Language traditionalists bristle when people use nouns as verbs and vice versa, but such conversions have a long history in English. Just be careful about using new forms that readers might interpret as sloppiness.
Many people are convinced that words are one part of speech (nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc.), and that anyone who strays from tradition is abusing the language. But English has a long history of verbs, nouns, and adjectives taking on the characteristics of other parts of speech. That said, be careful about being swept up in the trend initially, because when words are used in a new way, the sound of them clangs in the reader’s ear. For example, people often say that a certain task will be a heavy lift (noun), whereas we would normally say it will be heaving lifting, because the word is being used as a verb in the sentence.
The use of impact as a verb doesn’t keep me up at night, but it sure annoys many people. For decades, purists have insisted that impact is a noun and should be treated that way, but impact as a verb has been around since the late 1600s, about 100 years longer than the noun. Fowler’s Modern English Usage, the most authoritative source on the history of word use, says that despite the uncompromising position of many experts, impact as a verb has long been accepted as standard usage.
Hundreds of words have undergone conversions from one part of speech to another, while still maintaining their original usage. Here are a few:
- As part of my research (noun), I often research (verb) managerial communication.
- We will benefit (verb) from our company’s new benefits (adj.) program.
- What was once a microwave oven (microwave as adj.) became simply a microwave (noun), as more people began to microwave (verb) their food.
Even critics of word conversions use words as different parts of speech. They just don’t realize they are doing it. We once learned of a new company named Google (noun), and within a short time, people worldwide began to Google everything (verb). As Federal Express Corp. began to grow in the early 90s, it adopted FedEx as its brand name, and people quickly adapted it to different uses:
- I’m going to FedEx the documents to you. (verb, because it expresses action)
- I need to find a FedEx dropbox. (adj., because it describes)
- I work for FedEx. (noun, because it names a thing)
Examples of verbs used as nouns
Not all conversions are warmly embraced initially. A few that surfaced in recent years make some people wince, and it remains to be seen whether they will gain currency:
- The company increased its spend for next year. It’s used there as a noun, but there is no such thing as a spend. Instead, we usually say, The company increased its spending (verb form), or we say, I don’t know how much I want to spend (verb form).
- The technology team needs to generate more installs. (used there as a noun, an abbreviation for installation, but install has always been the verb form)
- We will need to give the page a refresh. (used there as a noun, but it has traditionally been a verb)
When a new line of clothing comes out, we study it to see if it’s practical, and we wait to see if it will become a trend. Apply that same thinking to new words. When writing for your company or organization, use new words with caution, so that readers stay focused on your message, not on your word choice.
Ken O’Quinn conducts writing and managerial communication workshops for corporations. A former Associated Press writer, he is the author of Perfect Phrases for Business and is a contributing author of Focus on Them, about leadership.