Wednesday, April 16, 2008

On Bananas and Banana Peels

You may have gathered by now that I’m a bit obsessed with verbs, and I thought it might help you all tolerate this obsession if I talked a little about the theoretical basis for this obsession. To really understand this, let’s talk a little about nouns.

Remember the Schoolhouse Rock song about nouns?

Well every person you can know,
And every place that you can go,
And any thing that you can show,
You know they're nouns.
A noun's a special kind of word,
It's any name you ever heard.
I find it quite interesting,
A noun is a person, place or thing.

Our Madlibbish Exercise

Step One.
List five common nouns. Any common nouns will do. Look around your environment if you need ideas. I’ll choose banana, glass, corkboard, calendar and finger.

Step Two.

Insert each noun into the verb slot in the following sentence.“If you don’t watch out, someone’s going to ___________ you.”

So I get,
If you don’t watch out, someone’s going to banana you.
If you don’t watch out, someone’s going to glass you.
If you don’t watch out, someone’s going to corkboard you.
If you don’t watch out, someone’s going to calendar you.
If you don’t watch out, someone’s going to finger you.

Only one of my five makes sense, and it’s the one where the noun (finger) has such a strong connotation of action (to point) that the action associated with the noun works in the verb slot. “Finger” becomes a synonym for “point.”

What were yours? Did any of them make sense, or were they mostly nonsense? For the ones that made sense, is there a strong link between the object and its usage that makes the verb form easy to comprehend?

English is Noun-Dependent

Some languages are noun-dependent and some are verb-dependent. English is noun-dependent. The sentence structures are built around solid nouns. A noun is a noun is a noun, and though they *can* shift into other parts of speech, it’s not all that common.

Verbs, by comparison, are slipperly little eels. Verbs mutate. One minute they’re active and healthy main verbs in an independent clause. The next, they’ve shifted form and turned into adjectives (past and present participles) or nouns (gerunds and nominalizations).

Another exercise might clarify this. Take your list of five nouns from above and add an -ing to them and insert them into the following sentence:

_________-ing her friend was a good idea.

I get:

Bananaing her friend was a good idea.
Glassing her friend was a good idea.
Corkboarding her friend was a good idea.
Calendering her friend was a good idea.
Fingering her friend was a good idea.

That’s what happens when you try to turn a common noun into a verb, and the resulting verb into a gerund. It doesn’t work unless the noun already has a strong enough association with a particular action to be synonymous with a verb for that action.

Or take the same -ing form and try it as a present participle:

_____________-ing very quickly, she prayed she would make it in time.

Bananaing very quickly, she prayed she would make it in time.
Glassing very quickly, she prayed she would make it in time.
Corkboarding very quickly, she prayed she would make it in time.
Calendering very quickly, she prayed she would make it in time.
Fingering very quickly, she prayed she would make it in time.

Look at what happens to “fingering” when we use it in a way that breaks the association to the act of pointing. It stops making sense.

Can we use nouns as simple adjectives, without the participial form but in their native form? Let’s try.

On Saturday, we attended a very __________ party.

On Saturday, we attended a very banana party.
On Saturday, we attended a very glass party.
On Saturday, we attended a very corkboard party.
On Saturday, we attended a very calendar party.
On Saturday, we attended a very finger party.

Nope. Doesn’t work.

But wait, you say. What about this: “We attended a banana party.” It could be a party to celebrate bananas,right? Well, okay, it could be, but that doesn’t convert banana to an adjective in this usage. What it does is convert “banana party” to a compound noun, two nouns which, when used together, mean something different than either noun standing alone.

My point is this. We quibble about things like participle usage and verb choice because verbs are the slippery banana peels in English sentences. One false step, and your sentence skids out of control. Nouns are solid and sturdy -- ever have an argument about nouns that was rooted in grammar rather than in semantics? -- and comparing them like this might help you all understand why I’m such a nut about verbs. Your nouns will almost always function as nouns. Your verbs? Total free-for-all.

Theresa

6 comments:

Problem Child said...

I (heart) you, Theresa.

You make this Word Nerd very happy with posts like this.

Dave Shaw said...

Schoolhouse Rock? Are you trying to make me feel old? I was a senior in high school when that was new, so no, I don't remember that song. :-p

To quote the estimable Calvin, "Verbing weirds language." Y'all probably knew that.

Theresa, you didn't say not to use a noun that's already been verbed, so it's no surprise that 'rock' worked pretty well. Schoolhouse, editor, noun, and sweetheart didn't. That was fun. :-) Thanks!

Unhinged said...

Oh, garsh. The first sentence where you put the noun finger in place of the verb?

Soooo what I wasn't thinking...

(Dirty mind here, can't help it.)

Edittorrent said...

Verbing weirds language. I love it. :D I very nearly titled this post "You can tune a piano, but you can't tuna fish."

Unhinged, anyone who works in my particular subgenre had the same thoughts as you. Guarantee it.

Theresa

green_knight said...

'finger' is already a perfectly good word. I use it in the 'touch/feel' sense, but I've heard, 'inform on', too.

Book, mug, remote control, paper, shelf.

If you don't watch out, someone's gonna... you? Oh dear. I lead a dangerous life. (shelf has a perfectly good verbal companion in shelve, and 'paper' needs 'over', [or possibly 'wall'] but still.)

I'm not certain about the parties, either - I'll go to a book party any day.

English is, to my knowledge, the language with the greatest crossover between nouns, verbs, and adjectives. In English, you can verb a noun - and that is a sentence that makes no sense to most non-english speakers. This means that you can play with language, invent words, and readers of English are used to that process.

ChristineEldin said...

Perfect timing (for me) for a verb lesson.
Thanks!!!! I love your examples!
:-)