Defusing the Killer Noun

My grandson Avraham Yitzchak came home from day camp one day, zonked from obstacle races. Frankly, that was surprising. When he was 2, and a training wheel fell off his bike, he didn’t know that he didn’t know how to ride a two-wheeler, so he just kept riding. He’s not one to let obstacles get in his way.

Asked about the race, Avraham Yitzchak said, “It was murder!”

His father, aka my son Meilech, said, “That’s illegal.”

Avraham Yitzchak countered, “Murder-ing.”

My grandson doesn’t know a gerund from a gerbil. But by turning the noun murder into a verbal noun (aka gerund), his response was a killer. He instinctively sensed the distinction between the action murdering and the figurative sense of murder: “Terrible harm or destruction to a thing, or to a person’s feelings, sensibilities, etc. Also in weakened sense: something extremely unpleasant or difficult to deal with” — Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

Avraham Yitzchak won that race by a syllable.

Disclosure: I am not a doctor of gerundology. Nor am I an expert in the care and feeding of gerunds. But I could look it up. So I did. And I wound up sticking my finger into a fused participle, getting quite a shock.

The New Oxford American Dictionary (NOAD) defines gerund as “a form that is derived from a verb but that functions as a noun … ending in -ing.”

A participle, is also a verb with -ing added. But it’s “used as an adjective (e.g., working woman) or a noun (e.g., good breeding). In English, participles are also used to make compound verb forms (e.g., is going, has been)” (NOAD).

Still with me? OK now, listen up. Here comes the King’s Englishman, H.W. Fowler (with Americanized punctuation to save sanity — namely mine):

Fowler disputed a colleague’s statement: “A grammarian quoted by the OED says ‘Gerundives’ (by which he means gerunds) are participles governed by prepositions; but, there being little or no occasion to distinguish them from other participles, we seldom use this name” (A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 2d ed.).

Fowler disagreed: “The distinction is, on the contrary, of great importance, and the occasion for making it constantly occurs.”

He directed the reader to his article on the “fused participle,” where “an attempt is made to show the fatal effects on style of disregarding it.”

Fatal isn’t good. Usually. I can think of exceptions, but that’s not for now. And no, it wasn’t Mark Twain who said, “I did not attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.” QuoteInvestigator traced the quote to Ebenezer Rockwood Hoar, in 1884.

Fowler launched an offensive against the fused participle. He called it an “ignorant vulgarism” that is “rapidly corrupting modern English style.”

His battle became a crusade. “It is perhaps beyond hope for a generation that regards ‘upon you giving’ as normal English to recover its hold upon the truth that grammar matters. Yet every just man who will abstain from the fused participle … retards the progress of corruption.”

Fowler’s successor, Bryan Garner, has called for a truce:

“The fused participle is said to lack a proper grammatical relationship to the preceding noun or pronoun. Yet no one today doubts that Fowler overstated his case in calling fused participles ‘grammatically indefensible’ and in never admitting an exception.” — Garner’s Modern English Usage.

If you’re confused, welcome to the club.

Once, trying to dodge reporters during a volatile political situation, William Safire left a message on his answering machine to “make [his] privacy impenetrable and yet not offend [his] hard-working colleagues.”

He left the message, “Sorry I can’t take your call, or be on your show or whatever, because I have a language-column deadline on the subject of fused participles.”

“Fused participles stopped ’em all cold,” Safire said. “Participle fusion, much like thermonuclear fusion, is a subject too widely dreaded to be approached lightly.”

One wisequacking reporter left a message: “Tell Safire I can understand him ducking.”

Not confused yet? Let me finalize and implement your confusing. (FYI: OED lists a noun confusing: “The action of the verb confuse; throwing into disorder.”)

You may have a pet shop of peeves against corporate-jargon verbing like “finalize” and “implement.” But Ben Zimmer, the Wall St. Journal’s lingwizard, pointed out that OED lists a sense of the word verb as a verb, going back to 1928, meaning “To use (a word, esp. a noun) as a verb.”

And then there’s the noun verbing. OED defines verbing as “The action or practice of converting words, esp. nouns, to verbs” — with citations going back to 1766.

In a Word Routes column on Vocabulary.com, Zimmer quoted the “great philosopher Calvin (the one from ‘Calvin and Hobbes,’ of course): ‘Verbing weirds language.’”

In the cartoon, Calvin tells his tiger friend Hobbes: “I like to verb words.

Hobbes: “What?”

Calvin: “I take nouns and adjectives and use them as verbs. Remember when ‘access’ was a thing? Now, it’s something you do. It got verbed. Verbing weirds language.”

Hobbes: “Maybe we can eventually make language a complete impediment to understanding.”


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