Grammar Moses: When parts of speech are moving targets

Posted8/24/2019 12:00 PM

No wonder the stock market is fishtailing like an old Nova on bald tires in a sleet storm.

Verbs are morphing into nouns and vice versa, threatening all of existence.


It's just another sign of the apocalypse, you know.

To wit:

"I am retired so this may just be age, but I find the use of 'upping' just wrong," wrote Emily Monroe. "To me, 'increase' is the correct word. It may be just I am out of touch with the easy use of languages. I see 'upping' in print and hear it on television news."

I understand the tendency at some point to say, "OK, this is the way I was taught and these are the words I will use."

I'm that way with popular music. I stopped adding music to my playlist somewhere in the late 1980s.

But words are added to the dictionary every year. Some are perfectly good words relating to things that didn't exist when I was in school, such as "plastic" and "penicillin."

Many new words start unassumingly as colloquialisms but gain such widespread use that they are officially adopted into the lexicon.

Merriam-Webster added a whopping 640 words or couplings of words this year, among them "page view," something I gather didn't exist even in slang until the arrival of Web pages. Also, "snowflake," now defined both as "someone regarded or treated as unique or special" and "someone who is overly sensitive."

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I know the first definition is attributable to former reporter Chuck Palahniuk when he wrote "Fight Club" in 1996, but I wasn't aware of the second definition before the 2016 election cycle.

Back to Emily's question: I think "raising" is a perfectly good word if you're not fond of "upping."

"Up" is one of those truly pliable words. In formal English it can be an adverb, a preposition or an adjective. In informal English, it can be a noun or a verb.

Emily does have a good point, though. Where does verbizing (my ironic made-up word for creating verbs out of other words) end?

One of the more annoying ones is "impact."

"Don't impact me with that fungo bat, honey. I truly enjoyed your onion tart."

"Impact" as a verb has a narrow definition, and my friend Tim Sullivan, who is a dentist, is one of the only people I won't sneer at for using it that way.


Over time, we'll express wonder at the notion that "up" wasn't always in the Oxford English Dictionary as a verb.

Language is a slow-moving train. You can jump on and have fun with the new experiences or watch it pass. There is no right answer.

A great many common verbs started out as nouns: "salt," "pepper" (and even "spice"), "sleep," "drink." The list goes on.

"I have heard and seen 'ask' used as a noun of late ... as a substitute for 'question,' so I guess misuse of the word has expanded to include more meanings. Maybe I'm out of touch," wrote Donna Wolf.

Donna was referring to the headline on the Barry Rozner sports column: "After her infamous ask to Patrick Kane, whatever happened to Peggy Kusinski?"

We used "ask" instead of "question" because, well, it fit.

Using "question" would have required a rewrite of the headline, which otherwise was great.

I can't imagine we'd ever use "ask" as a noun in a story as a synonym for "question," because we have more wiggle room in a story for the longer word.

However, one of my favorite novels a few years back was Sam Lipsyte's "The Ask." In that context, an "ask" was a request for a big donation. As a synonym for "request," it has become quite popular.

Write carefully!

• Jim Baumann is vice president/managing editor of the Daily Herald. Write him at Put Grammar Moses in the subject line. You also can friend or follow Jim at

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