March 14, 2017

The Last Word: Verbalizing

Language, like law, changes over time. Unlike law, however, no legislative body or court blesses—or heaven forbid—imposes language changes. Instead, we create new words and usages as we go along—a word here, a tense there. Language is more like clothing than law—one doesn’t want to write or wear the latest fashion if it will look or sound silly to most people. If a new word is used often and in serious publications, then we can be comfortable that it has become Standard English. But change is hard, and I cringe at some newer words, particularly the fashionable newer verbs created from mutating nouns and adjectives.

Of course, turning nouns and adjectives into verbs is an honored tradition in English. Prof. Pinker tells us that “[t]he English language welcomes converts to the verb category and has done so for a thousand years.” Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style 227 (2014). Common verbs that started out as nouns or adjectives include contacthost, and mentor. When new, each of these common verbs was considered an abomination by the grammarians of the day. Id.

Gift is one of the nouns that writers, particularly legal ones, love to use as verbs these days. But I just cannot accept a sentence like, “I gifted a lizard to my son for his birthday.” It sounds so much less awkward (and less silly) to say, “I gave a lizard to my son.” Before deciding whether my aversion to gift as a verb is justified, I looked it up, and Prof. Garner told me that gift has been used as a verb since the 1500s. Bryan A. Garner, A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage 385 (2d ed. 1995). Who knew? But five hundred years ago, this use was limited to God gifting a person with an innate talent or a sovereign gifting land to a subject. Id. I suppose that second usage explains the common use of gift as a verb in the context of wills and land transactions. But as to the current trend of using gift to describe any act of giving, Prof. Garner and Strunk and White agree with me that using gift as a verb is (for now) substandard since give is a perfectly good and accepted word that describes the same thing. Id.; William Strunk Jr. & E.B. White, The Elements of Style 54 (4th ed. 2000).

Also annoying is the common practice of transforming nouns into new, trendy verbs by the addition of the suffix -ize. Apparently the ancient Greeks started this practice, and the words apologizeostracizecolonize, and summarize have actual Greek or Latin roots. H.W. Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage 389 (David Crystal ed. 2009). Certainly modern speech and prose would be more difficult without words like authorizefamiliarizesymbolize, and my favorite, accessorize. (Garner may have “no use for” accessorize, see Garner, supra, at 475, but as a retail maven, I certainly do.) But these useful words do not excuse turning a noun like product into productize and the like. (I have actually seen productize used on a resume to describe the work of turning computer code into a marketable product.)

The inherent awkwardness of these manufactured words (initially anyway) causes commentators to discourage all tacking of -ize onto nouns and adjectives to create new verbs, even when the new verb permits the writer to describe an action in one word rather than a phrase. Fowler calls these words “inelegant.” Fowler, supra, at 388. Prof. Garner labels them “ungainly and often superfluous.” Garner, supra, at 475. But the examples of unacceptable -ize words provided by these commentators show how quickly frequent usage legitimizes new verbs. For example, Strunk and White condemn prioritize and finalize as abominations, Strunk & White, supra, at 77. But, because they are used so commonly today, I view them as Standard English. Strunk and White are correct in advising writers to “let your ear and your eye guide you.” Id. at 77. And ears and eyes change over time.

The -ize words that really bother the commentators are the ones that sound made up and artificial (called neologisms) and the ones that are designed to signal that the writer is a person with specialized expertise who is writing only for those with the same expertise (called jargon). Garner, supra, at 475. For example, Mirandize and securitize are now common words for lawyers, but most nonlawyers (including most clients) would prefer “gave Miranda warnings to” or “provided security” in place of these manufactured lawyer words.

Unfortunately for those who want fixed guidance on what language is impeccable—but fortunately for those who value flexible ways of expressing concepts—there are no hard and fast rules on which words should be shunned and which words should be embraced in educated prose. Former nouns (also called denominal verbs) like authorcritiqueparentprocess, and, yes, gift “have shattered the worlds of anal retentives” by their current wide acceptance as verbs. Pinker, supra, at 238. I, for one, will not utilize these new verbs when I can use the old ones, but I will try very hard not to demonize these new verbs when they epitomize the healthy growth of our language.

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