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Call to Rescue Adjectives in Pain!


November 30, 2012 by IPAlchemist

How is it nearly two weeks since my last post? I intended to have a period of respite following multiple postings at APAA, but was still vaguely intending an approximate one-a-week rate. But nearly two have slipped by. Never mind – I can remedy the situation immediately. So I shall.

Today I am going to have a rant. Sorry – polemical piece designed to provoke thought and discussion. No – I was right first time – rant. Everyone likes a rant. I think this will be my first blog rant. And the subject is one of my promised three – language.

A couple of weeks ago I saw a comment on a blog where a lawyer said that he had “lateraled” into his current position. That’s right – “lateral” as a verb. I don’t know how one should spell it – since it should not be written anyway, the “one l or two” question should never have arisen. So, for the sake of this piece, I shall use one l.

This is not the first time that I have seen an adjective used as a verb. It is, I regret to say, more often observed in US usage, although (as we shall see later in this post) the most egregious example that I have encountered was in the UK.  The first time I observed the phenomenon was over a decade ago in an advertisement on the New York Subway that informed its readers that a certain printer “compatibles” with a range of popular computers.

In both these cases, a perfectly innocent adjective has been minding its own business and has then been dragged, kicking and screaming, into service as a verb. This cannot be. In the English language we have parts of speech, and they have to be respected. I fully concede that a language need not do this, and there is no intrinsic requirement in language to distinguish between an adjective and a verb. The Japanese language is quite happy, for example, to press a whole range of words into service, with only minor manipulation, as nouns, verbs and adjectives. And another type of adjective in Japanese displays verb-like qualities such as tense. But this is English we are talking about. It simply will not do to flagrantly disregard the basic categorisations of words.  While I can just about accept the shift of category from adjective to noun, although sometimes with regret, the leap to a verb is a shift too far.

I said that this usage was not restricted to the US. A few years ago, I was talking to a friend about his company taking over a contract to provide certain public services. I asked what would happen to the employees of the existing provider. “Oh,” he said, “we just TUPE them over.” (For those of you who may not be familiar, “TUPE” stands for “Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations”, and refers to the rules protecting employment rights in such situations where one company takes over the provision of services from another.) “TUPE them over?” I shrieked, wincing. “You are using an acronym as a verb! Can’t you hear it scream? Can’t you hear its pain as you mutilate it in your Procrustean bed of a sentence?” (He couldn’t.) “Everyone says it,” he justified. As if that forgives flagrant disregard of all linguistic sensibilities. (It doesn’t.)

So here I stand, founder member of the Call the Rescue Adjectives in Pain. Post a comment if you share my pain and wince when you hear a word used as an incorrect part of speech.

And next time – watch out for news of the Society to Salvage the Subjunctive!



  1. Tufty says:

    I’m not sure I entirely agree with you. One of the great things about the English language is its ability to absorb new forms of words. If the most efficient way to make yourself understood is to use an adjective as a verb, I don’t have a problem with it. I do, however, have a problem when people do it just to make themselves sound clever, like they know something you don’t. This is an unfortunate feature of lots of US style legal verbiage in particular. I’m with you on TUPE though – that’s just horrible.

  2. Andy Sharples says:

    I’m with Tufty in that I like the creative ways words can be used in the English language, and I certainly don’t want to see categorisation for categorisation’s sake. It’s then simply a question of is it an elegant or cumbersome use of words; the problem is that’s clearly in the eye of the beholder. I have no problem with TUPEing (as opposed to “the employees move to the new company in accordance with the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations)), but I find “lateralled” clanging, and “compatibles with” wholly unnesccesary.

  3. Simon Stanes says:

    Parts of speech in English are not quite like separation of powers in the state! – there has always been some cheeky interchange – just look at gerunds.

  4. Although I’ve been known to be rather rigid in my lack of acceptance of certain freedoms people take with the English language, I must say I’m with Andy on this one.

    That said, though, another brilliantly-written blog post that raised some great points for consideration.

  5. Nick says:

    I am interested to see that while you object to converting adjectives to verbs, you would appear to have no problem with splitting an infinitive (“to flagrantly disregard”).

    I am not seeking to criticise. I am merely curious to know how (and why) you distinguish between those matters which require English language purity and those which do not?

  6. IPAlchemist says:

    To Nick – Thanks for your comment. The fact that I care about language does not mean that I believe that every rule that everyone has ever made up should be followed. On the particular issue of the split infinitive, I side with those commentators that believe that this “rule” is in fact only a stylistic preference and one which in any case is ignorantly borrowed from Latin (where it makes sense) to English (where it doesn’t). I believe that it is far more important to place the adverb clearly and euphoniously close to the verb that it modifies.
    On the wider question of which “rules” to follow and which ones to disregard, I don’t have a clear bright line. But if the sentence screams in pain, don’t do it! It is not so much a question of linguistic purity as one of not brutalising the language.

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