‘Nounification’ And Other Assaults On The English Language

Download Audio
From the annals of corporate jargon, Julie Wittes Schlack dissects the 'Ask' and the 'Solve.' (Joi/flickr)
From the annals of corporate jargon, Julie Wittes Schlack dissects the 'Ask' and the 'Solve.' (Joi/flickr)

While metaphors and mantras sweep through corporate parlance faster than, well, faster than a speeding platitude, the emergence of “impact” as a verb about 10 years ago signaled a new and disturbing trend. Suddenly business pundits were not just incorporating book titles into ordinary speech — not just “crossing the chasm” to find “the tipping point” — but repurposing the parts of speech themselves.

“You can verb any noun,” an engineer breezily explained to my husband one memorable day.

“Who knew?” I exclaimed when my husband told me about this conversation that night. “But boy, this impacts me hard.”

I try not to be rigid or old-fashioned, not a reactionary (by which I really do mean “reactionary,” and not “reactive,” which is what most people mean these days when they say “reactionary”). How uncool is it to be a slave to 20th Century rules of grammar? Besides, I know that trying to stem this tide of linguistic revolt would be like trying to boil the ocean.

And sure, it’s easy for members of the intellectual elite like me to pick on clichéd or merely mangled English. That’s the low-hanging fruit. So in the interests of trying to loosen up, I’ve tried to verb a few nouns myself. In fact, look at me right now! I’m blogging, and when I’m done I just might go beering! (Though more likely, given my advanced age and the topic of this essay, wining.)

But lately, I’ve noticed a new development — the nounification of verbs. No longer do business people request anything of staff or clients; we make an ask. No longer do we solve problems (assuming that we ever did …); we merely seek and occasionally find a solve.

What accounts for this trend?

The most obvious explanation is that “ask” and “solve” are shorter versions of their multisyllabic counterparts in the verb family. And in the era of Twitter, shorter isn’t just better, but downright essential. But is it really that simple? Or, at the risk of getting all Snowden on y’all, is there something deeper and more insidious at work?

by turning the step of entreating into 'the ask,' the process of solving into 'the solve,' we introduce some distance between ourselves and our own actions.

To issue a request or make a plea makes us vulnerable; to try to solve a problem does too, especially if we fail. But by turning the step of entreating into “the ask,” the process of solving into “the solve,” we introduce some distance between ourselves and our own actions. By transforming human interactions into nouns, we veer towards commoditizing behavior in the same way that we commoditize products. We make actions countable, subject to tallying. The ask becomes not a request that one human being makes of another, but rather an item — a two-for-one coupon or a winter hat – that’s out there in the mailbox or the store window, something that busy people can choose to handle or ignore. The solve becomes not an individual or collaborative process, but something to be found, like a winning lottery ticket.

I realize that I’m overstating, creating a straw man, throwing some ideas against the wall to see what sticks. But clichés like those I’ve just used gain traction because they describe something real. They endure because words have power, not just to reflect truth, but to make it. So let’s use them mindfully, with intention and yes, love.


Headshot of Julie Wittes Schlack

Julie Wittes Schlack Cognoscenti contributor
Julie Wittes Schlack writes essays, short stories and book reviews for various publications, including WBUR's Cognoscenti and The ARTery, and is the author of “This All-at-Onceness” and “Burning and Dodging.”



More from WBUR

Listen Live