To Verb or Not To Use A Noun As A Verb

Like many writers I am a terrible pedant, and frequently become indignant not only about the misuse of apostrophes, but of hyphens too.  ‘There’s a big difference,’ I have been known to splutter, ‘between a man-eating fish and a man eating fish.’

However, like King Canute, if you try to command the tide to turn back you can end up drowning*.  Just last week a John Lewis advertisement in UK newspapers urged readers to ‘Trade-in your old TV,’ God help us.  If John Lewis doesn’t know that ‘trade-in’ is a compound adjective (as in ‘the trade-in value of your crappy old TV is £20’) and what they should be urging readers to do is ‘Trade in your old TV,’ then The End is clearly Nigh.

However, as a favour to a friend I recently wrote a fake US newsflash – you know, the sort that begins, ‘This just in’.  It concerned a string of unsolved grisly murders and I found myself writing a sentence that seemed to lead inevitably to, ‘pressure is growing on police to progress the investigation.’

Progress the investigation? That’s appalling. I mean yes, it’s the sort of thing a US news reporter might say, but I don’t have to endorse their mangling of the English language.  Except that, looking back at it, I found it difficult to find an expression that conveyed the same meaning in so few words.  And the more I thought about it the less offensive it appeared.  In fact ‘make progress with the investigation’, while grammatically correct, lacked the dynamism of ‘progress the investigation’.

Apparently there is a term for the (mostly American) practice of turning a noun into a verb; it’s called – big surprise – ‘verbing’.  Which is itself a splendid example of verbing, hideous yet unambiguous.  I first caught an American verbing a noun many years ago, when we were working on a show called ‘Letters Home’.  He said, ‘Letters home always impact on someone’.  Obviously he should have said ‘affect’, but then, ‘affect’ is such a feeble term.  He meant ‘have an impact’, and indeed, that’s what he said, albeit in fewer words.

I think I am slowly coming to the conclusion that pedantry is the sign of a mind grown sclerotic and lazy, insisting that words should always bear the same officially-approved meaning and be used the same officially-prescribed way.  Which, if one were to extrapolate, would seem to outlaw poetry, and I’m not having that.

Yes, there is a big difference between a man eating fish and a man-eating fish, but if you can’t work out which is which from the context you deserve to get eaten by a shark.


*I know Knut didn’t really think he could turn back the tide; he was merely demonstrating to his sycophants the hollowness of their flattery.

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