Use the Right Part

bike part
The wrong part won’t work

Suppose you need to repair something on a car or a bike. You go to a parts store and ask for the exact item that you need to replace. Let’s suppose that the clerk hands you something for a completely different model. “This will not work,” you say, “This is the wrong part.”

English is made up of parts, too. And, like auto or bike maintenance, it is important to use the right part for the right job. A modern trend, initiated (I surmise) by the onslaught of small, electronic devices, is to use words that are one part of speech (say, nouns) as other parts of speech (such as verbs). “Text” is a good example. For centuries, “text” has been a noun. Since the 1990’s (or so), it has also become a verb.

In principle, there is nothing much wrong with this, for so long as it helps to generate clear and unambiguous communication. This is one of the ways in which language grows and changes. Lots of nouns have become verbs in the past, and we are so accustomed to them that we don’t even notice it. Examples: “Shouldering a burden,” “tabling a discussion,” and “when it storms.” These are called “neologisms” (literally, “new words”).

Shifts in parts of speech can also occur in the reverse direction: verbs can become nouns. This act, called “nominalization,” can be spotted as a tendency ever since the shadowy beginnings of English. For example, the “reveal” at the end of a TV drama (instead of “revelation”) has been around at least since the 1950’s; some say it can be traced back a few centuries. For more on nominalizations, and how they can be viewed with favor, see Henry Hitchings’ thoughtful piece in the New York Times.

cavemanOn the other hand, in the mouths of the ignorant, inarticulate, careless and indifferent, the migration of words from one part of speech to another can cloud meaning, and turn the merely confused into the incomprehensible. Taken to its logical end, the trend could have us all speaking the way we think cavemen must have spoken, with word fragments punctuated by grunts.

Consider Alice’s encounter with Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking-Glass. Humpty Dumpty used the word “glory” in a nonsensical way, and Alice objected: humpty-dumpty

‘I don’t know what you mean by “glory”,’ Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”’

‘But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument”,’ Alice objected.

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’

So, even though it may not seem a very modern attitude, having a careful respect for the parts of speech in English does preserve coherence of thought and language.

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Born in Pittsburgh, educated at Yale. Practiced law in Washington DC. Moved to Colorado. Lived in Mexico. Translator and internet content writer.

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