Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Verbing Nouns

English can be a strange language. Words that begin their lives as nouns can swiftly transform to verbs, and verbs suddenly are nouns. That's a fine thing for a language, since change means that it'll stick around a bit longer.

What I hate, however, is the use of nouns as verbs that doesn't quite work. Or the use of an intransitive verb--such as "grow" or "progress"-- as a transitive verb.

For those of you scratching your heads about my grammar terminology, an intransitive verb is one that does not take an object: "sleep" in the sentence "The cat sleeps on the bed" is an intransitive verb. "Scratch" in the sentence "The cat scratches the sleeping human" is a transitive verb, with "the sleeping human" being the object of the action. Saying "The mother sleeps the baby" doesn't make much sense, and "The cat sratches" elicits the question, "whom or what does the cat scratch?"

Words like "progress" and "grow" are intransitive. A plant grows. Time progresses. These verbs do not need objects. Yet in the debate last Thursday, Palin wrangled both of those intransitive verbs into transitive positions, and those sentences were a little puzzling. Maureen Dowd looked at Palin's word use in her recent op-ed column. I cheered a little when I encountered this paragraph:
She dangles gerunds, mangles prepositions, randomly exiles nouns and verbs and also — “also” is her favorite vamping word — uses verbs better left as nouns, as in, “If Americans so bless us and privilege us with the opportunity of serving them,” or how she tried to “progress the agenda.”
This is not me being picky about language; this is about using language in confusing and (perhaps purposely) incorrect ways. Palin is playing the language game, where by adopting a down-home feel of someone who is slightly clumsy with language, she can attempt to further shore up her claim that she stands for Main Street America. Examining language like this is important so that we can look past the appearance and find what's going on underneath.

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