of an ask to determine when ‘ask’ became a noun (see what I did there?) but I’ll have a go (and there…). People were complaining about the nouning of ‘ask’ in the mid 2000s, when it was seen as a piece of techie/business jargon, on a par with actioning decisions and the like. A Google ngram search shows that the phrase ‘a big ask’ seems to have popped up almost out of nowhere in about 1990, but that’s only in written sources, so it may have been in use in the spoken language before then. The best discussion I have found is one by Arnold Zwicky on Language Log from 2008; he finds uses dating right back to the 11th century and covers the word’s 21st century re-emergence in great detail: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=340
Gill Francis also wrote a helpful post here a few years ago on ask and other nounings (and whether and when dictionaries should include them).
Thank you Liz and Stan. Interestingly, I noticed that the dictionary hasn’t caught up yet. I didn’t find an entry for “ask” as a noun like invite has. I’m sure it will in time, though.
Hi Karen. The noun ‘ask’ is covered here: http://www.macmillandictionary.com/dictionary/british/ask_2. And I can exclusively reveal that the coverage of this entry will be extended in the forthcoming release of the dictionary some time around the turn of the year, so do keep an eye out.
Thanks again, Liz!
John E. McIntyre at the Baltimore Sun has followed up on this post with further commentary on grammar, morality, and the nature of standard/nonstandard English.