“Verbing Weirds Language” (not so fast)
I have heard this term quite a lot lately, and it certainly gets its point across. However, as a speaker of languages from more than one family (language family, that is), I find that it’s shortsighted.
In languages that use helping verbs to make verbs out of nouns and adjectives (Japanese: suru; Turkish: etmek), there is no such problem, and, it seems, very little accompanying debate of descriptivism versus prescriptivism. For a multiculturally informed version of this aphorism, I suggest saying something along the lines of “Verbing weirds English.” (or “Verbing weirds Indo-European languages.”) because we Turks have been doing it without any weirding for quite some time, not to mention the Japanese and others—recall the infamous ‘bushusuru’.
Furthermore, verbing is not necessary. Take the new “fail” as a noun. The word ‘fail’ is a verb. The noun form is ‘failure’. I am familiar with the contention between descriptivism and prescriptivism. Descriptivists usually argue that language evolves. “It always has, so let it continue to do so.” However, we do not support this line of reasoning in other matters. Human beings necessarily form judgments and opinions based on confirmation bias, regression to the mean, and various well-documented heuristics and biases. Even those who are aware of these mistakes continue to make them much of the time. This, then, is how people behave. According to the descriptivist approach, we should let biases rule, and let informed thinking go by the wayside: The property of being something that occurs very often as part of human behavior does not bestow a sacred status on verbing or biases. Language evolves, as it perhaps ought to, but mindful people can strive for a direction of linguistic evolution that does not reduce clarity, increase redundancy, and encourage laziness of mind. I am all for positive evolution in the English language: changes that will make it more consistent, more rational, easier to understand, less redundant, and more elegant. Many of the changes brought about by the Internet and smart phones do not have this effect. To illustrate my point, I will include many examples of how brilliantly awesome English actually is below, but first, a bit more about verbing (and nouning).
I was reading the membership conditions for a retail chain, and realized that perhaps nouning[i] bothers me more than verbing. But why should either one? English is a language that has many words that serve as a verb and a noun with no change in spelling or pronunciation (‘park’, for example). Yet, as a native speaker of a non-Indo-European language, which has its moments of logical consistency, and which uses helping verbs so that neither verbing nor nouning ever need to happen, and further, as a native-level English speaker of 33 years[ii], I value the superior logical consistency of English, and don’t like seeing it eroded. (Note: Of course I realize that English pronunciation and spelling are not logical or consistent; there is a wonderful demonstration here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2_dc65V7DV8), but trust me, and read on: English grammar, syntax, and punctuation are superbly, surprisingly, wonderfully logical. I will start small.
It may not be worth it, because I decided to give everyone full credit. (This means it ain’t worth it.)
It may not be worth it because I decided to give everyone full credit. (This means it may be worth it for some other reason.)
From a student paper: “Humans are over populating the world.” (This seems to indicate that humans have stopped reproducing, that they are no longer interested in populating the world. What the student really meant was “humans are overpopulating the world.”
Next, I would like to discuss hyphenation. Aniruddh Patel, in one of his talks, describes the hierarchical nature of language as follows: “If you know English, and I say the following sentence, ‘The girl who kissed the boy opened the door.’, … there is a sequence of words in that sentence: ‘the boy opened the door’ … But, if you speak English and understand English, you know it’s not the boy that opened the door; it’s the girl that opened the door. In other words, you don’t just interpret language in a left-to-right fashion. …” He goes on to explain that the phrases are hierarchically related such that ‘girl’ is linked to ‘opened’, not ‘boy’ which is right next ‘opened’.
Hyphens help us with another hierarchical aspect of language. An arithmetic analogy will help demonstrate this. 4 + 2 × 3 = 10 because precedence tells us to multiple 2 and 3 first. In arithmetic, we can use parentheses to change the hierarchy and override precedence: (4 + 2) × 3 = 18. This is exactly what hyphens do: They group words into concepts. Notice that the hyphen, typographically speaking, is rather short. It’s shorter than any of the letters in a monospaced font. That’s because, unlike dashes, hyphens serve to combine, not separate. Dashes, which are either ‘n’ long or ‘m’ long, serve to push words apart. The en dash, for example, is used for ranges, like 9–5 and Seattle–Atlanta. But let’s get back to hyphens.
