Tag Archives: grammar

verbing

shutterstock_556707718C&R_Nils Versemann

Image © Nils Versemann/Shutterstock.com.

Sometime last week, on the train home, I sat next to a woman who was talking on her mobile phone. She was quite loud, so I couldn’t help overhearing her say, ‘He comes to these meetings with all these problems and we then have to solution them’. I imagine people sitting opposite may have seen me wince. She used ‘solution’ as a verb at least twice more in the phone conversation, so it’s more than likely an acceptable term in her industry. I’m not quite sure why ‘offer solutions’ wouldn’t do instead — or ‘solve’, if that is what she is doing with ‘these problems’ …

The verb ‘solution’ is probably the second-ugliest verb I’ve heard recently, a close second to ‘weaponise’. Although I don’t like them, both verbs are perfectly acceptable language innovations in English. They are instances of verbing, the conversion of a word other than a verb (in these cases a noun) into a verb. Whereas the verb ‘solution’ simply copies the noun ‘solution’, in ‘weaponise’ the suffix ‑ise has been added to the noun ‘weapon’.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) dates ‘weaponise’ back to 1938, although, these days, it seems to be used figuratively more often (compared with the quotations in the OED). According to the OED, the verb ‘solution’ has existed since 1891 but only as meaning ‘treat with, fasten or secure by, a solution’. It hasn’t been registered (yet) as meaning ‘solve’ or ‘offer a solution’.

Verbing has been around forever. So have nouning (making a noun out of a word that is not a noun, for example ‘ask’ in ‘a big ask’) and adjectiving aka adjing (making an adjective out of a word that is not an adjective, for example ‘fun’ in ‘a fun activity’). Resistance to it has been around forever as well.

Some of these new verbs are useful and stick around; others just disappear — I hope the verb ‘solution’ as I overheard it will go that way …

 

to and fro

black-and-white photo of three men on the deck of a ship

Three men standing on deck of the Liguria, en route to Australia, 1951. Photograph held in the State Library of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia. Public domain.

Some self-appointed grammarians appear to have created a ‘rule’ that is confusing confused people even further. The ‘rule’ — I have been told twice in the last month — is that the verb emigrate always goes with the preposition from, whereas the verb immigrate always goes with the preposition to. As if these are verb–preposition collocations … They are not.

I don’t know where this ‘rule’ comes from. I had never heard of it before. After a brief search online I found this clear, black-and-white explanation that made me scratch my head:

First, the author gives two correct examples that comfortably use both from and to with either verb, blithely contradicting the ‘rule’ they’re supposed to illustrate.

He emigrated from Russia to America.
He immigrated to America from Russia.

Then, the author gives two examples that are ‘incorrect’. These sentences are copies of the correct examples, except for some information that is left out …

He emigrated from Russia to America.
He immigrated to America from Russia.

Leaving out information does not necessarily make these sentences incorrect. We leave out information all the time when we deem it to be understood (because it’s been mentioned before, or because it is general knowledge) — it is called ellipsis. So, assuming the reader knows Isaac Asimov is an American author who was born in Russia, either of the following sentences is perfectly correct.

Isaac Asimov’s family emigrated to America when he was three years old.
Isaac Asimov’s family immigrated from Russia when he was three years old.

black-and-white photo showing two women with their backs to the camera looking at a signpost on a country road

Mrs. Czeslawa Galaska and a friend, near the Bonegilla Migrant Reception and Training Centre, 1950. Photograph held in the State Library of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia. Public domain.

Like come and go, emigrate and immigrate are verbs of motion and involve a source and a goal, either explicitly or implicitly, which is why we can use either from and to (or both, or neither) with these verbs. If you know that the Asimov family was Russian, it is understood that their migration would have started in Russia. If you know that Isaac Asimov was an American author, it is understood that the family’s migration ended in the USA.

So, there is no ‘rule’ about which prepositions these verbs take …

What can be confusing is whether to use the verb emigrate or the verb immigrate. This depends on whether the focus of the text in which the sentence sits is on the starting point or source of the migration, in which case you would use emigrate (e- from the Latin ex: out of, from), or on the endpoint or goal of the migration, in which case you would use immigrate (im– from the Latin in: into). However, sometimes that focus is not that clear-cut …

Of course, you could also use migrate, or move!

grammaticaster

etching showing Samual Johnson

Samuel Johnson (1817) by Thomas Priscott (active early 19th century), after Thomas Trotter (c. 1750–1803). Etching held in the Dallas Museum of Art in Dallas, USA. Public domain.

Part of my job is to correct grammar. The longer I do this job, the more I learn how diverse and elastic language is. And that certain ‘grammar rules’ are really not grammar rules but my personal preference.

As I’m fighting my own urge to make unnecessary changes to other people’s writing, I’m also growing increasingly averse to articles such as ‘19 grammar rules you’re getting wrong’ that float around on the internet. More often than not these lists contain ‘rules’ that are not hard and fast rules, or indeed ‘rules’ that have nothing to do with grammar at all. And they fail to acknowledge that language is always changing and that it is a creative tool.

‘Grammar police’ and ‘grammar Nazis’ are ugly epithets used for people who like to publish such lists. They have been around much longer than I realised. Samuel Johnson’s famous Dictionary of the English Language (published in April 1755) calls them grammaticasters, a more likable term in my opinion, and cites a quotation from 1678.

Image showing the lemma for the word grammaticaster in Samuel Johnson's dictionary.

Entry for the word ‘grammaticaster’ in the first edition of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755). Book held in the British Library in London, UK. Public domain.

The suffix -aster is borrowed from Latin to form pejorative nouns for naming people who pretend to be what they are not or who pretend to be more than they are. A poetaster is an unskilled poet; a philosophaster is a bad philosopher; a medicaster is a quack doctor; a criticaster is a petty critic.

The 1864 revised edition of Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language quotes playwright Ben Jonson as using the word ‘grammaticaster’ as early as 1601, in his satirical play Poetaster (although the Oxford English Dictionary dates this to 1616).

Grammar snobbery is a phenomenon with a long history, it seems.