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Actions speak louder than words, so it’s not surprising that action words speak louder than other words. We English users cherish our verbs. We love their activity, we rely on their tenses and when we can’t find ones we like, we create our own—especially from nouns. As Ernest Gowers, editor of the second edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1965), said in his entry on contact as a verb, "It is an ancient and valuable right of the English people to turn their nouns into verbs when they are so minded."
In short, we verbify. And why not? Why be satisfied with naming something when we can do the thing? The trouble is, it takes time for these new verbs to settle down, to become widely accepted, to lose the whiff of ill repute that clings to them long after their transformation from nouns. Contact is a good example. As a verb meaning "to get in touch with," contact emerged in the 1920s, but it spent decades in linguistic limbo before being sanctioned by dictionaries and usage authorities.
Many verbs favoured in business and government writing have entered the language this way, starting out as nouns but morphing into verbs. Careful writers and speakers need to keep up with where these verbs fall along the usage spectrum: generally not accepted, on the fringes of acceptability or standard at last. Here’s how some of today’s workplace verbs stack up.
Generally not accepted
- Action to mean act on, look after, reply to, handle.
NO It is imperative that you action these research requests by 5:00 p.m. so that you can join us at the karaoke bar after work.
Most dictionaries don’t list action as a verb at all. The couple that do (the second edition of the Canadian Oxford is one) provide a very specific definition: to bring legal action against ("He has actioned his neighbours for destroying his garden gnomes"). For the time being, it’s wise to avoid using action as a more general verb. Otherwise you might find yourself in the embarrassing predicament of an Ottawa communications firm a few years back whose marketing material promised "results our clients can action."
- Reference to mean refer to, mention, supply, provide.
NO When you call the repair shop, please reference the serial number of your photocopier.
Like action, reference has a limited meaning as a verb: to provide with references or to cite in or as a reference ("Her article referenced last year’s polar bear study"). There’s little reason to use the verb in the more general but disputed sense when we have so many familiar verbs to do the job.
On the fringes
New usages are like creeping ground cover—once they gain a toehold in the language, they are loath to let go. They settle in, spread themselves around and start popping up in dictionaries. Then, and only then, do they begin to find grudging acceptance among careful word users.
Here are three verbs from business and government writing that, despite continued debate, have endured long enough to be edging their way toward legitimacy. However, they’re not fully there. For that reason, use these verbs cautiously if at all, recognizing that some language experts will object.
- Access to mean gain access to, obtain, get.
MAYBE NOT For just $42 a month, the "Your Money Becomes Our Money" VIP customer package allows you to access our full range of banking services.
Access as a verb is undisputed in computer lingo, where it means to gain access to data or to obtain data from ("Anyone can access our database of slang"). It’s also gaining acceptance as a verb meaning to enter a building or a place ("He accessed the construction site by vaulting over the electric fence"). But in less technical situations, consider using a less technical verb.
- Interface to mean interact, communicate, deal with.
MAYBE NOT Having accepted that humans are as important as winged creatures, Elsa has vowed to interface more effectively with the other members of her bird-watching group.
Interface is like access, a computer verb that has caught on in wider circles. Interface is accepted when it means to interact with another computer system or program ("Our system interfaces with the regional network"), but in other situations a more human verb might be preferable.
- Transition to mean transform, change, move, undergo a transition.
MAYBE NOT Unreal Reality Shows Inc. is transitioning to a new kind of organization, with a new audience.
Transition is not listed as a verb in most current dictionaries. However, it has made it into the latest edition of the Canadian Oxford (2nd ed., 2004) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate (11th ed., 2003). This is one verbification on its way to becoming standard. In the meantime, though, it’s worth thinking twice about using it in careful, formal prose.
- Impact (with or without on) to mean have an impact on, affect, influence.
YES The town council’s new beer garden restrictions will impact (impact on) the success of our beach volleyball fundraiser.
One of the most hotly contested usages of the late twentieth century, impact as a synonym for affect has won the day and is now endorsed by dictionaries and usage authorities. Certain writers and editors, conditioned for years to skewer the verb, still shudder at its use. But it’s time to conquer our squeamishness: impact has moved beyond reproach.
- Orientate as a variant of orient.
YES If you are a first-time Husqvarna owner, this video will orientate you to the basic features of this magnificent chainsaw.
In the past, some usage commentators have objected to orientate because it carries an extra syllable and is a linguistic newcomer compared to orient. However, "newcomer" is a relative term here. Orientate has occupied a place in the language since the mid-nineteenth century and is in fact preferred to its shorter counterpart in British English. With both variants considered standard, you’re safe to use whichever you prefer.
- Prioritize—but not priorize, a non-standard Canadianism.
YES Mr. Tate refused to buy Tiffany all seven items on her birthday wish list; he advised her to prioritize her requests.
Some writers wonder about prioritize, with the suspicious -ize ending that’s among the verbifier’s favourite syllables. Widely panned when it sprang up in the 1960s, prioritize has since become well established in the language and fully entrenched in dictionaries. Stylistically speaking, the verb is bureaucratic and perhaps worth replacing in general writing, but in many workplaces it’s become a natural part of the lexicon.
Forever on the move
Decade after decade, new verbs infiltrate and expand our language. Some are essential because they accompany new technologies. Verbs such as televise, xerox, fax and email have gained acceptance for obvious reasons. Others, including some of the verbs discussed above, may seem less necessary.
Still, new verbs satisfy our basic need to express ourselves a bit differently, a bit more precisely, as our society and our culture evolve. For that reason, while we must guard against non-standard interlopers that confuse our readers, we must also welcome the newly respectable verbs that continue to move our language ahead.
Copyright notice for Peck’s English Pointers
© Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada, represented by the Minister of Public Services and Procurement
A tool made available online by the Translation Bureau, Public Services and Procurement Canada