Nouning in the NYT

In the NYT Sunday Review of 3/31, a nice piece by Henry Hitchings on nouning (“Those Irritating Verbs-as-Nouns”). The illustration:



“Do you have a solve for this problem?” “Let’s all focus on the build.” “That’s the take-away from today’s seminar.” Or, to quote a song that was recently a No. 1 hit in Britain, “Would you let me see beneath your beautiful?”

If you find these sentences annoying, you are not alone. Each contains an example of nominalization: a word we are used to encountering as a verb or adjective that has been transmuted into a noun. Many of us dislike reading or hearing clusters of such nouns, and associate them with legalese, bureaucracy, corporate jive, advertising or the more hollow kinds of academic prose. Writing packed with nominalizations is commonly regarded as slovenly, obfuscatory, pretentious or merely ugly.

… Type B [nominalization] is known as “zero derivation” — or, more straightforwardly, “conversion.” [or simply: “nouning”] This is what has taken place in my opening illustrations: a word has been switched from verb into noun (or, in the last two cases, from adjective into noun), without the addition of a suffix.

… On the whole, it is Type B nominalization that really grates. “How can anybody use ‘sequester’ as a noun?” asks a friend. “The word is ‘sequestration,’ and if you say anything else you should be defenestrated.”

“I’ll look forward to the defenestrate,” I say, and he calls me something I’d sooner not repeat.

Even in the face of such opprobrium, people continue to redeploy verbs as nouns. I am less interested in demonizing this than in thinking about the psychology behind what they are doing.

There follows a thoughtful, non-judgmental discussion of the motivations for nounings. (Some nounings are venerable and so escape notice; it’s only nounings that are perceived as being recent that excite people.) Conclusion:

Aesthetics will always play a part in the decisions we make about how to express ourselves — and in our assessment of other people’s expression — but sometimes we need to do things that are aesthetically unpleasant in order to achieve other effects, be they polemical or diplomatic.

[Nouning is a persistent topic on Language Log and this blog. There’s a 2/7/10 inventory of postings on the subject here; there have been at least 25 postings about it on this blog since then. Some of the conversions are from verbs (draw in blood draw, 11/27/12), some from adjectives (stupid in several senses, 9/23/12), and some of the latter are nounings by truncation (anal and oral for anal sex and oral sex, 12/15/12).]

Hitchings was an excellent choice to do a column on this topic; the NYT could easily have picked someone who just wanted to vent about new usages. But Hitchings has the credentials. The brief Wikipedia characterization:

Henry Hitchings (born 11 December 1974) is an author, reviewer and critic, specializing in narrative non-fiction, with a particular emphasis on language and cultural history.

His books (again from Wikipedia):

2005: Dr Johnson’s Dictionary: The Extraordinary Story of the Book that Defined the World, a [history] of Samuel Johnson’s epochal A Dictionary of the English Language (1755)

2008: The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English, a study of loanwords, calques and their cultural significance

2008: How to Really Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, a guide to books and literary erudition; in paperback, Who’s Afraid of Jane Austen?: How to Really Talk About Books You Haven’t Read

2011: The Language Wars: A History of Proper English, “a detailed narrative of the attempts … to make rules about how we speak and write” and “a historical guide to the sometimes splenetic battles that have been fought over English down the centuries”

2013: Sorry! The English and their Manners

I especially recommend the 2011 book The Language Wars.





3 Responses to “Nouning in the NYT”

  1. Stan Says:

    I second that: The Language Wars is excellent. The only other book by Hitchings that I’ve read is Dr Johnson’s Dictionary, which I also happily recommend. It was good to see his measured, insightful take on nouning in the NYT.

  2. markonsea Says:

    I expect Hitchings’ “measured, insightful take” was a good read. I must do a seek for his writes.

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