The Negative Canon: Verbing Weirds Language?

This post is one in a series about The Negative Canon.

Well, no, it doesn’t, whatever Calvin says. The conversion of a word from one word class to another is one of the ways in which English forms new words. Without that process we should not be able to go for a swim, describe an athlete as a natural,  make reproduction furniture or speak of something as a must.

There does, however, sometimes seem to be some reluctance to accept new conversions, particularly conversions from nouns to verbs, even though the verbs bottle, catalogue, oil, brake, referee and bicycle all started life as nouns. The verb impact (on) seems to provoke particular hostility, as Paul Brians observes:

One (very large) group of people thinks that using impact as a verb is just nifty: ‘The announcement of yet another bug in the software will strongly impact the price of the company’s stock.’ Another (very passionate) group of people thinks that impact should be used only as a noun and considers the first group to be barbarians. Although the first group may well be winning the usage struggle, you risk offending more people by using impact as a verb than you will by substituting more traditional words like affect or influence.

In fact, impact is first attested as a verb in the OED in 1601, used transitively with the sense ‘To press closely into or in something; to fix firmly in; to pack in.’ Current objections seem to be to its use to mean, in the OED’s definition, ‘To cause to impinge or impact on, against, etc.’ The OED’s first recorded use in this sense is from 1945: ‘Experimental results for the efficiency of jets in impacting particles are correlated.’ Those who dislike it more generally might be prepared to accept its use in that kind of technical context. It’s when it is used for something less tangible, with or without on, that objections and hackles are raised. It’s this use that the contemporary Oxford Dictionaries Online gives as its second definition: ‘have a strong impact on someone or something’, with the examples ‘high interest rates have impacted on retail spending’ and ‘the move is not expected to impact the company’s employees’. The entry attempts to explain the antipathy:

The phrasal verb impact on, as in ‘when produce is lost, it always impacts on the bottom line’, has been in the language since the 1960s. Many people disapprove of it, saying that make an impact on or other equivalent wordings should be used instead. This may be partly because, in general, new formations of verbs from nouns (as in the case of impact, action, and task) are regarded as somehow inferior; in addition, since the verbal use of impact is associated with business and commercial writing, it has the unenviable status of ‘jargon’, which makes it doubly disliked.

You can, of course, dislike it all you want. What you cannot do is deny that it is English, and Standard English at that. English has long allowed words used as nouns to be used as verbs as well, and in principle there seems no good reason why any noun cannot, in strictly grammatical terms, be used as a verb. Whether or not doing so achieves the communicative purpose of the writer or speaker in any particular context is another matter.

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2 Comments

Filed under The Negative Canon

2 responses to “The Negative Canon: Verbing Weirds Language?

  1. As John Lawler once remarked: “Verbing Weirds Language only if you’re expecting it to work in a simple way. This is a special case of the more general truth that Language Weirds.”

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  2. Putting the process into reverse, I suppose we could speak of people who take an interest in language as Language Weirds.

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