Hyphens join two words into one concept, as in two-car garage, one-man band, and land-grant university. ‘Two’ and ‘car’ started life as separate concepts. In ‘two-car garage’, they are combined into a single concept, just as (4 + 2) got combined into a single number, 6. Again, just as 6 acted as one entire and single number on 3 in that multiplication above, ‘two-car’ acts as a single concept of garage size, when neither ‘two’ nor ‘car’ ordinarily signify size or width.
A friend once asked (on facebook): [. . .] purple people eaters: Are they purple people who eat people or people who eat purple people? While this may have been posted in jest, the logic applies to serious cases where the intended meaning matters. I responded: “Purple-people eaters eat people who are purple, while purple people eaters are purple in color themselves. In English, the modifiers gang up on the noun at the end unless you hyphenate.” I followed this up with two examples. “A community college association is a group of college-related people from the community whereas a community-college association is a group of colleges. In other languages, nouns have cases, so you don’t have these problems.” (Just as verbing doesn’t weird all languages, this type of problem also completely fails to occur in Turkish because nouns in noun strings get modified with suffixes that place them in their proper cases, doing the job of hyphens in English. The difficulty for native speakers of English is that they grow up speaking English, wherein it’s difficult to hear the sound of the hyphen. In Turkish, there is no mistaking the suffix; you hear it from the time you’re a little baby.
My second, and perhaps better example was the following. “The phrase ‘lake of fire Christians’ implies a lake consisting of ‘fire Christians’, whatever that would mean. What is typically meant is ‘lake-of-fire Christians’. English is ‘endian’ unless you override that with hyphens. In spoken language, we use inflection to make these things clear (which, again, is why many native speakers have a harder time than some ESL-speakers).
The subject line of an e-mail I received said, “Security for the Cloud Lunch in Portland”
This seems to indicate that someone is setting up security for a lunch event in Portland. What they meant, of course, was “Security-for-the-Cloud Lunch in Portland.” This type of mistake can very easily be avoided by rejecting the temptation to produce noun strings, and using the three little powerful words that make English work: ‘of’, ‘for’, and ‘from’. Calling it “Lunch Meeting about the Security of the Cloud, to take place in Portland” would remove all ambiguity.
Likewise, on the back of a 45-RPM record I recently bought[iii], the recording location is identified as “the crazy cat lady house” (another noun chain). It is clear, of course, that what is intended is “the crazy-cat-lady house” where “crazy cat lady” is a compound modifier, a unified concept and single descriptor for the house. Without proper hyphenation, the meaning is open to interpretations such as “the crazy-cat lady-house” (with the last hyphen not strictly necessary, but placed because this blog post is written, not spoken).
My first car was used, so I was a new car owner. I recently bought my third car, and it was brand new, so I am now a new-car owner (but not a new car owner).
Note that the first (correct) expression “peer-graded assignments” and the later (incorrect) expression “peer grading student work” ought to be based on the same reasoning, so how could they end up different? It seems, based not only on this example, that people use other mental processes, not reasoning, for determining whether to hyphenate or not. These processes could be memorization, template-matching, or aesthetics.
There is support for this possibility. American English, as opposed to British English, is template-based in its treatment of punctuation with respect to quotation marks: They always have to be inside, unless they’re large characters like ‘?’. This is a purely aesthetic choice, and is not logical. The IT industry has, in recent years, protested this and switched to logical/British punctuation. I saw this reflected in Microsoft Word grammar-correction recommendations as early as 2012. (Way to go, Microsoft!)
“An Early Bird Sound Collage” is the title of a work by an experimental-music band. Do they mean it’s an early bird-sound collage, or an early-bird sound collage? (They are experimental, so the intended meaning could easily have been either.)
“Introducing the Möbius-Twisted Turk’s Head Knot” is a paper title from the Bridges 2015 conference. They got the first one right. Now, is it a twisted Turk and his head knot, or is it the Turk’s-head knot that’s twisted?
Compare the following. “Small plane crash” where we don’t know how big a plane it was, but the crash was a minor concern, and “small-plane crash” where we know that the plane was small, but the crash could still have been quite a big deal. In most cases, it is better not to be stingy with words; something like “a big crash involving a small plane” would be much clearer.
