A pre–New Year pause for reflection brought to mind one of my old favorites and a perennial best-seller,

The Complete Calvin and Hobbes. To take a tiger by the tail, what do these icons of comics have to say about grammar?


Bill Watterson, a master of both line and language, once wrote the following lovely discussion between Calvin and Hobbes: 



Calvin: I like to verb words.

Hobbes: What?

Calvin: I take nouns and adjectives and use them as verbs. Remember when "access" was a thing? Now it's something you do. It got verbed. . . . Verbing weirds language.

Hobbes: Maybe we can eventually make language a complete impediment to understanding.



What Calvin was talking about is something that drives some language lovers crazy: turning nouns into verbs. This can send some folks round the bend, especially those who value precision, distrust neologisms, and have large vocabularies--word nerds, in other words.


If one already knows a lot of extremely useful nouns and verbs, understands the more precise gradations of meaning among them, and wields them well, one probably will not welcome the opportunity to take a perfectly good noun and make it into a verb. It's like folks who know how to use a hammer to drive a nail and roll their eyes at those who use the back of a screwdriver instead. Why? WHY?! Those are for screws!


I remember when "impact" became a verb in common usage. I remember thinking we really didn't need to impact things since we already had the ability to affect them, and, in fact, we had the ability to discuss the effects of a meteorite impact and how it might have affected dinosaur survival.


I remember realizing that even knowing the difference between "affect" and "effect," that the former was primarily a verb with a secondary, specialized use as a noun in the field of psychology and the latter a noun, made me a bit of a dinosaur. Effect was the noun, affect was the verb, impact was a noun, and my lifelong delight in English was going to go extinct as the dinosaurs if I kept going on about this. People didn't want to hear it, and they didn't want to be corrected. Everyone knew what they were talking about. Welcome to the push-pull between prescriptive and descriptive grammar--it's one of my favorite things!


Calvin and Hobbes strips appeared only between 1985 and 1996, a formative period in my  career. I was lucky enough to learn about the difference between prescriptive and descriptive grammar then, when each was appropriate and most useful; about relativity of register and different levels of usage. During that decade, I watched many words such as impact undergo the change from verb to noun and learned that it is a conversion, a type of functional shift, in which the spelling of the word doesn't change, and its meaning doesn't completely change, but its function does.


Functional shifts and conversions have occurred in English for centuries; they are part of how language grows, evolves, and stays vital. And the pace of functional shifting has been increasing tremendously in the past 25 years. Since 1985, we've learned to fax, message, and then IM each other. We access, we party, we dialogue and workshop. We email, Photoshop, and Xerox. We Facebook, we favorite, we friend.


Are we richer or poorer, language-wise? Time will tell. I suspect that many conversions happen because vocabulary is decreasing and many speakers don't have access to the vast fund of English words that make such double-duty unnecessary. A bit of prescriptivism can help foster precision and understanding, encouraging our exploration of the wonders of our language as it exists; too much prescriptivism can foster resentment and rigidity. Descriptive grammar can be lax and become an impediment to understanding, or it can let lively new usage flourish.


Like the pairing of Calvin and Hobbes, the pairing of freshness and precision creates a thing of beauty and is a good guide as we journey into the new year.


What do you think of verbing? Do you have any favorites you've befriended or objects of scorn you prefer to defriend?




Ellen Scordato has 25 years' book publishing experience as an editor, copy editor, proofreader, and managing editor. She's now a partner in The Stonesong Press, a nonfiction book producer and agency. In addition to her work at Stonesong, Ellen has taught grammar, punctuation, and style at the New School for more than 12 years in the English Language Studies department and taught English as a Second Language at Cabrini Immigrant Services.



0 Kudos
by Fricka on ‎12-29-2010 11:14 AM

Funny you should ask this now, Ellen. I've just spent a semester tutoring some ESL(English Second Language) students, and without fail, the thing that really trips them up is our use of verbs. It's difficult enough for them to begin to grasp how verbs change, depending on whether they are regular or irregular, but when they find that we take  some verbs and change them into nouns, their eyes glaze over!

I remember when the word"signage" first came out. I was aghast, as first of all, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with "signs" as a plural, and frankly I thought "signage" was an ugly word. However, much to my bemusement, it has stuck, and become part of everyday usage(not by me, but by the general public). As for verbs that I enjoy turning into nouns, I think almost anything that ends in "ing" works for me(though I am not crazy about "friending" --but then, it probably is a shorter term of "befriending", so I guess I should not complain too much!) Swimming, running, hiking, cooking, baking,.sewing--all of those are now commonly used as nouns, but were once only in verb form. Taking this whole trend with a grain of salt, I think it is basically the price we pay for having a language that is still living, and thus capable of change, and not some dead language like  Classical Latin or Greek. When English gets to the place where people can't make changes, no matter how clunky they sound to some of the rest of us, we'll know it's dead.

by Blogger Ellen_Scordato on ‎01-02-2011 07:48 PM

Ah, nice note -- I wonder when, historically, the gerund -- -ing form as noun -- became usual. I'm not a historian of English but now I have something to research. Def agree that the changes in English are what keep it alive and in use in so many areas around the world. I'm currently getting my certificate as an ESL teacher, and it's amazing how very many people want to -- and do! -- learn English, not one of the easiest or most graceful of languages, but certainly one of the more essential, along with Chinese, for world communication.

by on ‎01-02-2011 09:28 PM

I love the minds of Calvin and Hobbes.   These pictures are my favorite...a little on the, ah, bazaar side, but closer to real than words can express!  Ha!



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