GrammarPhile Blog

Scaling Back on Functional Shift

Posted by Phil Jamieson   Jul 31, 2013 6:30:00 AM

turtle holding a gift boxHave you gifted anything lately?

Consider the following, seen in newspapers and magazines recently:

    • She saves all wrapped hostess presents and gifts them to unexpected guests.
    • "The gifting is just ridiculous," said the British doctor.
    • Wonderful to own or for gifting!

The third example is remarkable for the perversity with which the copy writer, for the sake of getting in the fashionable word, resists the natural symmetry of Wonderful to own or to give. One does not commonly find in so little room an example of parts so badly matched. Nor is the verb treated as a simple transitive. Gift him with a shoe on Father's Day--unlucky, one-legged, indirect object of his children's love!

Granted to gift, can giftable be far behind? It seems not: we noted a manufacturer advertising for the Christmas trade a number of Giftable Portables. Note that the suffix of giftable, unlike that of portable, results in a double passive, since the noun gift itself is passive--giv'd, a thing given. Giftable is therefore something that can be being given, and try explaining that!

Speaking more generally, the turning of nouns into verbs when no need exists save that of being different and chic should be given no quarter. To author, to rocket, to porpoise (yes, we've seen it in print), to submarine must be left to those who find no other way to impart freshness in their prose.

William Safire, in his inimitable style, expounds on the subject:

"No need to overboard ourselves on this: Functional shift (from one part of speech to another) is not new to English. My publisher at The Times has a thing about contact as a verb, and I'll have to get in touch with him about that because contact is an accepted improvement, the decision finalized by usage. Experience counts, and we've been using the noun experience as a verb for centuries.

Where do we draw the line? First, avoid confusion: To gift is bad, because the past participle, gifted, leaves unclear whether the person is especially talented or corrupted by a payoff. Next, avoid lazy or unnecessary coinage: Disincentivize is no improvement over discourage, nor disambiguate over clarify.

Feel free, however, to use freshly minted verbs that fill a need: Baby-sit works, so do intuit and position. Don't lard your prose with the functional shifties, but don't bureaucratize about it, either." (from fumblerules: A Lighthearted Guide to Grammar and Good Usage, 1990, The Cobbet Corporation.)

Topics: functional shift, verbs

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