Re: word usage

Subject: Re: word usage
From: Ben Kovitz <apteryx -at- CHISP -dot- NET>
Date: Mon, 8 Mar 1999 13:40:04 -0700

Elisabeth Zakes wrote:

> I was always taught that nouns should not be used as verbs. One
> does not "office," "reference," or "transition." One has one's
> office somewhere, one refers to something, and one makes a
> transition to something.
> Am I fighting a losing battle here? Should I just accept that
> this is the way things are going to be?

Consider that you might have been taught wrong. The analogy has
been made many times now that what passes for the teaching of
grammar in elementary schools is like teaching children that the
Earth is flat.

English depends heavily on context and word sequence to make many
grammatical distinctions, including the part of speech in which a
word is functioning in a given sentence. Chinese depends more on
context than English does, and the Romance languages depend on
context less, giving this role more to word endings and to a less
flexible association between a word and its part of speech.

In your message above, you use the words "use" and "fight" as
verbs. (Well, technically, they're not verbs, they're verbals:
"used" in your first sentence is a participle, which is a kind of
adjective, and "fighting" is functioning as a gerund, which is a
kind of noun. Both are combined with auxiliary verbs, though,
but let's not even go there.)

In those particular sentences, endings help clarify the
grammatical roles of the words, but it's hard to say much in
English without exploiting its ability to let words switch easily
from one part of speech to another. If you were to really obey
what you were taught, you'd have to censor an enormous number of
perfectly natural and venerable usages. Just looking over this
paragraph, "particular" works as both adjective and noun, "end"
works as both verb and noun, "word" works as both verb and noun,
"exploit" works as both verb and noun, "switch" works as both
verb and noun, "part" works as both verb and noun, "censor" works
as both verb and noun, "number" works as both verb and noun,
"look" works as both verb and noun, and "work" works as both verb
and noun.

To answer your question, then, I'd say to accept not only that
this is the way things are going to be, but that this is the way
they've been for hundreds of years.

Now, here are two ways that this relates to technical writing.

(1) Before criticizing a usage, it helps to understand the
motivation for it. People don't treat nouns as verbs for no
reason. I see "officing" as merely pretentious, just an attempt
to be catchy without introducing any new meaning or making it
easier to say something that people need to say a lot.
"Reference", on the other hand, is a necessity in some fields.
Programmers, for example, also speak of "dereferencing", which
would be quite awkward with a phrasal verb like "refers to".
(Phrasal verbs, by the way, are another fundamental building
block of English that causes all sorts of headaches for
translators and non-native speakers.) The concept "unreferenced"
comes up in many fields, where again it would be a nuisance to
express with a phrasal verb ("unreferred to"?). As always, know
your speech community.

(2) I think that consciously knowing zillions of fine points of
"correctness" is one of the least valuable skills for a technical
writer to possess. These "rules" amount to little more than
imposing the conventions of on speech community onto another. If
that's the main value we bring to a job, then we *deserve* to be
viewed and paid the same as typists. Better to have a good ear,
a sense for clarity, and a sense for what people need to be told
and what they don't need to be told. But if people are going to
set themselves up as experts on grammar, they should know more
about grammar than flat-Earthers know about astronomy.

Ben Kovitz <apteryx -at- chisp -dot- net>
Author, _Practical Software Requirements: A Manual of Content & Style_

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