My next example is from course packs. In one case, one might be able to get a refund: “All packets are not refundable.” (unclear) vs. “All packets are non-refundable.” (quite clear!)
Here are some more examples from academia. There is a big difference between the “higher-ed budget” and a “higher ed budget” (we all want the latter). An “online learning report” is a report that gets posted online, while an “online-learning report” does not have to be posted, but it is about online learning. How about “main session outline” versus “main-session outline”?
What is the opposite of the right-hand rule? And what is the opposite of the right hand rule?[iv] The opposite of the former would be the left-hand rule, whereas the opposite of the latter would be the wrong hand rule.
Compare the expressions “proof of concept viruses for Linux” with “proof-of-concept viruses for Linux.” Again, from the tech fields: “no load gain” could be the opposite of “no-load gain”!
Even if it’s a stretch, one of the following could be about athletic performance whereas the other is clearly about academic performance: “college grade-point average” and “college-grade point average”
Here’s one from the field I teach in: Which technical term does not limit the model size: “small-signal model” and “small signal model”?
“Portland’s first clean air cab” was meant to indicate a regular car that that doesn’t pollute, but is written like a flying car that is not dirty.
I saw this on the web as well: THE HAITIAN TERRACING FOR HOPE PROJECT. One wonders if Hope Project will get some Haitian terracing, or if there is a Haitian project called ‘Terracing for Hope’. Since hyphenation cannot be imposed on proper nouns (such as the official name of a project), using one of the magic little words or changing word order could have helped this case: “A Project in Haiti: Terracing for Hope” or “The Haitian Project of Terracing for Hope” or “Terracing for Hope, a Haitian Project,” etc.
And how about all this free stuff we’re being sold all the time? This was seen on a billboard: “NEW TRANS-FAT FREE” with the word “free” on a separate line. It appears to imply that the new product has trans-fat, and is free. Likewise with all these products that sport the expression “gluten free”: apparently, there is gluten in it, but we’re not paying for the gluten.
And then, there is verb hyphenation, which confuses many people I know even more. Verbs are not hyphenated when used as verbs. However, when non-verbs are used with verbs as a compound verb, they do get hyphenated (and this is common sense). For example, “how to fly-fish” is very different from “how to fly fish.” In the latter, one tries to make fish fly. Likewise, “moonbathing” is about a person enjoying moonlight, whereas an expression like “moon bathing” suggests it’s the moon doing the bathing (assuming the rest of a proper sentence surrounds that expression). Similarly, “battle ready” (the battle is ready?) is very different from “battle-ready” (a compound modifier that shows that some person, equipment, or army is ready for battle).
Even after verbing turns a new word like ‘blog’ into a verb as well as a noun, combining it with the noun/adjective ‘video’ requires hyphenation: “learning to video blog” makes no sense, while “learning to video-blog” does.
Alright, perhaps we do not need to be so vigilant about compound modifiers all the time. Here is one I have seen where even I have to admit that context and common sense are quite sufficient to know what is meant even in the absence of a compulsively placed hyphen. It is “sexual abuse hysteria.” Perhaps, no hyphen is needed when an adjective becomes an adverb. I think this one is clear without the need for a hyphen.
Before leaving hyphenation, I must address adverbs. Adverbs are not hyphenated (although many well-meaning and thoughtful individuals do hyphenate them.)
You only need hyphenation when the target of a modifier is ambiguous, which is why adverbs are not entered into hyphenated compounds. Recall that in one of the examples above, ‘purple’ had the option of referring to the people being eaten or to the creature doing the eating, so we had to specify which by knowing when to and when not to use a hyphen. In the case of adverbs, as in “culturally sensitive employer,” for instance, there is no question about which word ‘culturally’ is attached to; there is no such thing as a “culturally employee”; so there is no ambiguity, and no need to waste time with hyphens.
Commas are another matter disproportionately consequential in comparison to the size of the punctuation mark involved. The following examples come from a variety of sources, but mostly from a delightfully brilliant book, to which I was introduced[v] during University Studies teacher training at Portland State University: Maxwell Nurnberg’s Questions You Always Wanted to Ask about English .
