Oh, With the Verbing!

Professor Frink says this on The Simpsons, but don’t you do it.

In simple terms, a verb is an action word. Sometimes there doesn’t seem to be a good verb available to express a particular action, so it may make sense to adapt a noun or some other word.

This is often fine, but often not. Herewith, some of the pitfalls.

Noun as verb

In The Sweet Smell of Success, the 1957 film noir classic, Burt Lancaster’s character holds up an unlit cigarette and says ‘Match me, Sidney!’ in a particularly venomous speech directed at Tony Curtis.

An effective and memorable phrase – but other examples of verbs made from nouns are less happy inventions.

We can do without all of the noun-verbs on the list that follows. Some may save you a word or two, but they add nothing useful and they are weaker than what they seek to replace.

action [how about act, take action, implement or just plain do?]

friend, unfriend [technical terms from Facebook, but confine them to that platform; in real life, befriend or make friends with people and then drop them]

impact [affect is preferable, but presumably people shy away from it because they get it confused with the verb to effect]

leverage [there is actually the perfectly good verb lever, generally confined to actually working with some kind of tool; we are now stuck with leveraged buy-outs, but try to avoid this verb-form otherwise]

medal [in the Olympic sense; please say win a medal]

message and text [OK, these are kind of useful, but I still don’t love them; I prefer to send a message]

plain-language [oh, the irony of using a piece of jargon to describe taking the jargon out!]

reference [awful! it’s refer to or mention]

repurpose [wouldn’t adapt or convert do?]

task [how about the more vivid charge, as in She was charged with compiling the closing books for the transaction – or you could just say she was asked to do this]

trend [in its modern sense of ‘becoming a trend; popular’, anyway; well-established to express ‘turn in a certain direction, bend; have a general tendency’]

trial [hideous marketing-speak]

Admittedly, verbs-from-nouns can have their uses: position is convenient shorthand for the unwieldy ‘to identify or establish (a product, service, or business) as belonging to a particular market sector, esp. for the purposes of promotion in relation to competitors; to promote (a product, service, or business) strategically or distinctively, esp. as fulfilling or exceeding the requirements of a targeted market sector’ (Oxford English Dictionary Online).

Just use such formations sparingly and thoughtfully.

For more on this subject, see this article: http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20160825-why-medalling-and-summering-are-so-annoying.


Please don’t ever liaise with anyone. The noun is liaison, but it comes from the French verb lier (‘to link or connect’), not liaiser. Why don’t you just connect with, co-ordinate with or talk to someone, instead of trotting out this hybrid English-French mess?

Even worse is to incent someone. No! You might be OK to incentivise, but you’re better off to create incentives, motivate or encourage – anything but incenting, please.

The dreaded –ise/ize

Another way to make a verb is to add –ise (–ize, if you prefer) to another word. As H.W. Fowler saith, ‘Within reason, it is a useful and unexceptionable device, but it is now being employed with a freedom beyond reason.’

No one would object to apologise, jeopardise or pasteurise; but the same cannot be said for incentivise, moisturise, pressurise (although this is usual in the UK), productise, randomise, slenderise, tenderise and volumise.

Next: some contractual terms

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)

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