Verbing nouns

Pacific Standard magazine has an article this month about the shrinking number of rural churches in Iowa, and the effect it’s having on the local social fabric. “There is no glue holding these communities together,” says a sociologist from Iowa State University, “and it’s making us forget how to neighbor.”


That’s the first time I’ve seen “neighbor” used as a verb, but hardly the first time I’ve seen that kind of mangling. Too many people write about gifting instead of giving. The business world loves to task rather than assign a task. It can get very ugly out there.

At this point you might expect me to declare that nouns should never be turned into verbs. But no. We’ve been making such transformations for centuries, and it’s OK. Whenever you butter your toast or bike to work, you are verbing right along with the best of ’em.

On the other hand, you’d get some strange looks if you tried to verb every noun in sight. We don’t marmalade our toast, and we don’t car to work. You’re wasting your time if you want to figure out some kind of rule for this. It just happens. Somewhere along the way, we have collectively decided that the shorthand for “drive a car” is “drive,” but the shorthand for “ride a bike” is “bike.”

And that’s where you get your guidance on how to handle these things: Use the words that most people use the most often.

It’s true that our language is constantly evolving. Somewhere out there, some linguistic pioneer is creating a new verb right now. It might catch on. Someday that verb might become so common that we’ll use it as a matter of course. Until that day comes, don’t use it.

Your job as a writer is not to be a language pioneer or to show off your hipness. Your job is to convey your idea in a way that makes it easy for your readers to grasp. Readers stumble over verbs that aren’t in general circulation. Sure, most readers will figure out that “to neighbor” means “to be a good neighbor.” But your readers shouldn’t have to decode your writing.

Now comes the part that’s especially hard for me to write: If you are addressing a specialized audience that uses an odd term as standard practice, you should use it too. So if I’m writing to the scholars in the ivory corn silos of Iowa State, and if they have been using “neighbor” as a verb for so long that “be a good neighbor” would make them stumble, I will use “neighbor” as a verb.

And I will charge extra. A lot extra.


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