- Which statement clearly shows that not all bacteria are sphere-shaped?
- a) Christian A. T. Billroth called bacteria which had the shape of tiny spheres ‘cocci’. (In this case, it is implied that only some bacteria are spherical.)
- b) Christian A. T. Billroth called bacteria, which had the shape of tiny spheres, ‘cocci’. (In this case, it is implied that all bacteria are spherical.)
- Which sentence shows extraordinary powers of persuasion?
- I left him convinced he was a fool. (He is convinced, not I.)
- I left him, convinced he was a fool. (I am convinced.)
- Which is the dedication of a self-confessed polygamist?
- I dedicate this book to my wife, Edith, for telling me what to leave out. (In this case, he has one wife, whose name is Edith.)
- I dedicate this book to my wife Edith for telling me what to leave out. (In this case, we are led to believe he has at least one wife other than Edith. If it’s not clear why this is the case, see # 5 or # 6 below. The comma starts an explanation of who is being referred to.)
- In which sentence are you sure that “somatic” and “bodily” mean the same?
- Radioactive materials that cause somatic, or bodily, damage are to be limited
in their use. (In this case, ‘bodily’ is offered as a more familiar synonym for ‘somatic’.)
- Radioactive materials that cause somatic or bodily damage are to be limited
in their use. (In this case, the implication is that ‘somatic’ and ‘bodily’ are mutually exclusive, hence mean different things.)
Nurnberg’s examples were my introduction to the power of the comma. They went beyond the boilerplate rules I had been taught, like “Never place a comma before ‘because’!” and “Always put a comma before ‘too’!”
Soon, I was noticing commas where they should not have been, and a lack of commas where they were badly needed.
I read the following at http://www.riskshield.com.au/Glossary.aspx : “Technique, procedure and rule used by risk manager to identify asses and examine the risks.” The missing comma could really have helped with the change in meaning caused by the missing ‘s’ in ‘assess’. On the other hand, perhaps the risk manager’s job really is to identify asses. If so, this is one particularly frank document.
In the book MIDI Systems and Control , I came across the following, “RS422 … is a standard for balanced communications over long lines devised by the EIA (Electronics Industries Association)” (p. 23). Without a comma right after ‘long lines’, the sentence is open to the interpretation that it was long lines that were devised by the EIA, as opposed to RS422.
Here is some correct comma use (as one would expect from Stanford University). In The Elements of Statistical Learning: Data Mining, Inference, and Prediction by Hastie, Tibshirani, and Friedman, there is a sentence “. . . in a study to try to predict whether the email was junk email, or ‘spam’” (p. 2). The comma is used, appropriately, in its explanation-signifying role. Later on, however, the authors say “In the handwritten digit example the output is one of 10 different digit classes . . .” (p. 9). This clearly needs a hyphen connecting ‘handwritten’ and ‘digit’. Currently (without the hyphen), it is the example that is handwritten, not the digits. This difference could be meaningful if one were referring to a solutions manual, for example, where examples are often handwritten.
Here’s an example I must have gotten from someone else or a book: “King Charles walked and talked; half an hour after, his head was cut off.” Let’s try it without the comma and the semicolon: “King Charles walked and talked half an hour after his head was cut off.” This is reminiscent of the English-class exercise that was making the rounds on facebook at one point: “A woman without her man is nothing.” which can be punctuated either as “A woman: without her, man is nothing.” or as “A woman, without her man, is nothing.” 
Grammarly also posted this headline about Peter Ustinov’s travels: “Highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.” The absence of the Oxford comma turns what was meant as a list of three entities into one entity (Mandela) and a description of him (an 800-year-old demigod who collects dildos). As I mention elsewhere, the structure of other languages (such as Turkish) may be such that the Oxford comma is useless, but it clearly makes a difference to the meaning of a sentence in English.
Here’s an instance from an e-mail I once wrote. I had asked my friend, “Did I go too far into unnecessary details by way of explaining what I’m doing and why?” This question addresses my explanation of what I was doing and why I was doing it. It is different from “Did I go too far into unnecessary details by way of explaining what I’m doing, and why?” which asks why my explanation is considered to be excessive.
