Refined Wisdom: Here’s what I think about making verbs into nouns. Usually, there are so many better, simple words that we can use.
It seems months ago by now (and it is) that, strangely enough, I found myself listening to Condoleezza Rice testifying before the special committee investigating the events surrounding 9/11. Not once, but several times Rice said various people “were tasked” to do something, and I’m quite sure she also said “we were tasking” that at a certain point in time.
Then I read this quote from Richard A. Clarke in The New York Times: “All 56 F.B.I. federal offices were also tasked in late June to go on increased surveillance.”
So, there was a lot of “tasking” going on. So also was there a lot of “verbyfying” nouns, to use the word Edwin Newman coined for the phenomenon. Well, it might have been William Safire.
I looked up the word in Webster’s Third, quite confident “task” was never a verb, but I was wrong again. The first meaning listed is “to tax,” but it says that usage is obsolete. “To impose a task upon,” it says in the second meaning, and then it quotes John Dryden using it that way. The third meaning, also obsolete, is “to reprimand.” And the fourth meaning is “to oppress with great labor.” I was just with a staff of a software company in North Carolina, and a sharp copy editor there defended the use of the word in the passive — “was tasked.” Sounds like cruelty to me.
Well, it does bring up the whole question of turning nouns into verbs. There’s no disputing that many verbs we now use were once nouns (was “progress” first a noun or a verb?), and some would say, what’s the big deal anyway? We have verbs such as “maximize” and “minimize,” so what’s wrong with “parameterizing”?
(I once had a phone conversation with the father of a student whom I had failed in a magazine-editing class. The father assured me that he and his daughter “now had matters parameterized.” I almost told him that I would never have failed her had I known she had been paramaterized.)
Here’s what I think about making verbs into nouns. Usually, there are so many better, simple words that we can use. Even if it takes a few more words to say something, it’s better than appearing pompous or pretentious with overblown, made-up words. In the end, it comes down to clarity.
Why would we want to “utilize” something when we can just “use” it? I like to say that if we don’t stop “utilizing” the English language, we’re going to “finalize” it. I don’t really believe that, but if you or your boss is verbyfying nouns, stop it already.