Monday, April 21, 2008

Tips for Noun Conversion

Last week we looked at some of the rationale behind my peculiar obsession with verbs and verb forms, and as usual, the comments gave us all a lot to think about and made me want to do a follow-up post. You commenters are a really bright bunch!

One of the things we looked at in last week's post was how relatively difficult it is to shift a noun into a verb or adjective slot. It’s not impossible, of course, but compared to the way verbs mutate with abandon, nouns are a bit trickier.

So here are some ideas on how to verb a noun in ways that won’t undercut your sentence. In this, as in all writing tricks, your number one goal is clarity.

Look For Strong Associations

Nouns as physical objects are frequently associated with particular actions or events that can more easily translate to verb usages. Think about how the noun is used. “Plate,” for example, is a physical object, a flat panel, usually circular, used to serve food. Because the association between the object (the panel) and the activity (serving food) is so strong, we can say, “I plated the roast,” and everyone will know exactly what activity is implied by the verb.

Or will they? Some nouns have multiple strong associations. I think if there’s one thing we learned from trying to verb the noun “finger” in last week’s post, it’s that finger has more than one possible verb usage. This is because the physical object, the noun finger, has strong associations to two separate actions, pointing and touching.

This leads us to our second tip.

One Word: Context

“Plate” as a noun can also mean a thin metal veneer, a thin sheet of metal or glass, home base, and who knows what else. The thin metal veneer definition is crucial for this discussion, because “plate” as a verb is probably more frequently associated with the act of affixing the veneer to the surface it covers: silver over nickel to create silverplate, for example.

This is why context is critical. We don’t normally apply metal coatings to cooked meats, so saying “I plated the roast” makes its meaning known by the direct object roast. If we had said, instead, “I plated the candelabra,” we might understand by the direct object candelabra that we’re not talking about serving dinner but about attaching a veneer.

Let me give you another example. Last week over on my knitting blog, I talked about trying to con my niece and nephews into manning my swift and ballwinder. (For the non-fiber-obsessed among you, a swift is a contraption for holding coiled hanks of yarn,and the ballwinder is a hand-cranked gizmo that converts the hanks into neat flat cakes.) In that context, I wrote this sentence: Why do the work myself when I can Tom Sawyer someone else into doing it?

Tom Sawyer, obviously, is a proper noun. Without the proper context of me a/k/a the lazy and devious auntie and my young relatives a/k/a those about to be conned into doing my work for me, that verbing wouldn’t make as much sense.

A Special Caution for Adjectival Nouns

A press release crossed my desk this morning for a new book called “The Penis Diet.” Penis, of course, is a noun. We can debate someday about whether we should properly consider it, in this usage, an adjective or an adjectival noun. Putting aside that debate for the moment, there’s a caution contained in the phrase.

What does “Penis Diet” mean? Multiple choice question here. Is it:
a) A diet to change the size of penises (such as “The Belly Diet”)
b) A diet of nothing but penises (a la “The Grapefruit Diet”)
c) Abstention from indulgence in penises (similar to “tv diets” or “shopping diets”)
d) A diet for people suffering from penis problems (a la “The Heart Diet”)
e) Something else altogether

Given the potential for confusion, it’s probably not a coincidence that the book in question is also subtitled. And that's the danger in adjectival nouns (or nouns used as adjectives, or multi-word or compound nouns -- take your pick). Some compounds are so inherently obviously in meaning that we grasp them instantly: cabbage patch, rose water, match point. Some, like penis diet, might not be quite as, er, graspable.



Anonymous said...

Verbing weirds language.

That's why we must always check and double-check for clarity. Good for you for pointing that out!

PatriciaW said...

I don't think anyone who is familiar with the character Tom Sawyer--and he is a well-known character in literature--needs to know anything about you or your relatives for that sentence to make sense. I think that's because the character and his foibles are so well known. In that case, it's easy to turn the noun into a verb.

But if I took a character from a novel I'm currently reading, which folks probably haven't read yet, and tried to do the same, then it wouldn't amke sense.

On the otherhand, I'm not touching that diet thing. Not sure I even want to know.

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Graspable! That's a good one!

Dave Shaw said...

That book is subtitled "A Comprehensive Wellness Plan for Man's Most Prized Possession". That's less disturbing than some of the alternatives, I guess.

I'm not sure I like that 'plated the roast beef', though, since my immediate first reaction is, "Why the heck would anyone plate metal onto a roast?" It may be my engineering background, or perhaps my Y chromosome, but regardless, by the time I'd think of putting the roast on the plate, I'd be completely distracted from whatever story was being told. Is it just me?

I guess my point is that even with context, you're going to lose some readers if you take a word with such a strong association and verb it differently. In my case it's probably not a great loss, but still...

Edittorrent said...

PG Wodehouse used to play with verbing up nouns. If you can "butter" bread, why not "jelly" bread?

Anonymous said...

Actually...plated/plating is used frequently in restaurant speak. :)