Nurnberg does a much better job of revealing the power and importance of the comma in his book than my examples here do. I think everyone who writes in English should own a copy and read it.
I also want to address redundancy a little. Someone once said this to me during a conversation: “. . . considering they’re both not at the same time. . .” This would make sense if the two events spoken of were not coincident with a third event, but, in this case, there was no third event. All that was meant was “considering they’re not at the same time . . .”
I also frequently hear “continue on …” and “return back …” (This is frustrating.) To continue is to go on. Therefore, to continue on becomes ‘to go on on’. (We’re all familiar with “ATM machine” and “PIN number”…)
Redundancy is necessary when life-threatening situations are handled by electronic or electro-mechanical systems. Let’s leave the redundancy to those cases, and stop wasting our breath with it.
And then there is the centipede sentence: “I’d take MLK Boulevard would be my suggestion.”
My boss at my old job, fifteen years ago, was amazing at these. I wonder if he composed any regular sentences; they all seemed to be along the lines of “The reason is is that there is an address conflict was what happened.” (Otherwise, he was clearly a genius. I don’t know why he talked like that.)
I have now firmly established myself, in this post, as the worst possible killjoy nerd geek compulsive so-called “grammar N**i” ever, so let me close on a positive note.
I wrote this ridiculously long post because I love the English language, and I want people, especially its native speakers, to treat it well. I also love Turkish, Portuguese, German, and Japanese, and if you have ever read engineering material written in English by Japanese engineers, you know that the structure of non-Indo-European languages must be very different. The agglutinative use of cases in Turkish makes most of the discussion of this post unnecessary, but there is one thing Spanish, Portuguese, English, etc. have that I’m quite envious of: THE SUBJUNCTIIIIIVE (Cue dark, scary music.)
The subjunctive, which is still going strong in Spanish, but has only a few surviving occasions of use in English, draws a distinction between fact and possibility, or between wishes and truths: “if he were” makes it sound wrong to indicate something hypothetical as being actual. (Note how it does not go “if he was” but switches to the awkward subjunctive, the non-reality case.) This is scientific thinking built into the language. The speaker is required to differentiate between factual cases and wishing or wondering. (If only we could get the health-care industry to differentiate between factual evidence- and mechanism-based care and wishful-thinking-based care.)
In conclusion: Languages are awesome. Let’s not stand by and watch them get eroded into redundancy and lack of clarity by mental (and technologically aided) sloth. If languages change, fine; let them change well, preserving the characteristics that allow humans to communicate with precision and subtlety. Good communication saves lives.
And what is the deal with “the both” in 2016? The expression ‘both of’ is intended for a different meaning than the expression ‘the two’. There was no reason to make a hybrid that goes ‘the both’. Please, everyone, stop saying this.
“The two of them went away, but we stayed.” (There were more than two people involved.)
“We both went away.” (There were only two people involved.)
English has set up this great way to incorporate set theory into the language. Why are we messing it up? Consider the following:
“Are you ready to compare both files?” (I would be, if I wanted to compare two files each with a third. However, if the comparison were simply between two files, it’s “Are you ready to compare the two files?”)
PS: I need to get this one off my chest, too: “Computation methods” would be methods of computation, whereas “computational methods” would be methods that make use of computation. And don’t get me started on ‘methodologies’. How many people actually study methods? (I’m glad to have witnessed this being brought up at a discussion during the AAWM 2016 conference.)
 Nurnberg, M., Questions You Always Wanted to Ask about English (but were afraid to raise your hand), New York: Washington Square Press, 1972.
 http://www.riskshield.com.au/Glossary.aspx (not there anymore)
 Rumsey, F., MIDI Systems and Control (Second Edition), Oxford, UK: Focal Press, 1994.
[i] “12-month spend of $500” it said. At least it’s hyphenated correctly, but what was wrong with the noun ‘spending’ that we need a new noun to replace it?
[ii] People who know me can attest to this.
[iii] From the band NASALROD
[iv] Again, altering the word order could clarify such cases: After all, we never say “thumb rule” instead of “rule of thumb”; we always take the time to say “rule of thumb”!
[v] Like most of the important things in life